After a series of escalation and de-escalation tactics in January between the U.S. and Iran, there are growing concerns that Iran will launch cyber attacks against the U.S.
On Jan. 3, the U.S. launched an air raid that targeted and killed an Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, who was the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force. Also killed was an Iranian deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iran, finding this an unwarranted military action, stated it would respond to the U.S. ‘s killing of Soleimani with its own military action. On Jan. 8, Iran launched missiles at an Iraqi base housing U.S. troops, but this attack did not harm any U.S. troops or result in excessive damage.
Despite President Donald J. Trump claiming Iran is “standing down,” some international relations experts believe that Iran is planning a cyberattack aimed at crippling U.S. infrastructure.
Melanie Ram, chair of the political science department and professor of international relations at Fresno State, said, “Iran will not respond with traditional military action, but with a cyberattack. We will not know when or what area will be targeted, but a cyberattack is the most reasonable response on Iran’s part.”
Preceding the Iran military response, the U.S. implemented strict sanctions against the Iranian government, which seemed to be backing down from any further military action.
This close call marks one of a long list of issues between the U.S. and Iran. The history of conflict between these two countries needs to be understood in order to explain the present animosity.
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, said, “The United States is seen as an imperial force by Iranians who believe the United States does not get to impose on Iranian sovereignty.”
The military tensions that boiled over at the beginning of January are part of a longer history surrounding these two countries, which was broken down by Julia Shatz, professor of history, and Russell Mardon, professor of international relations in the political science department.
During World War II, the U.S., England and Russia completed a coup d’etat in Iran where they instated the shah as the leader of Iran. The shah, a monarch, served as an ally to the U.S. during World War II and during the Cold War with Russia, according to Mardon.
The shah, however, was unpopular amongst Iranian civilians because they supported a governmental structure that would limit the power of the monarchy. In 1952, Iran held a democratic election where the shah was voted out of power and replaced by Mohammed Mossadegh as prime minister.
Mossadegh, who supported a policy of nonalignment during the Cold War, was ousted from the Iranian government in 1953 by MI6 and the CIA in order to reinstate the shah, according to Shatz.
“One of the very clear intrusions on Iranian politics by the Americans is the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh,” Nekumanesh said.
Following the reinstatement of the shah, the U.S. became one of Iran’s most powerful military allies as the two countries continued to work together to contain Soviet communist expansion into Central Asia and the Middle East, according to Shatz. The alliance became so strong that the U.S. helped Iran start a nuclear program to counter the Soviet expansionist movements.
“Throughout this period, the United States supported the shah through economic and military aid,” Shatz said. “At the same time, the shah, who had always had strong opposition in the population, became increasingly unpopular because of failed reforms he attempted and because he was increasingly repressive and brutal towards political opponents.”
The shah’s authoritarian tendencies came to a head in 1979 when a revolution broke out. Protesters were not just aggravated with the shah, but also the U.S. because of the alliance that had formed between the two governments. The revolution resulted in the creation of an Islamic government led by Ruhollah Khomeini.
“So, you had a very pro-American and American-dependent government overthrown by a popular revolution that saw the United States as supporting political repression and subjugation,” said Shatz.
Iranian discontent with U.S. intervention resulted in the hostage crisis, which caused President Jimmy Carter to sever ties with Iran. This loss of a crucial alliance in the Middle East encouraged the U.S. to support Saddam Hussein in Iraq with the hope that the war would end with an overthrow of the Iranian revolutionary government.
“The United States, when it first started being involved in politics in the Middle East, was very imperial in nature,” said Nekumanesh. “The United States tries to impose its will on countries, tries to force them to bend or bow to what it is that the United States says is within their best interest.”
This view of U.S. interventionist tendencies in Iran is mirrored by the Iranian government and citizens who view the U.S. as an entity that continues to infringe on their sovereignty.
According to Nekumanesh, U.S. policy toward Iran has proven to spur on Iranian beliefs that the U.S. is infringing on Iranian success and ability to govern itself.
“The United States as a whole has profited and flourished off of the suffering of many countries, Iran being one of them,” said Nekumanesh. “Economic sanctions, they’ve destroyed the economy there.”
With tensions already high due to the economic and military strain placed on Iran by the U.S., the killing of Soleimani served as a tipping point for Iranian citizens who called for a governmental response. Though both the U.S. and Iran demonstrated increased militarization against one another, both stopped short of a declaration of war.
“It would not be in the best interests of Iran or the United States to declare war,” said Ram. “Though both powers reacted militaristically, I do not believe either was ready to declare war against the other because it wouldn’t solve anything.”
With direct military confrontation out of the question, international relations experts believe that a cyberattack would be a more calculated Iranian response.
“I believe Iran will, if anything, respond with a cyber security attack,” Ram said. “Whether that be against our election system, our defense systems or our government agencies, a cyber attack would be the most calculated response by Iran and it is a form of retaliation we know they are capable of.”
How the U.S. would respond to a cyberattack is yet to be seen, but there is little hope that the tensions between the U.S. and Iran will end soon.
“The only solving thing there, assuming we win, is the current Islamic Iranian government has to fall,” said Mardon. “From our point of view, what Iran needs is an internal revolution, but I don’t think anything happens to the Iran issue until you get a different government in Iran.”
There is also the question as to whether or not Iranian Americans will be faced from hostilities from U.S. society.
“We are living in an era where you have the American president saying he will expand the Muslim travel ban, where 90 American citizens of Iranian decent were detained by border control when re-entering the country, so it is definitly not going to make anything better,” Nekumanesh said. “All the strides that people have made to show that we’re part of this society and we are working together and we support this society, all of that is very fickle and fragile when countries are talking about war.”