TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- Israel and the United States are bracing for serious cyberattacks, with Iran seen as the most likely instigator, from a virus dubbed Shamoon which hit Saudi and Qatari energy companies in August to escalate the new battlefront emerging in the Middle East.
The attacks, which apparently originated in the Islamic Republic as it squares off against Saudi Arabia and the Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf, were widely perceived as Tehran's response to a new wave of cyberattacks.
These were presumably carried out by the Americans and Israelis using the recently discovered Mini-Flame malware described by experts as a "high precision, surgical tool."
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned of "increasing attempts to carry out cyberattacks on computer infrastructure in the State of Israel, presumably by Iran.
"Every day there are attempts, even many attempts, to infiltrate Israel's computer systems," he said.
Netanyahu, who in 2011 established the National Cyber Bureau to develop defenses against cyberattack and new malware to target the military, financial and industrial infrastructure of Israel's enemies, said the country needed "a digital Iron Dome to defend against computer terrorism."
Iron Dome is a unique counter-rocket defense system, developed by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, that has proved highly effective against rockets fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip since March 2011.
The Israeli military boasts Iron Dome has intercepted 90 percent of the missiles it engaged, although military sources say the ratio's closer to 75 percent.
The expanding cyber threat will be the primary focus of the Second International Conference on Homeland Security in Israel scheduled for November.
The development of cyber weapons has accelerated lately, spurred in large part by Israeli and U.S. efforts to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, which these powers claim is a cover for a clandestine drive to acquire nuclear weapons.
Tehran denies that, but there seems little doubt that Israel and the United States have been directing cyberattacks against Iran since at least 2009.
These attacks haven't been limited to Tehran's nuclear project, particularly its uranium enrichment program that's the core of any nuclear arms effort. In recent months, Iran's oil industry and other non-nuclear endeavors have also been hit.
These attacks began with the Stuxnet malware in 2009-10, followed by other viruses and worms known as Duqu, W32.Flame, Gauss and most recently Mini-Flame.
It's widely believed now that if Israel or the United States decide to mount pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure, these will be preceded by massive electronic warfare offensives, including cyberattacks designed to knock out Iranian command-and-control networks and the like.
The objective of these operations with the ballistic, cruise missile and airstrikes that would follow would be to cripple Iran's capability to retaliate.
The journal Foreign Affairs noted in August: "We can assume that besides the three major viruses ... there are already several more next-generation cyber attacks going on against Iran."
The Iranians, initially caught napping by Israel and U.S. cyber operations, have been racing to narrow the gap.
The Shamoon virus, apparently used for the first time, crippled the computer system of Saudi Arabia's state oil monopoly, Aramco, in August. More than 300,000 computers were disabled.
Soon after, a similar attack hit Rasgas, a joint venture between Exxon Mobil of the United States and state-owned Qatar Petroleum, in the gas-rich emirate neighboring the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is the world's leading oil producer and Qatar is one of the top exporters of natural gas.
Both companies were able to recover after a couple of weeks, although informed source report that problems still linger, and that both remain vulnerable to cyberattack.
Multiply those operations across the Persian Gulf region, and the Iranians might not need to carry out their threat to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the gulf, to cut off one-third of the world's oil supplies that pass through that narrow waterway.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned American companies Oct. 11 they're vulnerable to cyberattacks on their computer networks as Iran's capabilities improve and Tehran turns the tables of its tormentors.
The Shamoon assaults, Panetta declared, were "the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date."
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