The results of last week’s Venezuelan Special Presidential Election have dealt a serious blow to Hugo Chávez’s anointed successor Nicolás Maduro and the Chavismo-Bolivar movement. The government released results indicating that
Maduro captured 50.8 percent of the vote while the opposition Democratic Unity bloc (composed of center-left and center-right parties) secured 49 percent – hardly the type of popular mandate a revolutionary movement would desire.
Maduro’s opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, a former governor of the Venezuelan state of Miranda, is the leader of the center-right party Justice First. Capriles had lost to Chávez in the October 2012 presidential elections but secured a surprising 44 percent of the vote. On foreign policy, Capriles had promised to move Venezuela away from countries like Iran and Belarus.
The Venezuelan Electoral Council certified the elections outcome despite the close margin of the count, amid opposition and international calls for a full reverification of the results, with the Venezuelan government thus far refusing to do so. Protests against the election have turned violent as well with seven deaths so far. Maduro has blamed Capriles for the protests and has accused the United States of financing the hostilities. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the special election, Chávez’s “cult of personality” has not outlasted his passing, revealing Venezuela to be a divided country.
The results of last October’s record-turnout presidential election indicated that Chávez’s star had fallen from the lofty highs he saw in 2006. After a decade in power the cracks in President Chávez’s economic model were beginning to show, with a growing number of Venezuelans against him. Despite the weakening foundation, Maduro ran on Chávez’s legacy, but lacked his predecessor’s charismatic strong point, weakening his appeal with those more in tune with Hugo Chávez the man, rather than his policies.
If Maduro is the legitimate winner his hand will be fagile as he attempts to deal with problems such as Venezuela’s high debt, rising inflation, food shortages, unemployment, and poor relations with the United States, which he has indicated might be open to repairs. Any restoration of close ties to America, however, would result only on the guaranteed ending of Venezuela’s assistance for paramilitary groups such as the FARC, stopping their support for Iran and Hezbollah, and crafting a domestic and foreign policy that does not include anti-Americanism as one of its pillars. Maduro’s recent actions such as the expulsion of two American defense attachés and his provocative accusations of U.S. government meddling in Venezuelan affairs cast a dark cloud over his consideration of rapprochement.
The State Department said April 16 that a full recount of the vote and an investigation into alleged irregularities were needed. A day earlier, U.S. government had called for a full recount before results were certified but the election commission went ahead with certification without one.
While Venezuela remains in a state of flux, the United States should furthermore demand that Maduro ends his accusations and focus his efforts on ensuring that democracy and the rule of law prevail in Venezuela.
Former Senator Joseph Lieberman, a member of JINSA’s Board of Advisors, has taken the bold step of calling for airstrikes “to neutralize [Syrian President] Assad’s planes, helicopters and ballistic missiles, which are being used to terrorize the Syrian population.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Lieberman posited that American inaction in Syria allowed the depth and chaos of the crisis to increase, likely erasing the potential impact of any future measures. Merely vetting and arming rebels now will not end the struggle, he noted, and “will also do nothing to address the fury of ordinary Syrians toward the U.S., whom they understandably see as callously indifferent to their suffering.” “Taking such a step would not require the U.S. to act unilaterally, nor would it involve any American boots on the ground.”
A stronger and more visible action against regime forces would deal a serious blow to al-Assad’s efforts to maintain control. For Lieberman, the greatest danger to America and its allies is that the war drags on totally destroying any sense of a national consensus leading to a failed state situation. That would be a boon to al Qaeda, Lieberman warns, “which is already making inroads by exploiting the anger of Syrians at the West for our refusal to provide them with the help they need.”
JINSA has endorsed the provision of weapons to anti-regime forces provided that they are properly vetted to ensure that no American or allied arms reach al Qaeda or its affiliates, in addition to urging the supply of vital humanitarian and diplomatic measures. The Obama administration should have done more to lead on the Syrian crisis to ensure the interests of America and its allies, and prevent a further escalation of a bloody and destabilizing conflict that has lead to tremendous suffering for the Syrian people. As Senator Lieberman wrote, “With over 70,000 dead, more than a million refugees and no end in sight, it may seem difficult to imagine how the situation in Syria could get any worse—but it can and will, if the current course is allowed to continue.”
