US sanctions Iran for cyberattack on NATO ally: Albania

Quite possibly, the Biden administration sees Iran’s cyberattack on a NATO ally as one more way that recent Iranian actions serve Russian interests.
The Albanian flag next to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) flag. (Photo: Anadolu Agency)
The Albanian flag next to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) flag. (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – The US announced on Friday that it was imposing sanctions on Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and its head, Esmail Khatib, for a cyberattack against Albania in July.

Friday’s decision marked the second time in as many days that Washington has imposed sanctions on Iran. On Thursday, it announced sanctions on Iranian companies and individuals involved in the export of drones to Russia—which is using those Iranian-made drones in its assault on Ukraine, which is now the top US national security concern.

Read More: US sanctions Iranian companies for drone sales to Russia to use in Ukraine war

Notably, Albania is a member of NATO. It joined the alliance in 2009. Quite possibly, the Biden administration sees Iran’s cyberattack on a NATO ally as one more way that recent Iranian actions serve Russian interests and one more example of the increasingly close ties between Tehran and Moscow.

The new sanctions solidify a trend, noted last week by Kurdistan 24, after US President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The Biden administration appears increasingly willing to take on Iran.

Read More: Biden expresses support for Kadhimi in phone call

When the Biden administration first took office in January 2021, its regional policy was narrowly focused on reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Donald Trump left in 2018.

That focus caused Washington to avoid conflict with Iran, including in Iraq. And that worked to the disadvantage of the Kurdistan Region, as it left the Region exposed to Iranian aggression.

But over 18 months later, there is still no agreement on reviving the JCPOA, raising serious questions about Iranian intentions.

Moreover, Iran’s national security policy, particularly its alignment with Russia, gravely concerns the administration, given Moscow’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine—the most brutal conflict in Europe since World War II.

A recent series of steps suggest the US is moving away from the appeasement of Iran for the sake of reviving the JCPOA. They include more active US engagement in Iraq, in both Baghdad and Erbil, rather than just letting the situation drift.

Read More: Senior State Department official to visit Erbil

US Sanctions MOIS and Minister Esmail Khatib

The Treasury Department explained on Friday that it was sanctioning the MOIS and its minister “for engaging in cyber-enabled activities against the United Sates and its allies.”

“Since at least 2007, the MOIS and its cyber actor proxies have conducted malicious cyber operations targeting a range of government and private-sector organizations around the world, and across various critical infrastructure sectors,” it said.

Such an attack occurred two months ago, in mid-July. It “disrupted Albanian government computer systems, forcing the government to suspend online public services for its citizens,” Treasury explained.

NATO issued a statement denouncing the attack, although it does not appear to have taken any other measures.

“We stand in solidarity with Albania,” NATO said, and “strongly condemn such malicious cyber activities.”

Dispute between Albania and Iran

In 2014, Albania allowed some 3,000 members of the Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, to settle in a camp near Durres, its main port, as Reuters explained.

It is unclear why that would cause Iran—some eight years later—to attack Albania, but, perhaps, Iran thought the cyber-hacking would not be attributed to it. Possibly, also, its increasingly close ties with Moscow, contributed to an unusual boldness.

Following the announcement on Wednesday, of Tehran’s cyber-attack, Albania cut diplomatic ties with Iran, expelling diplomatic staff and giving them 24 hours to leave. On Thursday, with the embassy staff evacuated, Albanian Special Forces police took control of the compound and forced open the embassy door.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, advised Kurdistan 24 that the latest news “disproves the theory that the Islamic Republic’s threats can be limited to the Middle East.”

Indeed, the Biden administration has appeared relatively tolerant of aggressive Iranian action in the Middle East—but now that such belligerence extends to Europe and the effectiveness of NATO defenses against Russia and its allies, Washington is not prepared to ignore or discount it.

Ben Taleblu called for further action to address Iran’s malign activities, such as “exposing funding sources, targeting senior support personnel, and exposing and designating supply chains.”