Iran aims to disrupt 2020 elections via cyber hacking, intelligence officials say

'Trump's reelection is a nightmare for the ayatollahs,' analyst says. Tehran aims to inflame discord about COVID-19, U.S. officials add.

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January 2018 photo of Tehran, Iran
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Last Updated:
May 21, 2020 - 11:07pm

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Iranian state-sponsored hackers are targeting the United States in hopes of sowing discord about the pandemic and influencing the November elections, senior U.S. intelligence officials told Just the News.

“Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, the current U.S. president, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections," one official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence.

The cyber-warriors plan to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to stoke divisions among Americans, and as such are trying to harvest key material, the official said.

"Iran is targeting U.S. and international health organizations for COVID-19 information" and aims to release select information that would inflame discord, the official said.

The tactics are plucked from a longstanding Iranian playbook regarding the United States. Eight years ago during the 2012 election, Iran was strongly suspected of conducting debilitating cyberattacks on three major American banks. 

The denial-of-service attacks on J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citigroup likely signaled “increased capabilities of Iran’s so-called ‘cyber army’ and indicate that Tehran is escalating its covert war against America and its Western allies,” according to a 2012 report from the Langley Intelligence Group Network.

 

 

More recently, one Pentagon cyber analyst said, Iran has targeted U.S. electric utilities, along with oil and gas companies.

“They used very simplistic methods,” the analyst said, “guessing passwords and combinations of passwords.” 

The attacks are common knowledge within the security world, one security expert told Just the News.

“It’s fairly well known that the Iranian government has invested considerable resources into cyber hacking, and have done so for some time,” said Fred Fleitz, whose background includes being chief of staff to National Security Adviser John Bolton. 

The U.S., he said, is a choice target.

“Iran is a major American adversary,” Fleitz said. “I'm sure it wants to steal technology, learn about American weakness, meddle in our democracy, and steal economic secrets. I have no doubt the Iranians have an aggressive effort.”

The current attacks should be read in light of Iran’s own problems, one cyber expert said.

“Iran's attempt to interfere in U.S. elections must be analyzed in the context of its deep trouble domestically,” said Ramesh Sepehrrad, a cybersecurity executive. “With three rounds of major nationwide uprisings calling for regime change, widespread corruption added to the public's anger, and mismanagement, the cash-hungry regime is extremely vulnerable.” 

The mullahs hope that a change in American leadership will benefit their own regime, said Sepehrrad, who also is an advisory board member of the Organization of Iranian American Communities, which opposes the current regime in Iran and advocates for a new, democratic, and nuclear-free leadership in the country.

“Tehran's strategy is to buy time and survive until November, hoping that a potentially Democratic U.S. President would save them,” she said. “Therefore, given their absolute desperation to survive domestic unrest, economic disaster, and U.S. pressure, Trump's reelection is a nightmare for the ayatollahs.”

Government computer systems are well protected against attack, Fleitz said, but commercial systems — including those that contain information related to COVID-19 — are more vulnerable.

“We have pretty robust efforts to monitor foreign cyber threats,” Fleitz said. “The problem is, although the government is aware of it, frequently we find that private industry is not aware of it. It's hard to break into Pentagon computers, but easier to break into industry.” 

Iranian hackers lack technical skills and sophisticated equipment, the Pentagon analyst said. But they don’t need advanced technology to be effective.

“To compensate they use sophisticated methods of targeted phishing, spear phishing, cyber impersonation and disinformation campaigns to lure in targeted accounts into disclosing their credentials,” Sepehrrad added. “This approach also aligns with their overall strategy diplomatically and domestically."

The high stakes mean that the United States should remain particularly vigilant, the experts warned.

“Iran has lofty cyber ambitions, and we need to pay close attention,” the Pentagon analyst said.