Iran Cyber Front: Oil Ministry attacked by unknown cyber assailants

According to Mehr News Agency Iran’s Ministry of Oil experienced repeated cyber attacks on its Internet and communications systems over a 24 hour period yesterday.

Mehr reported Hamdollah Mohammadnejad, the oil ministry’s head of passive defense, as stating that a crisis centre had been set up in response to the attacks and that cyberspace, intelligence, passive defence, and technology experts had been brought in.

The cyber attacks, which included a computer virus, are reported to have impacted key elements of the public oil sector’s Internet and communication infrastructure. The oil ministry complex and national oil company in Tehran and other locations, as well as oil facilities at Siri, Lavan, Kish, Khark, Gheshm, and Behregan have been cut off from the oil ministry’s telecommunication systems. It was unclear from the Mehr report whether these cut offs were a result of the cyber attacks or were done by the oil ministry to prevent further damage. Production and export of crude oil were apparently not impacted.

Ali Nikzad-Rahbar, an oil ministry spokesperson, was quoted as saying that the virus burned computer motherboards and attempted to delete critical information, but that the overall damage was limited and did not include important infrastructure. Nikzad-Rahbar said the matter is under investigation and that it is uncertain whether the cyber attacks originated from inside or outside the country.

Editor’s Note: If reports of Sunday’s attacks are accurate, it will strengthen the hands of those in the Islamic Republic calling for the creation of a national intranet cut off from the World Wide Web to strengthen national security. Since the discovery of the Stuxnet and Duqu computer worms in 2010 and 2011 respectively, the Islamic Republic has become ever more vigilant about potential threats posed by cyberspace. Earlier this year, Iran held the First National Conference on Cyberdefense to coordinate efforts between various state entities to defend against cyber attacks, and created the Passive Defense Organization of Iran (PDOI), led by Brigadier General Gholam-Reza Jalali, sometime after 2005 as its military arm in cyberspace.

Attacks against petroleum infrastructure is particularly worrying for the Islamic Republic because its economy is strongly reliant on exports of crude oil. Stoppages in production and/or export could have significant negative ramifications for an economy already ravaged by mismanagement and sanctions and could lead to a rise in international oil prices amidst what has been hard economic times for many countries.

Of course, the creation of a national intranet and Iran’s other cyber activities have a much more sinister side. Iran has used increasingly harsh restrictions in cyberspace to limit its citizens’ access to information it disapproves of and curtail their ability to freely communicate. The Internet is viewed as a gateway for a cultural onslaught by Western powers against Iran. It is also seen as having played an important role in the 2009-2010 Green Movement protests, which saw some of the largest public demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.