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Iran official blames Israel, US for cyberattack that crippled gas stations

Head of civil defense, however, says technical investigation still ongoing; Iran’s president had stopped short of assigning blame

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

Iran’s head of civil defense on Saturday blamed Israel and the United States for a cyberattack this week that crippled gas stations across the country.

“We are still unable to say forensically, but analytically I believe it was carried out by the Zionist regime, the Americans and their agents,” Gholamreza Jalali told state TV in an interview, according to Reuters.

He said the investigation was still ongoing, however.

Iran’s president said Wednesday the cyberattack was designed to get “people angry by creating disorder and disruption.” Ebrahim Raisi’s remarks stopped short of assigning blame for the attack, which rendered useless the government-issued electronic cards that many Iranians use to buy subsidized fuel at the pump.

However, they suggested that he and others in the theocracy believe anti-Iranian forces carried out an assault likely designed to inflame the country as the second anniversary of a deadly crackdown on nationwide protests over gasoline prices approaches.

Earlier this week, an Iranian official tweeted in Hebrew that the “enemy’s goal” of fomenting unrest through gas shortages had been thwarted.

“Although the defenses of the passive frontline were inactivated by a cyber attack, the rear guard thwarted enemy’s goal of rioting in Iran through coordinated and timely action by the executive, security and communication agencies,” tweeted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, in his second tweet this week in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Persian.

“Intelligent management in October 2021 reveals the recklessness of October 2019,” he said, presumably referring to the deadly fuel riots that took place at the end of 2019 in Iran.

Iran has in the past blamed Israel of provoking unrest during protests. In July, Iran claimed to have arrested a Mossad cell that planned to provoke violence during demonstrations over water shortages in the country.

Tuesday’s cyberattack 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.

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

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.

The cyberattack seemed to directly challenge Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country’s economy buckles under American sanctions.

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

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.

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.”

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)

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.

Iran disconnected much of its infrastructure from the internet after the Stuxnet virus.

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.”

In August, a cyberattack led to the leaking of video of abuses at Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

On Saturday, hackers believed to be linked to Iran breached an Israeli internet hosting company, taking down several of its sites and leaking personal data online.

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