Iran has emerged as a leading cyber threat and has already hacked into the U.S. defense establishment and financial institutions, likely with the help of the Russians, according to a former chairman of the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Iran has boosted its cyber capabilities in a "surprisingly" short amount of time and possesses the ability to launch successful cyber attacks on American financial markets and its infrastructure, former Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R., Mich.) told a panel of lawmakers on Tuesday.
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The Iranian regime’s emergence as a "world class" cyber threat likely has to do with its close ties to Russia, according to Hoekstra, who warned during a hearing on Iran’s global terror activities that the two countries will only boost coordination on the cyber front in the coming months.
"Iran and Russia will develop a much closer relationship," said Hoekstra, who was on the House’s intelligence committee from 2001 to 2011. "Russia and Iran have so much to gain from more significant cooperation [and] the immediate impacts will be profound."
As Russia continues to take an aggressive stance towards the United States, its "assistance to Iran’s cyber program" will grow exponentially "as Iran continues to develop offensive and defensive capabilities," Hoekstra said, noting that this "foreshadows an even darker future."
Iran’s cyber capabilities have become increasingly sophisticated, though the United States remains underprepared to respond to these threats, Hoekstra said.
"They’ve made a significant commitment to developing cyber capabilities and they’re doing it successfully," he said. "In a very short period of time," Iran has become "almost world class in the cyber area, nipping at the heels of the U.S."
"The cyber threat is real, and it’s worrisome," Hoekstra added.
Iran’s steady growth in the cyber arena has occurred under the nose of the U.S. intelligence community, Hoekstra said.
There have "always been concerns about how little we actually know about Iran," he said.
The cyber buildup has occurred "in a very short period of time, and it’s surprising," he said.
Concerns remain about "how quickly [Iran] did it and more importantly who helped them do it," Hoekstra said. "The most likely candidate for that is the cooperation they have with Russia."
With Iran and Russia combining their resources, a joint cyber attack on the United States could be devastating.
"You would see something that would cause economic disruption," as well as an attack "potentially against our infrastructure," Hoekstra said. "The scary thing is they have the capability to do that and we don’t necessarily have the means to defend it. If something like that occurred it would be very, very difficult to pinpoint who the perpetrators would be. It could be Iran, but it’s very difficult to track it back to Iran."
Iran has turned to Russia and the cyber warfare front in a bid to even a potential battle against the United States and the West, according to Matthew McInnis, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
"That asymmetry in the battle field they face is one of the reasons they strive to have the terror capabilities that they do, and having that ability to hit our homeland provides a retaliatory effect they don’t have with conventional weapons," McInnis said. "It needs to be able to operate here and threaten the U.S. on our own territory."
In addition to boosting its cyber abilities, Iran has sought to generate unrest across the Middle East to solidify its regional power.
The Iranian "regime foments bloodshed, promotes chaos, not just in the West Bank, and not just in Gaza, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not just in Lebanon," said Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.).
"As their meddling increases, our allies, our partners in the region … bear the brunt of an emboldened Iran, and that’s why we need to keep the pressure on" via increased economic sanctions, Royce said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) warned the Obama administration against focusing only on Iran’s nuclear pursuits.
"While all of the focus of these negotiations has been on Iran’s nuclear program, what has gone largely ignored is just how dangerous the Iranian regime truly is. Iran is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and it seeks to harm the U.S. and our allies at every turn, yet the administration carries on as if Iran’s nuclear program exists in a vacuum—as if it is unrelated to Iran’s terror activities," she said.