Security Experts:

Industry Reactions to Iran Cyber Retaliation Over U.S. Nuclear Deal Exit

President Donald Trump announced this week that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on the Middle Eastern country. Many experts fear that Iran will retaliate by launching cyberattacks on Western organizations.

Industry professionals contacted by SecurityWeek all say that there is a strong possibility of attacks, but they mostly agree that Iran will likely not try to cause too much damage as that could lead to massive response from the United States and its allies.

And the feedback begins...

Ross Rustici, senior director, intelligence services, Cybereason:

“Iran is currently in a precarious position, any disproportionate retaliation risks alienating the European community that is currently aligned with continued sanctions relief in exchange for IAEA inspections. Compounding that with the fact the Iran's domestic situation has degraded over the last several years a result of its intervention in the broader Middle East and its proxy war with Saudi Arabia, leaves Iran's leadership needing to be very careful with how directly it confronts the United States on this issue.

 

In the near term Iran is most likely going to take a wait and see approach to the decertification of the deal by Trump. If sanctions are imposed on Iran and it serves to cause significant economic harm though rigorous enforcement, then Iran will probably seek to retaliate in a fashion similar to what the US experienced in 2013 with the DDoS attacks against the financial sector. Despite the Iranian cyber program maturing significantly in the past five years, they will focus on a proportional response to whatever sanctions regime is levied against them. Disruptions that cause financial loss rather that destruction is where the regime is likely to go first. Iran is only likely to use significant destructive capabilities if the situation escalates or the US expands its role in supporting Saudi Arabia.

 

Given Iran's growth over the last five years in the cyber domain, I would expect them to at least be initially successful against civilian targets in the US should they decide to go that route. From a technical perspective they have more than enough capability to carry out successful attacks, as we have seen in the Middle East and the United States. If private sector networks are left to their own defences, Iran will have a high success rate. The thing that will reduce their operational capacity is if the US government takes a proactive and aggressive counter cyber posture and actively disrupts Iran's program before an attack is launched. While this would greatly hamper Iran's efforts it would not eliminate them completely and it would also be an escalation that could result in Iran taking more destructive measures because they have less options and control.”

Priscilla Moriuchi, Director of Strategic Threat Development, Recorded Future:

“President Trump’s actions have placed American businesses at increased risk for retaliatory and destructive cyber attacks by the Islamic Republic. We assess that within months, if not sooner, American companies in the financial, critical infrastructure, oil, and energy sectors will likely face aggressive and destructive cyber attacks by Iranian state-sponsored actors.

 

Further, our research indicates that because of the need for a quick response, the Islamic Republic may utilise contractors that are less politically and ideologically reliable (and trusted) and as a result, could be more difficult to control. It is possible that this dynamic could limit the ability of the government to control the scope and scale of these destructive attacks once they are unleashed.”

Phil Neray, VP of Industrial Cybersecurity, CyberX:

“Cyber is an ideal mechanism for weaker adversaries like Iran because it allows them to demonstrate strength on the global stage without resorting to armed conflict. I expect that Iran will continue to escalate its cyberattacks on US targets but will keep them below the threshold that would require a kinetic response from the US.


TRITON shows that Iran has the skills to launch damaging attacks on critical infrastructure. However, for now they confine these attacks to Middle Eastern targets in the same way that Russia has so far only shut down the power grid in the Ukraine. We should expect Iran to conduct phishing and cyber espionage attacks against US-based industrial and critical infrastructure firms -- as we've seen with Russian threat actors -- with the goal of establishing footholds in OT networks that could later be used for more destructive attacks.”

Gen. Earl Matthews, senior vice president and chief strategy officer, Verodin:

“The Iranians continue to improve and have become more sophisticated with their cyber capabilities. In my opinion, they are in the top 5 of countries with significant capabilities. We will definitely see increased cyber activity as a result of the US backing out of the nuclear agreement. Attacks not only against the US but many of our allies, especially Israel.

 

Iran has previously attacked our financial institutions with Denial of Service and most recently penetrated a number of universities. The latest attacks represented the continued loss of intellectual property of our nation. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of these universities were specifically targeted because they are doing research and development on behalf of the US Government.

 

Iran most certainly has the capability of launching significant attacks but I would view that probability to be low. They will continue to pursue softer targets where common means of access will be through social engineering and penetrate organizations with weak cyber hygiene. These attacks can be mitigated if organizations continuously automated and measured the validity, value, and effectiveness of their cybersecurity controls. We are well beyond the checklist compliance and thinking we are safe.”

