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Why U.S. Cyber Sneak Attacks Won’t Work Against Iran

Just another useless maximum pressure tactic that's failing to weaken the regime.
cyber attacks

After blaming Iran for a September strike on Saudi oil facilities,Washington retaliated with a secret cyberattack, U.S. officials revealed to Reuters. Though few details of the digital attack are available, the unnamed sources indicated that it targeted “physical hardware” and was designed to limit Iranian “propaganda.”

This cyberattack is but the latest salvo in what the report describes as the White House’s effort “to counter what it sees as Iranian aggression without spiraling into a broader conflict.” Re-imposition of heavy U.S. sanctions previously lifted under the Iran nuclear deal are part of the same project to coerce compliance from Tehran.

But as the last few months of multiplying Iranian provocations have demonstrated, this dual strategy of cyber and economic warfare is risky and has proven counterproductive. It encourages escalation and has resulted in increased Iranian aggression. Indeed, the “maximum pressure” approach plays into Iranian hardliners’ narrative of American antagonism, bankrupting Tehran’s moderates of their political capital. It makes peace more difficult to achieve. Diplomacy and strength, not digital and economic warfare, will deliver what we want from Iran.

The fundamental mistake undergirding the Trump administration’s approach is the belief that Iran poses a significant threat to the United States. This is a bizarre claim whose propagation amounts to irresponsible fear-mongering.

In reality, Iran is, at most, a regional troublemaker surrounded by religious and political enemies. Its ambitions are locally balanced by opposition from Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of nuclear-armed Israel. Its economy—under sanctions-induced “severe distress,” with rising inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and rampant unemployment—is tiny compared to that of the United States. In fact, Iran’s entire GDP of around $440 billion is smaller than the Pentagon’s annual budget of nearly $700 billion. Our military alone gets more money in a year than Iran’s whole economy, and the Iranian military budget is a mere $20 billion. Beyond economic and conventional military strength disparities, the United States is thousands of miles away from Iran and has enough nuclear weapons to blow up the planet several times over. Iran, independent investigators agree, does not have any nukes.

The notion that Iran could pose an existential threat to America is laughable—or it would be, if it did not seem to be the absurd and frankly dangerous basis of policy in Washington. And building on such a fantastical foundation is bound to have unstable results. Historically, economic pressure has made societies more authoritarian and repressive. Subjecting Iran to punitive sanctions and cyberattacks—disconnected from any strategy and lacking an off-ramp for talks—makes diplomacy more difficult and silences moderate voices in Iranian politics; it heightens tensions and makes productive negotiations more difficult. Maximum pressure is more likely to result in a disastrous war than Iranian surrender.

The disparities in economic and military strength should not lure us into thinking that such a conflict would be quick or easy. As nearly two decades of military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa have shown, the risk of another multi-decade—or even multi-generational—war, exacting an unacceptable cost in blood and treasure while accomplishing nothing for U.S. security, is more than real. And war with Iran would be far more costly than with Iraq.

Iran is a large country, as a report from Stratfor Worldview explains, a geographic “fortress” that is “extremely difficult to conquer.” Though “relatively poor…it has superbly defensible borders and a disciplined central government with an excellent intelligence and internal security apparatus.” That’s especially so compared to other nations—again, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere—where American nation-building attempts have still devolved into debacles of mission creep and cyclical insurgency management. Consider that Iran has nearly four times more land than Iraq and had nearly three times the population of Iraq in 2003.

This is a disastrous outcome we must avoid—and it is avoidable, if the Trump administration jettisons its maximum pressure tactics, like these recent cyberattacks, and pursues diplomacy instead, as polling shows the American people want. This is a shift America can well afford to make. We can deter Iran forever—even if it had the capability, it would never be foolish enough to launch an unprovoked attack against us—so time is on our side. We can do the slow and often frustrating work of negotiation and give peace and normalization a chance to succeed.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.