According to a report in Foreign Policy’s blog The Cable, President Obama stands alone within his Administration over differences in Syria policy. In an effort to push the United States towards offering non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels (night-vision goggles, body armor), all of the principals of the National Security Council endorsed a policy to do just that. This news comes after a plan by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director Petraeus to vet and arm the Syrian rebels was shot down by the president. While this most recent proposal to assist the rebels has not yet been shelved, reportedly President Obama is hesitating, leaving American policy and the Syrian rebels in a state of flux.
President Obama has been reluctant to entangle the United States in the events of the Arab Spring. He deliberated a great deal with members of the National Security Council before taking action in Libya. Now, almost the entire interagency foreign policy team appears to have united to encourage the president to take a much more limited action for Syria than what was undertaken in Libya. President Obama has not yet made a decision.
Regardless of Bush administration intentions, their Iraq war policies proved to be inadequate when it came to ending the deep-seeded mistrust and animosity between the various tribal and ethnic actors in Iraq. While the U.S. military “surge” provided Iraq a measure of stability that led to the withdrawal of the Coalition Forces, the United States failed to broker a political solution that would allow democratic institutions to thrive. Iraq today, however, is relatively stable compared with the sectarian violence that wracked the country in the immediate years following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. But relations between Iraq’s various ethnic and religious groups are worsening of late, with tribal retributions still common.
In Syria, President Obama likely sees a similar story. Syria suffers from many of the same ethnic and religious tensions that plague Iraq. On some level, Syria has already descended to the violent level of post-invasion Iraq; but it may not be too late for a political solution to take hold. While it is clear that Assad will have to leave the country, there are Alawites who desire an end to the violence and have indicated a willingness to work with the largely Sunni rebels.
Increasing support for the rebels, even in non-lethal ways, is the correct action to take. But along with that support, the United States must work with other countries in the region to find a political solution that will provide long-lasting stability after Assad’s exit. The two measures are not contradictory, but instead compliments that could bring to an end the darkest period in modern Syria’s history.
Newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Moscow on March 22-23 for the first state visit of his premiership. Xi’s decision to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin undoubtedly sends a message, one that is as important as it is unclear.
“The fact that I will visit Russia, our friendly neighbor, shortly after assuming presidency is a testimony to the great importance China places on its relations with Russia,” Xi said after meeting with Putin. Among scholars and students of international relations, a common view is that nation-states operating in an anarchic world and looking to ensure their own survival will often work with other nations with similar interests to “balance” against nations with opposing interest. Will China seek to work with Russia to balance against the United States and its allies, or does China want something else from its northern neighbor?
Given their contentious history, it can be difficult to imagine a strong relationship between China and Russia today. At first glance, however, their ties appear to be strong. They often cooperate at the UN Security Council and against the United States over issues such as Iran and Syria. The two nations’ authoritarian natures and fear of uncontrolled public sentiment have given them a reason to work together on stifling free speech in media including news carried via the Internet. And now with Xi’s visit, a $30 billion deal for Russia to supply oil to China has been reached.
With kind words from both leaders and tandem movements on bilateral and international issues some may be worried that China is seeking to develop a broader pact to work against America’s interests. But this claim is not well supported. First, while Beijing may share some goals with Moscow, its primary goal is securing the resources to fuel the continued development of its economy, for which Russia can be a key supplier. If this new fuel supply is safe and stable, every other Chinese foreign policy goal related to energy acquisition and supply becomes less important. Second, even as China becomes closer to Russia, it values the United States as its number one foreign trading partner that provides China with the capital and technology needed to further grow its economy. Third, over the next several decades, China may experience its own shale-gas revolution. This would allow Beijing to reduce its dependency on imported oil and, therefore, be less reliant on friendly relations with Moscow. In addition, Russia has been China’s main supplier of weaponry due to the Western embargo on arms exports to Beijing following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. While China proved a valuable customer, tension occurred as Russia weaponry was repeatedly reverse engineered and used to enhance China’s own military industry. Over the past decade, China has certainly advanced its own military technology and ability to manufacture complex systems. Reducing the need for Russian defense systems weaken another Chinese tie to Russia.
