4-2: On Cyberwarfare

The secrecy surrounding every country’s nuclear capabilities has been the key to the strategic diplomacy that has bought the world some extra time, thereby bringing about an era of stability. As David Sanger writes, the most brilliant part of the US strategy to take down the Iranian nuclear program is the psychological element to it. Israel, in another example of psychological warfare, takes out the key scientists who are working on the nuclear program at Shahid Beheshti University in order to create fear within the scientific community and turn off the scientists from working on the project that might otherwise be appealing. A psychological effect of cyber warfare is uncertainty. It makes an attack difficult to define and it is practically untraceable. Uncertainty creates too many options, and an option for one possibility may be a disastrous course of action for another.

An attack that is meant to disable is indistinguishable from the routine technological failures that occur in every day life. A cyber attack does not look like an attack, because it is non-violent in the conventional sense of that term. This poses a problem of proportionality in warfare. Furthermore, even if an attack is defined with some reasonable certainty, if the target is initially a secret, it is difficult to know what to do about it without compromising valuable information. What this points to is a necessity for creating new norms and rules for cyber attacks: first, how do we define them and what is “permissible?,” and second, what would a proportional response look like? One interesting thing I found about the article was about the precautions the United States took so that the computer virus would not violate certain codes of war: for example, the virus could not disrupt hospitals or schools, and had to be confined strictly to the Iranian centrifuges.

There is one critical issue with subtle warfare like cyber warfare, which is that it does not eliminate any threats. As David Sanger wisely asks, what is the difference between a nuclear-capable Iran that aspires and is close to being a nuclear power, and an Iran that is a nuclear power? Both versions of Iran are hostile to the United States. Although I don’t know the answer to this question, I think that eliminating secrecy through UN measures of accountability (much like the IAEA keeps—although I am not necessarily against these) is not necessarily the answer. After all, Iran’s tight spot when it came to responding to Stuxnet was that much of its technologies were secret in the first place. — Adriana