Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 much has been said about the threat the mullahs who control the country pose to international oil markets.
A large portion of the world’s oil transits through the strategic Straits of Hormuz a narrow body of water separating Iran from Oman. At its narrowest point Hormuz measures less than thirty miles. The oil is carried aboard giant super tankers, easy targets of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard specially created naval unit. Equipped with small, rapid and highly manoeuvrable vessels, heavy machine guns and missiles, the Guards, who have been training for years on how to attack these tankers could quite easily block the Straits and paralyze the flow of international oil supplies.
Naturally, in so doing, Iran would be the first to suffer. Iran may well have one of the world’s largest oil reserves but ironically it lacks the ability to refine its own oil. It is therefore obliged to send its crude oil by tankers to India for refinement, through Hormuz, and then get its oil back, also through the same strategic straits.
So for Iran using oil as a weapon and holding safe passage through the Straits of Hormuz as a hostage to its policies is not a terribly good idea.
Much has also been said about the strong desire Iran’s theocratic leaders have to acquire nuclear technology. The Iranian leadership insists its program is purely intended for civilian uses, a claim widely rejected by most Western analysts who have little doubt that Iran intends to put its nuclear program to military uses.
But again, the nuclear option is not feasible for Iran despite cries of angst from the United States and Israel, and more under the table words of woe coming from Iran’s Arab neighbors.
Realistically, even if Iran did manage to have its nuclear program reach maturity without Israel and/or the Western powers intervening, the Islamic Republic’s real threat level would remain rather low. Look at it this way: if Iran managed to reach the point where it was capable of producing nuclear weapons, the number of nukes if could manufacture are extremely limited when compared to what the West and Israel could throw at it in a retaliatory raid. The effects of a counter attack against a potential Iranian nuclear assault would be devastating and would propel Iran back into the Stone Age.
So if oil and nukes are to be ruled out as genuine threatening weapons where lies the real threat from Iran?
The real danger emanating from Iran today comes not from its control of the world’s busiest oil routes, not from a potential capability to deploy nuclear weapons, not from its support of groups considered to be conducting acts of terrorism, but rather from Iran’s interest in the Internet.
It is widely acknowledged today that the keen interest in research and development shown by the Islamic Republic of Iran is not entirely intended for academic, social or commercial ends, but designed with intent to harm Western interests and to facilitate Iran’s efforts in its face-off with the West, particularly with the United States and Israel.
The cyber threat from Iran concerns financial institutions, sensitive civilian installations, and military defense systems that can be accessible through the Internet. In today’s world that is practically everything.
One: The financial institutions; A successful attack on Wall Street and/or on banks would create complete chaos if people found that their savings were wiped out overnight, their stocks erased and their holdings disappeared. Granted, banks and broker firms have all sorts of fail-safe systems in place, redundancies and back-ups, still a major cyber-attack would cost the country billions of dollars and shake the credibility of the US banking system.
Two: sensitive civilian institutions, such as the US power grid, control of hydroelectric systems such as dams; air traffic control, or railways systems are highly vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Control, even temporary, of the US power grid, or even a portion of it, could result in catastrophic results impacting every aspect of a modern society, from the economy to public safety.
So credible is the threat of cyber terrorism that it has the head of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee seriously concerned. Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in early January that intelligence from “unusual sources” indicates that Iran was “closer than we’d like them to be to be to come in and cause trouble on our financial services networks.”
Rogers also said that that Iran’s cyber espionage units were growing. In recent months several US banks have come under cyber-attack. Those included Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp and PNC Financial Services.
The chairman of the intelligence committee stated: “… this is the biggest national security threat I can think of that we are not prepared to handle in this country today.”
Something to think about the next time you log on to your Facebook account.
Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an independent journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. His latest book, ‘Islam Without a Veil,’ is published by Potomac Books. He tweets @claudesalhani.
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