Finally, there are other factors owing to Russia’s sense of insecurity that work to prevent an overly close China-Russia relationship. China’s inroads into traditional Russian spheres of influence (Central Asia, the Arctic) coupled with its growing military might, are giving Moscow pause. Russia has historically viewed with great suspicion the actions of foreign powers along its periphery.
What China needs right now is a steady supply of oil. Without China’s need for resources, the Sino-Russo relationship would likely be unimportant or even frosty today. The fragility of their one issue relationship is apparent. Over time this fragility may have important consequences for the region.
On Wednesday, Ilan Berman, Editor of JINSA’s Journal of International Security Affairs, provided testimony on Iran’s cyber activities to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies.
Since the effectiveness of Facebook and Twitter in organizing the opposition during the protest against the fraudulent 2009 Iranian Presidential Elections and the usage of cyber weapons to weaken Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the Iranian government has been stepping up it’s cyber activities. Whether it is silencing decent at home, or preparing cyber-weapons for use against its enemies – a recognition of the importance of the cyber realm has not been lost. The United States and it’s allies must invest in defensive and offensive measures in order to counter this threat.
Chairman Meehan, distinguished members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for the invitation to appear before you again today. Let me begin by commending the House Homeland Security Committee for its continued leadership on the issue of Iran and cyberwarfare. It is a topic that is of the utmost importance to the safety and security of the United States.
A year ago, I had the privilege of testifying before this committee regarding the Islamic Republic’s cyber warfare capabilities, and the threat that they could potentially pose to the American homeland. Today, the questions that were posed at that time are more relevant than ever.
The past year has seen the Iranian regime evolve significantly in its exploitation of cyberspace as a tool of internal repression, with significant consequences for country’s overall political direction. During the same period, Iran also has demonstrated a growing ability to hold Western targets at risk in cyberspace, amplifying a new dimension in the asymmetric conflict that is now taking place over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program.
IRAN VERSUS THE WORLD-WIDE WEB
A little over three-and-a-half years ago, the fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency galvanized the largest outpouring of opposition to the Iranian government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. That protest wave, colloquially known as the Green Movement, made extensive use of the Internet and social media in its anti-regime activities. Iranian authorities responded with a similar focus—one that has both persisted and expanded in the wake of their successful suppression of the Green Movement during the 2009/2010 timeframe.
Most conspicuously, the Iranian government is moving ahead with the construction of a new national Internet system. As of October 2012, some 10,000 computers—from both private users and government offices—were found to be connected to this “halal” or “second” Internet, which is aimed at isolating the Iranian population from the World Wide Web. The eventual goal of the Iranian regime is to force all Iranian citizens to use this system. Iranian officials thus have announced plans to reduce Internet speeds within the Islamic Republic, as well as increase costs of subscriptions to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) within the country.
Along the same lines, Iran in December 2012 launched Mehr, a home-grown alternative to YouTube that features government-approved video content designed specifically for domestic audiences. Iranian authorities also reportedly are working on new software suites designed to better control social-networking sites (a hub of activity during the 2009 protests and after).
The Iranian regime likewise has expanded control of domestic phone, mobile and Internet communications. In the months after the summer 2009 protests, Iranian authorities installed a sophisticated Chinese-origin surveillance system to track and monitor phone, mobile and Internet communications. They have since supplemented such tracking with methods intended to limit access to such media. Just this month, for example, Iranian authorities blocked most of the virtual private networks (VPNs) used by Iranians to circumvent the government’s Internet filters.
The Iranian regime has stepped up its detention and intimidation of reporters and activists who utilize the World-Wide Web as well. Its tool of choice to do so has been the Cyber Police, a dedicated division of the country’s national police that was established in January 2011. Earlier this year, the European Union added the Cyber Police to its sanctions list for the unit’s role in the November 2012 torture and death of blogger Sattar Beheshti while in police custody. In all, some 58 journalists and “netizens” are currently imprisoned by Iranian authorities, according to the journalism watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.
