Analysis

With Cyberattack on Iranian Port, Tehran Gets a Warning: Civilian Installations Are a Red Line

Leak of details of the operation, attributed to Israel, seems to be intentional, sending a clear message that the damage Iran can expect could be greater than what they can inflict on their adversaries

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A dockworker stands on a vessel as its docks at the Ashdod port in Israel, March 18, 2020.
A dockworker stands on a vessel as its docks at the Ashdod port in Israel, March 18, 2020.Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

New cyberwars between Israel and Iran are starting to surface. A few recent reports in American media have revealed a glimpse of what usually happens far from the eyes of the public. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that Israel was behind a cyberattack that seriously disrupted operations in the Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran. This appeared to be a retaliation that followed an earlier attack on Israel’s water infrastructure, which was attributed to Iran.

The Iranian attack was reported in the United States in April. The Post, apparently relying on Western sources, claimed that the Iranian attempt was detected by Israel’s cyber defenses and did not cause serious damage. In early May there was an unscheduled meeting of the Israeli cabinet, which was still mainly occupied with fighting the coronavirus. Channel 13 reported that the meeting was devoted to the attempted Iranian cyberattack.

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According to the Washington Post, the attack in Iran occurred on May 9, on a port situated near the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of Iran’s oil trade passes. The paper quotes foreign intelligence officials who described great confusion in the port’s operations in the following days, including delays in the movement of vessels.

Much of the tension between on one hand Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and Iran on the other is over the pressure exerted on Iran’s oil industry. Last year, a series of attacks against oil installations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was attributed to Iran, which was responding to increasing American sanctions. Last October, Iran claimed that one of its oil tankers was attacked by missiles while off the Saudi coast.

Shahid Rajaee port in Iran
Shahid Rajaee port in IranCredit: GoogleEarth

The head of the Institute for National Security Studies, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, tweeted on Tuesday that this appeared to be an Israeli response to the Iranian attack on its water and sewage systems. Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence, added that “Israel was making it clear that civilian systems should stay outside any armed conflict.”

The leak to the Washington Post does not seem to be a coincidence. Someone in the U.S. or in Israel wanted to make this public in order to strengthen the message to Iran, that attacking civilian installations is a red line and that the damage they can expect in a cyberattack could be greater than what they can inflict on their adversaries.

The exchange of cyber blows is happening along with a reported increase in the number of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias in Syria. It’s possible that Iran found itself at a disadvantage in the face of these attacks, particularly after the American assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani last January, choosing to expand the front and engage in cyberwarfare.

Cyberattacks should be a reminder of a new and developing dimension in the confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah, even though incipient signs of this were visible a decade ago, with the activation of the Stuxnet computer virus, which delayed Iran’s nuclear program. That move was attributed to Israel and the U.S. A future regional escalation could include mutual attempts to seriously damage civilian infrastructure through cyberattacks, along with airstrikes by Israel and missile and rocket barrages by its rivals.

No contest

When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arranged an unscheduled visit in the midst of the coronavirus crisis last week, he was apparently asked to talk about Iran, but he came to also talk about China. His declarations here indicated that Washington was deliberately increasing its public attacks against China while accordingly demanding more of its allies.

Chinese workers at the southern Israeli port, which a Chinese company took part in establishing, Ashdod in 2016.
Chinese workers at the southern Israeli port, which a Chinese company took part in establishing, Ashdod in 2016.Credit: Ilan Assayag

American hostility toward China is far from being the concern of only the Trump administration. This concern is shared by Republicans and Democrats, as well as most of the professional echelons in the Pentagon and the State Department. Competition between Washington and Beijing has been raging for the last decade, more intensely so in recent years, under the current U.S. president. This is a competition over technology, innovation and international hegemony. Under extreme circumstances, it could deteriorate into an armed conflict in various arenas.

