The country faced a massive cyberattack on Tuesday that affected all of the Islamic Republic’s 4,300 gas stations.
Iran, the West Asian country and an Islamic Republic, has declared that it is on high alert for online assaults.
The country, ruled by its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei since 1989, faced a massive cyberattack on Tuesday that affected all of the Islamic Republic’s 4,300 gas stations, a senior official said, as some still faced problems Wednesday.
Not a first attack
As the country’s economy buckles under sanctions by the United States, it has been a victim of similar attacks in the past. Iran has faced numerous cyberattacks in the past, which it has blamed on the US and Israel. Much of the country’s infrastructure was taken offline following the Stuxnet attack on the country’s nuclear program which disrupted thousands of centrifuges in the country’s nuclear program.
The attack on Tuesday bore similarities to another attack months earlier that seemed to directly challenge Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In April this year, Iran blamed Israel for a sabotage attack on its underground Natanz nuclear facility that damaged the centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium there, warning that it would take revenge for the assault.
The Natanz facility, which has been on the radar of foreign spy agencies for a long, was first targeted in 2007 by a cyber-warfare campaign apparently orchestrated by Israel and the US, known as Olympic Games, which aimed to use computer viruses to disrupt the country’s nuclear enrichment program.
The attacks, mostly covert, have continued over the years, in some cases with the involvement of local Iranian agents working for the Israeli spy agency, Mossad.
Last year, Israel’s sabotage campaign in Iran gained momentum again, quite startlingly, with a series of incidents reported at Iran’s prominent nuclear facilities and petrochemical plants.
Iran, in line with the past incidents, has said a foreign country was likely behind cyberattack on Tuesday that paralyzed gas stations nationwide.
What did the Iranian government say?
Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi stated that the cyberattack was meant to create disorder, according to the Associated Press, stating that “there should be serious readiness in the field of cyberwar and related bodies should not allow the enemy to follow their ominous aims to create problems.”
The cyberattack disrupted the sale of heavily subsidized gasoline across the Islamic Republic, which Raisi said on Wednesday was designed to create “disorder and disruption.”
“The disruption at the refuelling system of gas stations … in the past few hours, was caused by a cyberattack,” state broadcaster IRIB said. “Technical experts are fixing the problem and soon the refuelling process…will return to normal.”
The oil ministry said only sales with smart cards used for cheaper rationed gasoline were disrupted and clients could still buy fuel at higher rates, the ministry’s news agency SHANA reported.
Abolhassan Firouzabadi, secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace, told state TV: “This attack was probably carried out by a foreign country. It is too early to announce by which country and in which way it was done.”
Some users on social media also posted videos which showed apparently-hacked digital street signs carrying messages such as “Khamenei, where is our fuel?”, in a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Major cyberattack hits #Iran with attackers preventing Iranians from getting fuel with screens giving the number of the Ayatollah to ask him “where is the gas?” Street signs also read “Khamenei, where is our fuel?” in reference to the fuel that Iran sent to Hezbollah in Lebanon pic.twitter.com/Egbufuja6C
— Emily Schrader – אמילי שריידר (@emilykschrader) October 26, 2021
Iranians rely on subsidies to fuel their vehicles as the country is in dire economic straits due to economic mismanagement and crippling sanctions.
The motive was evidently to target the Supreme leader of Iran because the alleged cyberattack came ahead of the second anniversary of an increase in fuel prices in November 2019 which led to widespread street protests in which hundreds were reported to have been killed by security forces. It looked like an attempt to remind the Iran’s Supreme Leader of the alleged atrocities he had committed back then.
The bloody November
The 2019-20 Iranian protests over fuel prices, also known as the Bloody November, were a series of nationwide civil protests in Iran, initially caused by a 50%–200% increase in fuel prices, leading to calls for the overthrow of the government in Iran and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The protests commenced as peaceful gatherings on the evening of 15 November but spread to 21 cities within hours, as videos of the protest circulated online, eventually becoming the most violent and severe anti-government unrest since the rise of Iran’s Islamic Republic in 1979.
The government imposed a near-total internet shutdown from November 15 to 19 and embarked on the most brutal crackdown against protesters in decades.
According to a Reuters report, at least 1,500 people were massacred by authority forces within the first two weeks of the protests, as they cracked down on protesters. This number is disputed due to a near-total internet blackout imposed by authorities at the time, which stopped protestors from communicating with each other and with the rest of the world.
A day after the attack, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi today inspected some of the gas stations to directly monitor the return of the situation to normal.
Following the cyber attack and disruption of the intelligent fuel system in Iran yesterday, today Mr. Raisi, the President of #Iran 🇮🇷, personally inspected some stations in order to directly monitor the return of the situation to normal! pic.twitter.com/U39qfRJUPi
— LEILA (@LeylaRostami) October 27, 2021
Though Iran has blamed unnamed foreign country for the cyberattack that caused disruption in fuel supply, it is also possible that those who hacked into the system were also from Iran. Though Israel and US have been reportedly involved in such acts in Iran in the past, it should also not be forgotten that a significant part of Iranian population which participated in the 2019 protests, is still as against the Khamenei regime as it was two years ago.
Ayatollah Khamenei not only faces hostile enemies in Israel and US, both tactically and militarily more powerful than the Islamic country, but also a big chunk of population which has been a direct victim of Khamenei’s foreign and economic policies.
Iran is at undeclared war with countries which posses vast resources to target it without actually using their military prowess. Moreover, Iran’s economy is collapsing under the sanctions. The conservative rulers of Iran have failed to manage the economy. Iran’s unemployment rate has been over 10% in the last ten years. In 2020, Iran had unemployment rate of 11.2%.
The authoritarian rule has ensured that democratic processes like elections are tampered with to appoint people who are hardliners. Iran’s current President Ebrahim Raisi, who himself was a hardline cleric, earlier worked as chief of Iran’s judiciary and is a close ally of the supreme leader. Iran’s ruler ensured that Raisi was elected as the president of the Islamic republic, even though the move triggered a voter boycott. Candidates who could have posed a serious challenge to him – including three reformists – were disqualified and prevented from participating in the election.
The cyberattack on Iran’s gas stations and billboards shows that Iran’s government is fighting as much resistance from the inside as it is subjected to by Western powers. Though a significant population of the country supports the supreme leader and the conservative values he preaches, the economic turmoil in the country has widely changed the perception among masses. After the 2019 protests, the supreme leader has been personally targeted in these cyberattacks.
It will be a respite for the Iran’s government if the hacking is found to be done by a foreign power, like the country has claimed. However, if the attack came from within, Ayatollah Khamenei has too many problems at hand and a short period of time until the Iranian public sentiment reaches tipping point, once again.