The Iranian regime also has established a new government agency to monitor cyberspace. The Supreme Council on Cyberspace was formally inaugurated by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in April of 2012, and serves as a coordinating body for the Islamic Republic’s domestic and international cyber policies.
All of these activities have been propelled by a sense of urgency on the part of the Iranian leadership. This June, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a new president. That political contest, although sure to be stage-managed by clerical authorities, will nonetheless serve to some degree as a referendum on the Iranian regime’s stewardship of the nation amid deepening Western sanctions. It could also see renewed activity by Iran’s opposition forces, which have been politically sidelined in recent years. Iran consequently has made what the U.S. intelligence community terms “cyber influence” a major governmental focus, clamping down on Internet activity “that might contribute to political instability and regime change.”
FROM DEFENSE TO OFFENSE
Iran’s offensive cyber capabilities likewise continue to evolve and mature. Over the past three years, repeated cyber attacks have targeted the Iranian nuclear program, with considerable effect. In response, Iranian officials have focused on cyberspace as a primary flashpoint in their regime’s unfolding confrontation with the West. Officials in Tehran now believe cyber war to be “more dangerous than a physical war,” in the words of one top leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
As a result, the Iranian regime has made major investments in its offensive cyber capabilities. Since late 2011, the Iranian regime reportedly has invested more than $1 billion in the development of national cyber capabilities. As a result, Iranian officials now claim to possess the “fourth largest” cyber force in the world—a broad network of quasi-official elements, as well as regime-aligned “hacktivists,” who engage in cyber activities broadly consistent with the Islamic Republic’s interests and views. The activities of this “cyber army” are believed to be overseen by the Intelligence Unit of the IRGC.
Increasingly, the Iranian regime has put those capabilities to use against Western and Western-aligned targets. Between September of 2012 and January of 2013, a group of hackers known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters carried out multiple distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against a number of U.S. financial institutions, including the Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. Due to the sophistication of the attacks, U.S. officials have linked them to the Iranian government.
A similar attack attributed to the Iranian regime took place in August 2012, when three-quarters of the computers of Saudi Arabia’s Aramco state oil corporation were targeted by a virus called “Shamoon.” The malicious software triggered a program that replaced Aramco’s corporate data with a picture of a burning American flag at a predetermined time.
The Iranian regime has also begun to proliferate its cyber capabilities to its strategic partners. Iran reportedly has provided the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, now locked in a protracted civil war against his own people, with crucial equipment and technical assistance for carrying out Internet surveillance. This, in turn, has helped the Assad regime to more effectively target and neutralize elements of the Syrian opposition.
A MATURING THREAT
Despite recent advances, Iran’s cyber capabilities are still nascent when compared to those of China and Russia. There is broad agreement among technical experts that the cyber threat posed by the Iranian regime is more modest than that posed by either Moscow or Beijing, at least for the moment. Yet Iran’s activities in, and exploitation of, cyberspace should be of utmost concern to American policymakers, for several reasons.
The first is opportunity. The capabilities “gap” that currently exists in Iran’s ability to carry out sustained and significant cyber attacks against U.S. infrastructure could close rapidly. This is because all of the resources that the Islamic Republic requires, whether human or technological, can be acquired quickly and comparatively cheaply from gray and black market sources. Additionally, recent years have seen the Iranian regime receive significant inputs to its strategic programs from abroad, most prominently from China and North Korea. This assistance is known to have furthered Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, perhaps significantly so. Given this history, there is every reason to conclude that cooperation between Iran and its strategic partners is ongoing in the cyber domain as well.
The second is intent. Over the past two years, no fewer than five distinct cyber assaults have targeted the Iranian regime’s nuclear effort. (At least one, moreover, has been determined to be domestic in origin, suggesting the Iranian regime faces an internal cyber threat as well). As a result, Iranian officials have come to believe—with considerable justification—that conflict with the West has already begun. The cyber attacks that Iran has carried out in recent months provide a strong indicator that the Iranian regime is both willing and able to retaliate in kind.