John Hultquist, Director of Intelligence Analysis, FireEye:

“Iranian actors remain among the most aggressive we track, carrying out destructive and disruptive attacks in addition to stealthier acts of cyber espionage. Prior to the nuclear agreement, Iranian actors carried out several attacks against the West. There were also clear signs these actors were probing Western critical infrastructure in multiple industries for future attack. These efforts did not entirely disappear with the agreement, but they did refocus on Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East. With the dissolution of the agreement, we anticipate that Iranian cyberattacks will once again threaten Western critical infrastructure.”

Sherban Naum, senior vice president for corporate strategy and technology, Bromium:

“The premise that Iran can or will increase their attacks is predicated on both their existing computer network attack practices and risk tolerance to potential retaliation. The regime may see a need to show strength internally and take action. They will have to balance the time and resources dedicated to increase offensive efforts with the need to shore up defensive efforts due to the increased conflicts in the region from regional actors as well a potential retaliation by those that they attack.

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There are three possible areas they could focus: Critical infrastructure, a doxxon like attack looking to shame those involved with the reversal decision and the third being in region actors and their weapons systems.

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The questions to ask are what would motivate their taking action and their acceptable outcomes. Taking action, putting lives at risk could result in a kinetic response from the US and/or its allies as well as put into question Europe’s current support of the agreement. If they were to take out a power station and a hospital loses power, they lose the PR war and retaliation from the US is quite plausible. At this point, they want to show the world they are going to continue down the path of adhering to the nuclear agreement, that they are the ones targeted and have so much to lose. They would be better off influencing Europe to play into their hands as it could suit their economic needs and try to influence their own social media movement.”

Robert Lee, CEO, Dragos:

“ICS cyber attacks and espionage can be highly geopolitical in nature. Every time we see increased tension between states we expect to see a rise in ICS targeting, this does not mean we expect to see attacks. In this case, activity moves beyond conducting early reconnaissance to gaining access to infrastructure companies and stealing information that could be used at a later date. However simply having access to the information does not mean an attack is easy or imminent. Avoiding such tension while also defending against such aggressive efforts is the goal.”

Sanjay Beri, CEO & Founder of Netskope:

“While the repercussions of the United States pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal will be wide reaching, one of the first places you can expect to see a response is cyberspace. Nation-states, including Iran, have historically used cyberattacks as a low-risk, high-reward tactic for retaliating to political opposition. We saw this with North Korea in the form of the Sony hack, and Iran’s attack against US banks following Stuxnet.

 

The U.S. needs cybersecurity leadership today more than ever if we are to stand a chance at defending the country from nation-state sponsored cyber attacks. Forming a cohesive cyber defense strategy has become nearly impossible as hundreds of departments report into a siloed set of decision makers. There’s no silver bullet, but appointing a federal CISO to oversee all of our nation’s cybersecurity initiatives and promote inter-agency collaboration would be a big step in the right direction.”

Willy Leichter, Vice President of Marketing, Virsec:

“It seems likely that a deteriorating relationship between the US and Iran will lead to more cyberattacks. There have been numerous reports about state-sponsored hacking groups in Iran including APT33 that have already targeted critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the US. These hacking groups have access to advanced tools (many leaked from the NSA through the Shadow Brokers) to launch attacks that corrupt legitimate processes and memory, and have proved adept at creating multiple variants of these exploits. We need to expect ongoing cyber warfare to be the new normal, and it’s critical that all organizations take security much more seriously, improve their detection and protection capabilities, and train all employees to protect their credentials against theft.”

Andrew Lloyd, President, Corero Network Security:

“Given multiple reports implicating the Iranian government in the cyber-attack on the Saudi petrochemical plant, the prospect of cyber-retribution for the US withdrawal certainly exists. Also, it’s well worth remembering that even if a nation doesn't have well developed cyberwarfare resources, there’s plenty of bad actors on the global stage who are more than happy to launch attacks against the foes of anyone who’s willing to pay. Moreover, the irony is that such bad actors are able to leverage the exploits that major forces such as the US government have themselves developed and which subsequently leaked across the Dark Web’s darker commercial corners. For example, it’s well reported that groups such as the Shadow Brokers have released and brokered tools from the NSA.

 

Also, basic and advanced DDoS-for-hire services abound, as we’ve seen in recent weeks and months. This all underscores the fact that all operators of essential services (and especially, critical national infrastructure) must up their game when it comes to DDoS defences. Ironically, today is the day that the EU NIS Directive becomes law in all 28 EU Member States.”

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.