UK teams with Gulf countries to deter Iranian cyber attacks

The UK says efforts to bring Iran back in line with nuclear deal are tougher because of US policies

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 19:  Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (C) welcomes British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (R) and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) to a meeting in the so-called E3 format at Villa Borsig on June 19, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. According to the German Foreign Ministry, the meeting served to exchange information on current bilateral, European and other international issues. (Photo by Bernd von Jutrczenka-Pool/Getty Images)

The UK is working with Gulf countries to help them develop their defences against subversion and cyber attacks because of deep concerns over Iran’s destabilising activity across the region.

Britain is increasing its range of tools to respond to Iranian hacking and increasing its work with regional allies, the country’s foreign ministry said in a submission to MPs investigating the effectiveness of the UK’s policies towards Tehran.

It said that Iran was a “competent” actor in cyberspace and widely considered to be behind cyber attacks across the aerospace, finance and oil and gas sectors. It cited experts as suggesting Iran was behind the Shamoon virus that targeted Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 2012 and 2017.

The UK also condemned an attack centred on Iran’s Mabna Institute that committed cyber attacks against universities around the world. The US in 2018 laid charges against nine Iranians who tried to break into more than 300 universities in 22 countries to steal and sell data to Iranian customers, including the government. It was carrying out the work on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to the FBI.

“In addition to deterring this activity, we are also increasing the capability of our partners to defend against cyber threats,” said the document from the Foreign Office.

“The UK maintains strategic relationships with GCC states to help them develop their defences against Iranian subversion and asymmetric cyber attacks.”

The seven-page submission covers broad British policy objectives in dealing with Iran. The UK’s priority remains preventing Iran from securing a nuclear weapon and also to secure the release of British citizens held in Iranian jails.

The paper was released before the world nuclear watchdog rebuked Iran on Friday for refusing inspectors access to two sites. The resolution, brought by the UK, France and Germany, was part of tougher stance against Iran as they also on Friday backed an extension of a UN arms embargo. The ban on selling non-nuclear weapons to Iran had been set to be progressively eased from October.

The Foreign Office said it was “clear-eyed about our ability to bring Iran back into compliance on our own”.

It added: “US maximum pressure and Iran’s response of maximum resistance have undoubtedly complicated our efforts and increased tensions.

“Without a major shift in US and Iranian policy, our work will continue to be challenging.”

The ministry has been criticised for its failure to secure the release of detainees, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, British-Iranian dual nationals, who have been held on trumped-up charges by the Iranian regime.

Families say they have been told by diplomatic staff that the UK has more dual nationals detained in Iran’s prisons than any other country. Campaigners say they believe about 10 were held at the start of 2020.

“We will continue our efforts to de-escalate tensions in the region and secure the release of all British-Iranian dual nationals arbitrarily detained in Iran,” the ministry said.