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Latest cyberattack on Iran targets oil export facilities

Computer servers at the government oil ministry and the National Iranian Oil Co. are the apparent target of a cyberattack via a data-deleting virus, Iranian officials have acknowledged. Previous attacks struck at Iran's nuclear program.

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Whether or not that's the message, it's clear that Iran has been hit with a barrage of cyberattacks, including Stuxnet, the world's first publicly identified cyber superweapon. In 2009 it began sabotaging Iran's Natanz nuclear centrifuge facility, eventually destroying 1,000 centrifuges and setting the program back by years, some experts say.

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Iran also has had to deal with Duqu, a sophisticated espionage program that appears to have targeted industrial networks inside the country. Another attack, about which little is understood, is said to involve a malicious cyberweapon that Iranian officials dubbed "Stars."

In response to this activity, Iran has said it is ramping up a cybermilitary unit. Hamdollah Mohammadnejad, deputy oil minister in charge of civil defense, also said a special unit had been set up to confront the Viper attack, the Associated Press reported.

Other possible messages from the Viper attack? Perhaps a warning about the US stealth drone that went down in Iran in December. Iran acknowledged the Viper attack on the day after Tehran announced it had reverse engineered the sophisticated drone and would begin developing an Iranian duplicate.

"Cyber attacks are much more elegant than saboteurs placing bombs at the facility. The Iranians must be really frustrated and will be desperate to retaliate," says James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"This is not a big, noisy violation of national sovereignty," Mr. Lewis adds. "And it just doesn't create the same level of outrage that an air attack or a commando team would create. It's low political risk – no worries about captured pilots or agents. This makes cyberattack attractive."

Others, however, say such cyberattacks won't succeed as a tool to press Iran to curtail its nuclear program, which Iran's foes see as a fig leaf for creating a nuclear bomb.

If that's the intent, "it's unlikely to be effective," says Douglas Shaw, assistant professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and an expert nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. Iran's defiance of the international community has been longstanding, he notes. It has also been hit already by more formidable cyberweapons, without any sign of undermining Iran's determination to continue with its nuclear program, he says.

The peril of using cyberweapons to sabotage Iran's oil exports is that such actions could trigger a cyberwar. 

"If you start engaging in cyberattacks with physical consequences, thereby blurring the line between increasing international pressure and war, that strikes me as unlikely to succeed," says Dr. Shaw. "If the Iranians ever think they can detect a return address [for these cyber attacks], then I think it's highly likely we will see escalation."

RECOMMENDED: What sanctions? Top five countries buying oil from Iran. 

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