Image Credit: Illustration: NIÑO JOSE HEREDIA/©Gulf News

At a recent fund-raising dinner for US President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign a woman interrupted the president’s speech and shouted: “No War against Iran.” Obama paused and, retaining his composure, shot back: “No war has been announced, young lady.” The audience erupted in sustained applause. It is true that no conventional war has been announced, but nonetheless, a new form of warfare is being waged, unannounced. And that is cyber warfare.

Although the Iranians seem to be more at the receiving end of cyber attacks, the situation is fluid and changeable, with unpredictable consequences.

Israel and western powers led by the United States have accused Iran of breaching its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They specifically accuse Iran of using nuclear energy to develop nuclear weapons in violation of the NPT. Iran rejects the accusation and claims that its nuclear power plants are developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, which is allowed under the NPT.

The dispute grew into an international crisis, partly as a result of the urgency given to it by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his successful lobbying of Obama. With Netanyahu threatening war, and Obama orchestrating punitive sanctions against Iran, and agreeing not to exclude the use of force to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the crisis seemed headed for a bloody confrontation. The drums of war were getting louder every day, and American officials spoke of their expectation that Israel would attack Iran sometime between April and June.

The deadlock was broken earlier this year when Iran suddenly agreed to resume suspended negotiations with the group of 5+1 (USA, Russia, China, France, England, and Germany). The meeting took place last month in Istanbul. By the assessment of the principal participants, the talks went well and the parties are now scheduled to meet later this month in Baghdad. The optimism which enveloped the Istanbul talks was partly caused by an Iranian fatwa (a religious edict) declaring nuclear weapons an evil which Iran would never embrace.

More recently, another encouraging assessment — or possibly a sign from an insider — was given by Hussain Mousavian who served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Mousavian described the forthcoming meeting between Iran and the group of 5+1, as representing a ‘historic opportunity’ to settle the dispute between Iran and the six world powers.

Perhaps even more remarkably, Israel’s military chief, Benjamin Gantz told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week, that he did not believe that Iran would develop nuclear weapons. He also stated that the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, is beginning to bear fruit. Significantly, Gantz described the Iranian leadership as ‘very rational.’ On all three points Gantz expressed a position at odds with the views publicly expressed by Netanyahu. It is noteworthy, though, that the positive prospect for a diplomatic solution to the crisis has not diminished the pre-occupation of the parties with cyber warfare.

I argued in a previous column that the successful cyber attack mounted against Iranian nuclear installations marked the beginning of a new form of warfare. And that some of the implications of cyber warfare included its ability to reduce gross conventional military inequalities between enemies; and this made the US vulnerable to cyber attacks from smaller countries that otherwise would not have dared to challenge Washington militarily.

Moreover, the success of the cyber attack by a worm named Stuxnet, which damaged and disoriented Iranian nuclear installations, may have given Iran a motivation to intensify its cyber warfare capabilities and a reason to prepare a counter-attack against the USA and Israel, which Iran holds responsible for the cyber attacks.

Such unsettling implications prompted the American congress to hold hearings, last week, titled “Iranian Cyber Threat to the US Homeland.”

Response feared

Representative Dan Lungren (Republican) of California pointed out that a 2008 report by an American security contractor estimated that Iran’s cyber-capability was “among the top five globally.”

On May 1, the Tehran Times reported that on April 22, Iranian oil installations were the subject of another cyber attack. But that the Iranians were able to detect and contain the damage before the computer ‘weapon’ wrecked havoc on the Iranian oil infrastructure.

Moreover, the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology said in a statement dated April 29, that it had been the subject of another cyber attack but that it had repelled the attack and no vital information was lost.

The provocative nature of such repeated cyber attacks gave rise to growing concern among American law makers that Iran may have been provoked enough to contemplate a response.

Lungren told the congressional hearing that he hoped that the Iranian leaders would be deterred from launching a cyber attack against the US by the knowledge that the American response would be ‘overwhelming.’

As far as could be determined, deterrence seems to be working, for now. But for how long can the Iranian leadership resist the pressure to respond to cyber attacks against their country’s vital infrastructure?

In his testimony before Congress, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the congressional committee that Iranian leaders may have crossed the point of no-return and are now willing to consider a cyber attack against the United States. The most salient question now, he concluded, is to ask if we are ready for an Iranian cyber attack.

In the final analysis, however, only a diplomatic solution to the crisis can avert the disastrous consequences of conventional war and the unpredictable results of cyber war. A diplomatic solution is not only the better option, it is the only option since the alternative, namely various forms of warfare, can only delay, but not remove, the underlying cause of the dispute.

Adel Safty is Distinguished Visiting Professor and Special Advisor to the Rector at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky, and published in England by Garnet, 2009.