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US girds for cyber threats from Iran as military clash fears ebb

Washington (AFP) - Iran is widely expected to ramp up cyberattacks against the United States in response to the US killing of a top Iranian leader this month even as fears have receded about a military confrontation between the two countries.

The simmering tensions since the US drone attack that killed Qasem Soleimani, who was by some measures the second most influential person in Iran, make it likely that Iran will seek retaliation.

While Iran appeared to be "standing down" from a military response, according to US President Donald Trump, the cyber threat remains real, said analysts.

"Cyber is the easiest way Iran can have a direct effect on the US homeland," said Jon Bateman, a former Pentagon intelligence official who is a cyber policy fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"I don't think we should believe everything is over."

Bateman said Iran has pulled back some of its cyber efforts against the United States in recent years but "has a lot of tools in its toolkit" which could be used against America or US allies.

These could include attacks on infrastructure such as electric or water utilities, ransomware which can be used to destroy or delete data from a company or government entity, or disinformation on social media aimed at sowing discord ahead of the US election, Bateman said.

Analysts say cyberattacks offer Iran a way to act against the US without directly challenging the American military.

James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Iran appears to have "picked up the pace of reconnaissance" to prepare for a cyber intrusion.

"They may want to do something dramatic and symbolic," he said.

"They are relatively cautious, they plan ahead. They have been developing cyber attack capabilities for at least five years, so it's now a political question."

- 'More pronounced' threat now -

John Dickson, a former air force intelligence officer and now an executive with the Denim Group consultancy, said the security community should not let its guard down because some time has elapsed since the drone attack. Read More

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