Finally, it is worth noting that Iran represents a qualitatively different cyber actor from either Russia or China. While both the PRC and the Russian Federation actively engage in cyber espionage against the United States, each has repeatedly avoided mounting a cyber attack so disruptive that it precipitates a breakdown of diplomatic relations with Washington. Iran, by contrast, could well countenance exactly such a course of action in the not too distant future.
In his most recent testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted that “Iran prefers to avoid direct confrontation with the United States because regime preservation is its top priority.” This, however, has the potential to change rapidly in the event of a further deterioration of the current, tense standoff between the international community and Iran over its nuclear program. Iranian officials have made clear that they see cyberspace as a distinct warfighting medium in their unfolding confrontation with the West.
Government officials increasingly recognize this fact. A draft National Intelligence Estimate now circulating within the U.S. government reportedly identifies Iran as one country which would benefit substantially from having the capability to target and disable sectors of the U.S. economy. What is not yet visible, however, is a comprehensive approach to understand, address and mitigate Iran’s ability to hold American interests and infrastructure at risk via cyberspace.
CYBERSPACE AND THE IRANIAN BOMB
Back in October, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned publicly that the United States could soon face a mass disruption event of catastrophic proportions, a “cyber Pearl Harbor” of sorts. “An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches,” cautioned the Defense secretary. “They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
Such a scenario is plausible, although the U.S. intelligence community currently judges its likelihood to be “remote,” at least in the near term. However, geopolitical events could dramatically alter this assessment, and incentivize threat actors in cyberspace to target both American interests and infrastructure.
In this regard, no scenario is more urgent or potentially dangerous than the unfolding crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. Despite a massive expansion of Western economic pressure over the past year, the Iranian regime still shows no signs of slowing its drive toward atomic capability. To the contrary, Iranian officials have taken a defiant stance, laying out the need for an “economy of resistance” with which they will be able to weather economic pressure from the United States and Europe until such time as they cross the nuclear Rubicon. As such, the near future could see a further escalation of the crisis, perhaps including the use of force against Iran by one or more nations.
Should that happen, cyber war with Iran could become a distinct possibility. So, too, could Iranian targeting of American forces, interests and infrastructure, with potentially devastating effects on the security of the U.S. homeland.
- The full testimony can be found here.
United States Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Friday that the United States would bolster it’s Pacific Defenses against ballistic missiles. The move comes after North Korea conducted a third nuclear test, a withdrew from the 1953 Armistice ending the Korean
War, and made increasingly bellicose threats to the United States and its allies. Plans for the upgrade include the addition of 14 interceptors in Alaska and a radar tracking system in Japan to provide improved early warning capabilities. After appropriate test have been conducted, the interceptors will be fully deployed by 2017.
The additions to our missile defense system will provide greater security for the United States and it’s allies, severely limiting North Korea’s ability to threaten. The Obama administration must move to ensure that our nation’s defense capabilities are upgraded in this time of uncertainty.
Differences over the conflict in Syria is beginning to fray the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Iranian government, the Washington Post reports. In the years since the September 11th, 2001 attacks Iran has often given safe haven to senior
members of al-Qaeda even as disparities in ideology and religion threatened to make the relationship impossible. A great opposition to the West, and a desire to prevent conflict between each other was the glue that held them together.
With the expulsion of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a high ranking al-Qaeda member and a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, tensions have appeared to reach a high point. Now Ghaith has been captured and is facing his crimes in a New York City courtroom. With Iran continuing to back Assad in Syria, and Sunni extremists fighting for Assad’s ouster, al-Qaeda and Iran may have little reason to work together, especially in the event of a broader, more open, sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict.
But for now the Iranian government is still likely hosting some members of al-Qaeda, or their affiliates, and assisting fighters in Afghanistan by providing them with safe transport routes to and from other countries in the region. The United States must gauge the situation closely; while cooperation between the two has the possibility of ending, a calming of sectarian tensions may strengthen their bond again.