Recently appointed US Defence Secretary Mark Esper is aiming to put maximum pressure on Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. This approach has angered Tehran, prompting a fresh wave of cyber attacks against the United States and helping to forge closer ties between Iran and China. Sam Kessler and Dustin Oaks report
Tensions between America and Iran reached a peak in June when President Trump approved military strikes in retaliation for the shooting down of an American surveillance drone.Mr Trump said he pulled back from launching missiles only after considering the potential cost in human lives.
The newly appointed US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has described Iran as the United States’ ‘most formidable threat in the Middle East’.
‘Its unconventional, naval, and missile capabilities are its primary military capabilities.’ Mr Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. ‘The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps directs, trains, supplies and funds Shia groups across the region to advance Iran’s interests. Proxies give Iran unconventional options for operations in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.’
His priority is, he says, to deter provocative acts by the Iranians: ‘What we’re trying to do is maintain maritime surveillance, monitoring shipping passing through the Strait of Hormuz. We also affirm our view of the importance of freedom of navigation and the freedom of commerce but do not want conflict with Iran,’ Mr Esper told reporters this summer.
The US has blamed Iran for a recent string of incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, including mine attacks on ships registered to Taiwan and Japan and the capture of a British-flagged tanker,
The United States and its ally the United Kingdom have now agreed to use their navies to safeguard the shipping lanes. Mr Esper says the US is pressing for an updated Iran deal that covers ‘with finality’ Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But Iran has found a supportive friend in China, which is embroiled in its own dispute with the US through the Sino-American trade war. China has ignored American calls to boycott purchases of Iranian oil and has upgraded Iran’s status to that of a ‘comprehensive strategic partner’.
The Chinese have invested hundreds of billions of dollars into Iran’s energy infrastructure, including as oil wells, hoping to ensure their long term energy viability. Beijing is also looking to include Iran in its grand Belt and Road Initiative, based on massive infrastructure investment.
In the meantime, daily battles continue between the United States and Iran in the cyber warfare domain.
In 2010, the Iranian government disclosed that the Stuxnet computer malware virus had caused serious damage to its centrifuge system of enriching uranium. This suggested determination by a foreign actor to prevent or slow down Iran’s nuclear programme. The Iranian government still blames the US and Israel but neither country has confirmed the allegations.
There was also an attack on the centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz Enrichment Plant when someone physically inserted a USB thumb drive into its computer network. This set back the Iranian nuclear efforts by months if not years.
Iran’s response was to launch Operation Cleaver, in which hackers targeted US domestic industries including airlines, transportation, energy, as well as military and defence operations.
The sophistication of these attacks were unlike the denial-of-service attacks which has been seen in the past. Instead, they were committed by hackers who exploited weaknesses in the internet’s core infrastructure in order to steal the web traffic that passes between government agencies, banks and businesses.
China also has a cyber warfare army. Chinese hackers often target American businesses, especially those in the high-tech and defence sectors.
For Defence Secretary Mark Esper, there are many fronts to defend, from the Strait of Hormuz to the machines which run America’s businesses. But he also hopes diplomacy and dialogue will yield results.
He told reporters in June: ‘This is not Iran versus the United States. This is Iran certainly versus the region, and arguably the broader global environment. This is the reason why we need to internationalise this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table and talk about the way ahead.’