Mahmud slammed the door as he entered his modest house in Tehran. His wife was angry too. For 10 days their lives had been disturbed by various intermittent defects, failures and disruptions. Today, it had taken Mahmud three hours to drive four miles across the city as all traffic lights had gradually remained red, causing gridlock and slow speed collisions at most key junctions. At work, the computers his design company relied upon had repeatedly frozen and basic utilities were frequently interrupted, but not to a pattern that could be adapted to, and only for periods that caused inconvenience, not an emergency.
People would have complained to the government but its web portal was off-line and the modern telephone systems in government departments (but strangely not the Ministry of Health) were proving unreliable. Even the state run media apparatus seemed to be malfunctioning. Weight of digital traffic had closed down a number of state computer systems, whilst others appeared to be suffering from a wave of malicious software programmes. The IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) was broadcasting some government messages but often to only local audiences as national transmissions suffered repeated interruptions. Confused, frustrated and unable to command the adherence they were used to, some clerics on the overseeing Assembly of Experts began to worry the Executive no longer controlled the population. With a legislative election due in March, the apparent loss of centrally held electoral databases was a particular concern.
The internet in Iran appeared to have adopted a mind of its own. Spurious e-mails, texts and Tweets promoting various rumours spread seemingly unhindered, fuelling popular suspicion and distrust. Social messaging services went into overdrive multiplying messages a thousand times, swamping servers and causing many people to block all incoming traffic to their personal accounts. An added annoyance was that many bogus messages were in minority Kurdish, Arabic and Turkic languages. Personal and commercial communication had become difficult. Most of Iran’s 26 million landline telephones were working but each household in Tehran was receiving about 50 random calls a day from unknown sources and often during the night, adding to the general disruption and irritation with life. The 50 million mobile phone users in Iran suffered fewer random calls, but then their service was routinely only available for 12 hours a day.
Elsewhere, Iran’s statist economy was struggling. Deliveries of goods were disrupted by errors in dispatch, invoicing and delivery addresses. Bills went unpaid, government employees found that their electronic personnel records had been deleted or amended; those on the state payroll had not received their monthly pay and intermittent failures of cash machines and accounting systems had generated queues at many banks as people withdrew their savings. Confidence in financial institutions was collapsing and there were early signs that people were panic buying food, petrol, and other commodities. Some state-owned oil, gas and coal plants had stopped production until problems with computer-based control and safety systems were resolved, and the slow degradation of civilian air traffic control systems had seen all international airlines cease flights into Iranian airspace.
The state police, regular military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces had adopted a high level of readiness in response to the deteriorating situation but been hampered by repeated spurious or contradictory orders which could not be authenticated, and the regular appearance of Basij Forces militia members who had received bogus mobilisation notices. The military had also found that many of its computer based Command & Control systems were not functioning correctly, and the suspicion fuelled by erroneous messages on the internet and government communications systems was cultivating a growing friction amongst security personnel who were prone to paranoia. Whilst convinced it was under cyber-attack by foreign enemies, intelligence, surveillance and patrolling indicated there was no unusual foreign military activity in the Gulf region - the burgeoning threat to the Tehran regime was not that of an external attack but of a disintegration of government control as instability engulfed Iranian society.
Mahmud vented his frustration with an uncharacteristic tirade. It wasn’t aimed at his wife but they argued anyway, until the telephone rang…
A fictitious scenario of course, but we appear to be rushing headlong toward a military ‘solution’ to the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambition it raises a serious point. Historically, states pressurise errant regimes through diplomatic, economic or military means. Sometimes a dual-track approach of ‘carrot’ (diplomatic persuasion) and ‘stick’ (economic or military coercion) is used, but usually crises follow a sequence of early diplomacy, economic sanctions, ‘last chance’ diplomacy, and finally military force. Although this sequence may take many months, where time is short recourse to military action may be necessary before economic pressure has taken effect. Thus we find ourselves ramping up economic sanctions against Iran with one eye on the clock and the other on potential military options, for when diplomacy fails nations are only two steps from war, and dangerously so when insufficient time is available for economic measures to produce a desired outcome.
The present discourse on how to change Iran’s nuclear ambition is dominated by this historic triumvirate of diplomacy, economic sanctions and military force, but this obsolescent model neglects the coercive opportunities presented by today’s technology. As a society becomes increasingly reliant on computers, software and information systems to function correctly, new vulnerabilities are created that offer possibilities to disrupt everyday life in numerous ways and to varying degrees. This potential is no longer science fiction and crucially it provides another means of pressuring a regime without resort to military action. In the second decade of the 21st Century it is time a fourth option - national disturbance - is placed on the table with other coercive options.
Using measures to create national disturbance raises the obvious question are they an act of war? As ‘cyber-attack’ is already in the military lexicon and the targeting of enemy computer-based systems is a growing element of modern warfare, at first glance it seems that they would be. Yet they might cause little concrete or lasting damage to a national infrastructure and no more casualties or physical suffering among a population than effective economic sanctions would. As such, they fall within the existing debate of whether any coercive action against a state constitutes warfare and should not be considered differently. Rather, as they share common traits with both economic sanctions and military force, national disturbance measures could provide a blend of effects from within existing civil and military options. Perhaps most importantly, they might replace the current abrupt transition from economic pressure to martial force with a more progressive application of coercion that makes recourse to military violence less likely.
A number of factors would shape the effectiveness of national disturbance measures, including the level of dependence on computers and information systems within the target society, the degree of resilience (e.g. redundancy) in those systems, and the type, number and duration of measures employed. It would be wrong to view them as a silver bullet, and like all coercive actions they could have unintended effects, but if used successfully against key elements of the Tehran regime they might exert sufficient leverage to defer the need for military force. Why? Because they exploit a fundamental weakness in totalitarian governments - fear of losing control.
A centralised state like Iran must control its population, so measures which disrupt that power undermine regime authority, pose a troubling existential threat, and attract commensurate attention and concern. By generating a national disturbance with the worrying combination of state dysfunction, public unrest and apparent regime impotence it is possible to harness an oppressive regime’s inherent vulnerabilities: the imperative to demonstrate control, and the need for a compliant population; and to do so without firing a shot.
Tehran may fear an externally imposed regime change - that is probably the key driver in the Ayatollahs’ determination to obtain a nuclear weapon - but Iran’s leaders must recognise that an international military invasion to depose the government is not only politically implausible but also practically impossible. Instead, it is the fear of rebellion that Western governments should exploit to seize Tehran’s attention. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and crucially Iran’s ally, Syria, the power of popular revolt is clear, so if the international community wishes to influence Tehran’s nuclear ambition then it should exploit what Iran fears most and it can do so through cultivating national disturbance.
As a crisis with Iran draws ever closer the stakes involved demand that military force is not used too soon. In this decade, states have the potential to add a fourth option to the traditional policy tools of diplomacy, economic sanctions and military action - national disturbance. It is time that alternative was fully explored, developed and utilised. For if it has utility then in a scenario with no good choices it just might prevent a war.