The coronavirus has intensified emotions in China and the U.S. as well as increasing what’s at stake. Until a few months ago, it seemed that Donald Trump was cruising toward a victory in the November presidential election, riding on a prosperous American economy. It was no coincidence that on every occasion, Trump would cite the gains on Wall Street.

In March, the coronavirus arrived in America and ended the paradise touted by Trump. The administration was totally inept in contending with the virus. The president proved to his citizen on a daily basis how much his personal failings undermined the addressing of the crisis, costing the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. In order to shake off any responsibility, he needed to roll it onto someone else.

This led to increased attacks on Trump’s Democrat predecessor Barack Obama, who supposedly left Trump a heap of ruins in the preparations made for contending with an epidemic. He also launched attacks on Democrat senators and governors, who are foiling, according to Trump, the reopening of the American economy. He also assailed the media, which he accuses of spreading lies and personally persecuting him.

In this narrative, China is cast as the foreign demon. Trump has what to base his claims on. The Chinese were late in reporting the spread of the coronavirus, they whitewashed the severity of the epidemic and silenced doctors and independent journalists who wanted to sounded the alarm. The president consistently describes the coronavirus as a Chinese virus, or as the virus from Wuhan.

Under these circumstances, America is increasing pressure on its friends to keep their distance from China. As far as Israel is concerned, there is currently a huge bid for a desalination plant, which a Chinese company is competing for, as well as other infrastructure projects for 5G cellular networks. For a long time Israel has walked on eggshells, trying to strengthen economic and technological relations with China while repressing considerations of possible exposure of defense-related secrets to Chinese companies, and at the same time attempting to allay American fears by taking a few symbolic steps.

Mike Pompeo meets With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Israel, May 13, 2020.
Mike Pompeo meets With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Israel, May 13, 2020.Credit: Ron Przysucha/US Dept State/Handout via Reuters

It appears that this will no longer suffice. The Trump administration is now expected to demand a wider commitment, particularly ahead of the presidential election. Local veterans of clashes with the Bush administration around arms deals with China 20 years ago well remember the situation: a cold shoulder, including personally ostracizing senior Israeli officials who American officials claimed had deliberately misled them.

In choosing between China and the U.S., there is really no contest. Dependence on the Americans is almost absolute. And Israel has a further, immediate reason, not to anger Trump. If American companies are the first to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus, a huge global demand is expected. It’s likely that the administration will wield great influence on prioritizing the supply of the vaccine to other countries.

The overarching objective

The steep decline in the number of COVID-19 cases in Israel has created a false perception of a welcome return to normalcy. In practice, it’s a partial return, since many sectors of the economy are still paralyzed or under restrictions. Recovering foreign trade and the renewal of air traffic and tourism are largely dependent on the development of a vaccine.

Separate developments by an American company and Oxford University have given some cause for optimism in recent days, but many months, at best, will elapse before a vaccine is ready. This will be followed by huge efforts to immunize most people around the world. This is a heavy albatross hanging around the global economy’s neck.

The anticipated economic crisis was a key consideration in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to set up a unity government with half of Kahol Lavan. Like Trump, and for a longer time, Netanyahu boasted about the ongoing improvement in his voters’ standard of living. Now he will share responsibility for the slump everyone will experience.

Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi will share this burden. Their success will be measured by the extent to which they manage to restrain Netanyahu’s plans for unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank and his assault on the judiciary.

Local media have devoted endless pages and airtime to the unprecedented size of the cabinet and the waste involved in breaking up existing ministries into illogical units. This may not have been just a means of assuaging disgruntled Likud ministers and defectors from other parties, but perhaps was the true objective.

The current government has one overarching goal: ensuring the prime minister’s political survival. With his impending trial, chaos is part of the scenario. This is a divided, conflicted government, with unhappy ministers. This farce serves Netanyahu well. Most Likud ministers were humiliated by accepting such ridiculous portfolios; his rivals from Kahol Lavan were dragged in for lack of choice, on his terms. Only he has maintained his power.

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