Significance and Implications of Hacktivists Releasing Iranian Nuclear Documents

ByDr. Mohammed zahed

Iran over the years has faced cyberattacks, with key government apparatuses and installations targeted by hackers. A new twist amid the ongoing protests in response to the death of Mahsa Amini is a new successful hack of the email system of Iran’s Nuclear Power Production and Development Company. The hacktivist group Black Reward claimed responsibility and threatened to release the hacked documents – 50 gigabytes of data – If the Iranian government did not release all political prisoners and protestors who had been detained over the last month. The group stated on social media, “The published documents contain the contracts of Iran Atomic Energy Production and Development Company with domestic and foreign partners, management and operational schedules of Bushehr power plant, identity details and pay stubs of engineers and employees of the company as well as passports and visas of Iranian and Russian specialists of Bushehr power plant.” The group also mentioned that “unlike Westerners, we do not flirt with criminal clerics, and if we promise something, we fulfil it 100%.” At the moment, it not known whether the documents include sensitive information regarding Iran’s nuclear program or not, and time is needed for the documents to be studied and analyzed. However, the hacking is very significant and has numerous implications for the Iranian government,  particularly for its image of power and strength that is projected to the Iranian people in the context of the ongoing national uprisings and Iran-West tensions against the backdrop of the stalled nuclear talks in Vienna.

First, the timing of the hack is very important, as it has happened when the Iranian government is facing vast domestic pressures in response to the killing of Amini by the morality police. The ongoing protests have spread like wildfire and are continuing with more Iranians taking to the streets despite facing police brutality. This is a major domestic threat to the Iranian government, and its most serious since the 1979 Iranian revolution, especially as cracks have appeared with some clerics and former government loyalists breaking away from the official state narrative of the mandatory wearing of the hijab and criticizing the government’s approach toward the protestors. With this domestic pressure building, the last thing the government needed was another breach of its security, particularly of its clandestine nuclear program. This is another embarrassment for the government, as it has prided itself on developing layers of unbreachable security and presenting itself as an all-powerful unassailable structure  that is impenetrable and secure from all external threats. The Iranian government will be in a state of flux and paranoia at this time, with it facing internal and external security breaches and threats. Second, depending on the details of the released documents, they could end any Iranian hopes of reviving the nuclear deal, with the talks at an impasse for months now. American hands could be squeezed by Western partners to force concessions and guarantees from the Iranians which they are unlikely to be happy with or consent to. Although the Bushehr plant is under IAEA supervision, details of contracts, foreign partners and procurements could all embarrass the Iranian government and invite additional pressures if it is found to be further violating its nuclear obligations while it has been negotiating at Vienna. Third, the Iranian government has consistently mentioned how it has invested a vast array of resources in boosting the country’s cybersecurity capabilities, despite these claims, Iran’s key apparatuses and installations continue to be targeted and hacked, exposing the holes and weaknesses in the country’s cybersecurity infrastructure. This further leads to a lack of confidence in the government’s capabilities, with the Iranian people already accusing it of inefficiency and mismanagement when it comes to the economic and social domains. All elements of power and strength that the government prides itself on are crashing down or being exposed as equivalent to a house of cards. These are precarious times for the government, with it facing uphill battles on all fronts. Fourth, the Iranian government has accused “a foreign hand” of being involved in this latest hack; in the past it has pointed the finger of blame at Israel. As a result, we are likely to see an escalation in Iranian-Israeli cyberconflicts, with this domain quickly turning into an expression of the balance of power equation in the region, with Tehran and Tel Aviv flexing their technical muscles and capabilities to shift the equation in their favor. Although Israel’s cyber-capabilities are far superior to Iran’s, this is unlikely to deter an Iranian reaction. In fact, a reaction would be in the Iranian government’s interest, as it would deflect attention from its domestic worries and help in building up hyper-nationalism in the face of Israeli threats like it has done recently through attacking Iranian-Kurdish dissident bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. The nationalism card is always used at difficult times, but this time it is likely to fail, especially as the government’s tactics and ploys are well known to the Iranian people who are fed up and want radical political and socioeconomic change for the betterment of their lives and future generations to come.

To conclude, dark days face the Iranian government with little room for maneuver, the holes in its armory are being exposed day by day, and it does not have the resources or capacity to fight a battle on multiple fronts. This security breach is a boost for the protestors as it exposes the actual weaknesses of the government that has projected itself as a leviathan over the decades. 

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Dr. Mohammed zahed
Dr. Mohammed zahed
Researcher and Laison Representative at Rasanah IIIS