Iran blames fuel shutdown on cyberattack from unnamed country

President Raisi says attack was aimed at ‘creating disorder and disruption,’ as a senior official says 80% of gas stations are back in operation

Cars and motorbikes queue to fill up at a service station in Iran's capital Tehran on October 26, 2021, amid a nationwide disruption of the petrol distribution system. (Atta KENARE / AFP)
Cars and motorbikes queue to fill up at a service station in Iran's capital Tehran on October 26, 2021, amid a nationwide disruption of the petrol distribution system. (Atta KENARE / AFP)

An Iranian official blamed a cyberattack that crippled gas stations across the country Tuesday on a foreign country, as authorities said that the issue was being resolved and fuel distribution was resuming nationwide.

The attack blocked the IT system that allows Iranians to fill their tanks for free or at subsidized prices with a digital card issued by authorities, leading to long lines and frustration as motorists became stranded without fuel.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said Wednesday that the cyberattack was designed to get “people angry by creating disorder and disruption.”

Raisi declined to point fingers at whoever was responsible for the incident, but added 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 make problems in trend of people’s life.”

A senior Iranian official said Wednesday that the cyberattack affected all of the Islamic Republic’s 4,300 gas stations. But according to the state-run IRNA news agency, 80% of Iran’s gas stations had begun selling fuel again by Wednesday morning, the official said.

Abolhassan Firoozabadi, a top official in Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace, told state broadcaster IRIB that the attack had apparently been carried out by a foreign country, though it was too early to name suspects. He also linked the attack to another one that targeted Iran’s rail system in July, in comments reported by the IRNA.

“There is a possibility that the attack, like a previous one on railway system, has been conducted from abroad,” Firouzabadi said.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council earlier confirmed that the disruption had been caused by a cyberattack, state television said. “Details of the attack and its source are under investigation,” state TV added, without giving further details.

A worker leans against a gasoline pump that has been turned off, at a gas station in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Fereidoon Hassanvand, the head of Iran’s parliamentary energy commission, said the gas stations had been hit by a “targeted operation,” Iran’s Tasnim news outlet reported.

Javad Owji, the country’s oil minister, told IRIB that authorities expected all gas stations to be back online by Wednesday afternoon. He added that specialists were working on bolstering security for the fuel cards.

The cyberattack bore similarities to another attack months earlier that seemed to directly challenge Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country’s economy buckles under American sanctions. Those economic problems worsen as the US and Iran have yet to jointly reenter Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

The semiofficial ISNA news agency said it saw those trying to buy fuel with a government-issued card through the machines instead receive a message reading “cyberattack 64411.” Most Iranians rely on those subsidies to fuel their vehicles, particularly amid the country’s economic problems.

While ISNA didn’t acknowledge the number’s significance, that number is associated with a hotline run through Khamenei’s office that handles questions about Islamic law. ISNA later removed its reports, claiming that it too had been hacked. Such claims of hacking can come quickly when Iranian outlets publish news that angers the theocracy.

Video reportedly shot in the Iranian city of Ishfan shows a billboard with message reading “Khamenei, where is our gasoline?” amid a possible cyberattack affecting gas stations across Iran, October 26, 2021. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Farsi-language satellite channels abroad published videos apparently shot by drivers in Isfahan, a major Iranian city, showing electronic billboards there reading: “Khamenei! Where is our gas?” Another said: “Free gas in Jamaran gas station,” a reference to the home of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Interior Minister Ahmed Vahidi on Tuesday said that there are no plans to raise gas prices, calling on people “not to worry,” in remarks to state TV.

Iran on one side and the US and Israel on the other regularly accuse each other of cyberattacks. Israeli cyber experts on Tuesday told the Kan public broadcaster that this week’s cyberattack on Iran appeared to have been carried out by serious hackers: “We’re not talking about kids, but rather professional hackers — which doesn’t rule out them being backed by a state government.”

In 2010 the Stuxnet virus — believed to have been engineered by Israel and the US — infected Iran’s nuclear program, causing a series of breakdowns in centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

In 2019 Iran said that no cyberattack against the Islamic Republic had ever succeeded, after American media reported the US launched one during a standoff between the two countries.

The Iranian telecommunications minister acknowledged at the time that Iran had “been facing cyber terrorism.”

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