Preparing for a More Aggressive Iran

Iran is doing some serious saber-rattling these days, threatening "a`teeth-breaking' response" to the United States should cyber-attacks continue to target Iran. On this side of the Gulf, earlier this week, National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew Olsen testified before Congress. Among his observations, that "Iran remains the foremost state sponsor of terrorism." Olsen's comments come on the heels of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's statement that Iran is "now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States." These assessments beg a number of questions including: Why Iran? Why now? What have we seen so far? What indicators should we look for in future? And how should we best prepare?

Part of the short answer is that Iran feels under threat, though seen through their eyes, a particular triggering event may not be necessary for new options for action to be considered by Iran. Already we have seen consequences of this outcome, reaching from Bulgaria to Georgia, to India, and Thailand. The forces of crime and terror have converged, with Hezbollah providing a key crossover between the two, for Iran. These developments draw warranted attention to the risk posed by hybrid threats -- threats in which an adversary acquires from a third-party the necessary access, resources, or know-how needed to attack or threaten a target -- and how such might be employed strategically against the United States, as noted by Generals Ham (commander of U.S. Africa Command) and Fraser (commander of U.S. Southern Command) respectively, in regard to Africa and the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

In brief, although state-sponsored terrorism has taken a bit of a backseat to al Qaeda, its affiliates, and those it inspires, in both commentary and analysis in recent years, Iran remains an adversary that is dangerous to ignore or underestimate (as highlighted in recent Senate and House testimonies).

Iran is a complicated adversary that has a long history of turning to terror and asymmetric means of attack as well as proxies, most notably Hezbollah. Through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, associated Quds Force, and proxies, Iran has long had the United States in its crosshairs. Based on recent activity, the LAPD has elevated the Government of Iran and its proxies to a Tier One threat. Chief proxy Hezbollah has likewise gone global, with activities stretching from West Africa to the Tri-Border Area. (For an insightful treatment of Iran's support for terrorism in the Middle East, see HSPI senior fellow Matthew Levitt's testimony here).

In the cyber domain, Iran is investing heavily, building out its cyberwar capabilities including standing up the Iranian Cyber Army. Though not yet as cyber-capable as China or Russia, what Iran may lack in capability it makes up for in intent. Iran also has the option to buy the tools and arms that are needed on the market in this trade. These tools are not only widely available, but the bar to entry continues to get lower while the cyber weapons continue to become more user-friendly (i.e. point-and-click). Such a market not only exists but thrives. In addition, prior to official pronouncements regarding the Iranian Cyber Army, numerous hacker groups and pro-regime volunteers were active in cyberspace. These include the Basij, the Ashiyane, and Cyber Hezbollah, which trains and mobilizes pro-Government of Iran activists in cyberspace

As latest events in Bulgaria appear to show, Iran and its force multiplier Hezbollah remain determined and willing to strike at Israeli targets, whenever and wherever they present themselves, civilians or not. Based on recent events, Iran is an adversary that is now more likely to cross old redlines and shatter old taboos on behavior and action. Just because in the past Iran may have deemed attacks on the U.S. off grounds or too risky is no guarantee against Iran/Hezbollah striking here in the future, especially as the (literally) nuclear-charged debate continues to play out on the international stage.

We need to fight fire with fire, meaning that we need to be every bit as tech-savvy and willing to go on the offensive as those who wish to do us harm. Before doing so however, we first need to get our own house in order. The beginnings of legislative activity in Congress on the cyber issue, specifically as it pertains to critical U.S. infrastructure, is a good start -- provided that we get it right, with the key elements for a baseline bipartisan bill being effective information-sharing, self-initiated standards, and a third-party enforcement mechanism. Regardless of who was behind the recent cyber operations aimed at slowing down Iran's nuclear weapons program, they were very discriminate in nature, and yet there is reason to believe Iran would be very indiscriminate in their response.

Blind spots and lack of leadership are a bad combination for a nation, particularly when the threat stream runs high. We ignore or underappreciate Iran and Hezbollah at our peril. On the other hand, good intelligence and forward-leaning leaders can go a long way towards maintaining and further building the trust and confidence of the American people -- which, at the end of the day, is what it's all about.