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Science & Technology

Surge In Cyberattacks Signals Strength Of Iran's Hard-Liners

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Iran appears to be stepping up its cyberattacks here in the U.S. Journalists, academics, and Obama administration officials have all been targets. The U.S. had hoped that the nuclear deal with Iran would encourage better relations between the two countries, but Iranian hard-liners seem to be flexing their muscles, and cyberattacks are just one example of that. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A Washington think tank expert, Haleh Esfandiari of the Wilson Center, recently received an odd looking email from an Iranian-American named Siamak Namazi. Now she knows that Namazi is being held by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which seized his computer and appears to be launching cyberattacks from it.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I didn't open the attachment. I notified the people at the Wilson Center and they said, you know, Haleh, to be on the safe side. They changed my computer and my password and so on. So I was not hacked.

KELEMEN: Other academics and journalists have been hacked, and State Department officials say they have noticed an uptick in cyber intrusions in the U.S. government too. White House spokesman Josh Earnest though, isn't making a big deal out of it, saying the U.S. is always on the lookout for malicious activities in cyberspace.

JOSH EARNEST: White House officials receiving emails with bad intentions would not be accurately characterized as breaking news.

KELEMEN: State Department officials say they often face cyberattacks from Iran and wouldn't speculate about the motivations for the recent intrusions or directly link them to Namazi's arrest. Esfandiari points out that Iran's supreme leader has been talking a lot lately about the dangers of a Western cultural onslaught and has empowered the Revolutionary Guard to counter that.

ESFANDIARI: They were already arresting people but the supreme leader gave them, I think, a carte blanche to do what they like, and with no accountability to anybody.

KELEMEN: President Hassan Rouhani has criticized some recent arrests but can't do much more, Esfandiari says. She adds that the U.S. and Europe should do more to highlight what's happening now in Iran to make it clear to Iran's supreme leader that these arrests and cyberattacks could hurt chances for international investment.

ESFANDIARI: There is this big infighting going on, and unless President Rouhani convinces the supreme leader that this needs to be stopped - he needs to be able to assure the security of foreigners who go to Iran - we won't see an end to it.

KELEMEN: There is little the U.S. can do to influence that internal struggle though, says Ariane Tabatabai. The Georgetown University professor says she thinks hard-liners who oppose the nuclear deal are just trying to re-assert themselves.

ARIANE TABATABAI: It is extremely important to start implementing this deal because Iran is not just a nuclear challenge, it is a challenge beyond that. It is a challenge in terms of its regional activities. It's a challenge in terms of its cyber capabilities. It has a missile program.

KELEMEN: And taking the nuclear threat out of that equation could help the U.S. focus on everything else. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.