By Samuel Leiter
On Sunday, Iranian officials confirmed that an explosion on July 2nd was caused by sabotage, but declined to reveal the culprit saying “how this explosion took place and with what materials … will be announced by security officials in due course.” In July, a previously unknown group called the “Homeland Cheetahs” claimed responsibility and stated they were Iranian dissidents. However, there’s good reason to think the responsible party isn’t a group of Iranian dissidents, but Israel, which has a long tradition of sabotaging its Middle Eastern rivals’ attempts at building nuclear programs and are in the midst of an escalating cyberwar with Iran.
In 1979 and 1980, Mossad conducted attacks in France and Italy to destroy materials destined for a nuclear power plant in Iraq and intimidate the company producing them. Like these recent attacks, a previously unheard-of group called “The Committee to Safeguard the Islamic Revolution” surfaced and took responsibility, but experts and investigators would later conclude Israel’s Mossad was most likely responsible. Similar to the recent attacks in Iran, Israel appeared most capable of pulling them off. Israel has been blamed for a cyber-attack against an Iranian port, which is thought to be retaliation for an Iranian attack on an Israeli water-processing plant. In mid-July, those same water-processing plants were subject to another cyberattack, which could have been the Iranian retaliation for the sabotage at Natanz. All of this may be traceable to the Stuxnet attack, which wreaked havoc on Iran’s nuclear program before being discovered in 2010 and set off a series of retaliatory cyber-attacks and espionage campaigns.
The possibility that Israel (or perhaps the United States) is behind these attacks is further supported by the series of incidents between June 26th and July 4th, which damaged other infrastructure and a weapons facility in Iran. If these are in fact part of a cyber-warfare campaign, it may reflect a new period in international relations in which states forego conventional warfare to conduct cyberwarfare and espionage while nominally remaining at peace with their target.The timing of the attacks cannot ignore the backdrop of the United States’ most recent diplomatic effort in its maximum pressure campaign. The United States has tried and failed to use the snapback provision of the 2015 Iran deal. Since the United States left the JCPOA in 2018, it lacked the legal standing to trigger the snapback of UN sanctions on Iran detailed in the agreement, which means it may claim it must resort to unilateral action against Iran. Iran appears to be trying to stave this off and has granted the IAEA access its facilities, but it is unclear if this will put concerns about its nuclear program to rest and even if they do that may not stop or even slow this escalating cyberwar.
Samuel Leiter is a Political Science PhD student at MIT and has previously had his work featured in The National Interest. He’s on Twitter at: @LeiterSam.