Our guest speaker in class today, Professor Ralph Russo, briefly discussed the US-Israeli Stuxnet Cyber-attacks against Iran. With the topic of class this week being cybersecurity, I think that a deeper look into this event is warranted.
In 2009-2010, the US (in collaboration with Israel) used malware, specifically a Stuxnet worm, to invade the control systems in an Iranian nuclear plant so that it’s centrifuges would spin at incorrect rates. Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility was the specific target. This cyber-attack successfully caused major technical problems with the centrifuges at this site and stalled nuclear production in Iran.
The cyber-attack qualifies as “an act of force” using “cyber weapons” under the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare, which states: “acts that kill or injure persons or destroy or damage objects are unambiguously uses of force” (A). This event is also widely acclaimed (by Professor Russo and other professionals) as “an act of war.”
Obama recently stated in an article in the Wall Street Journal: “cyber threat to our nation is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face” (B). On the same note, just two weeks ago, the president of Estonia stated in the New York Times: “In a modern digitalized world it is possible to paralyze a country without attacking its defense forces” (C). In other words a country can virtually be brought to a halt by cyber-attack.
Clearly, the world understands the potential devastating outcomes of a cyber-attack as one of the most serious threats to a country, its economy, public health system, safety, etc. So was the US cyber-attack against Iran warranted? Are we promoting the ‘use’ of cyber-attacks by carrying them out ourselves, even if the intention of the cyber-attack against Iran was (arguably) harm reduction, disaster mitigation, or self-defense? Are we just asking for/ should we expect a strike back from Iran now that we’ve initiated this cyber-war? Professor Russo argues that we can’t really complain when Iran turns around and does something like this to us, and I have to agree with him.