The Psychology Behind Israel-Iran Cyber Warfare

How serious was Iran’s alleged cyber strike on Israel’s water supply, and why were details of the revenge attack leaked? The answers may be trickier than it seems.

Psychology of cyber warfare (Photo: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)

Cyber operations, by their very nature, are executed behind closed doors in well-guarded rooms. This allows countries engaged in this type of warfare to manipulate information about their activities more easily. The latest escalation in the Israel-Iran cyber war is a prime example.

Take the alleged Iranian cyberattack on Israel’s water infrastructure in April. The initial Ynet report suggested that the strike was extensive but caused minor damage. Later, Ynet said that the offensive targeted six water facilities nationwide. The exact nature of the incident remained vague.

But then things got more interesting. Another report, in Haaretz, said that the strike targeted dozens of sites, not just six. Other journalists suggested that Iran tried to harm Israel’s water supply with chemicals, namely chlorine.

So what really happened? Analyzing the different reports is difficult because Israel has reasons to both understate and overstate the extent of the strike. Officials may wish to downplay the incident as not to give Iran credit, avoid embarrassment, and prevent panic. However, an exaggerated account would provide a pretext to strike back forcefully.

The divergent reports could also serve to confuse the enemy. Whoever carried out the operation may not be fully aware of its outcome, and conflicting information furthers the sense of uncertainty.

The Great Cyber Dilemma

Then came the alleged response. According to the Washington Post, Israel retaliated by disrupting the activity of a major Iranian port and creating huge backups for days. While the rationale for such attack is clear, the decision to leak it may seem puzzling.

To create deterrence, Israel wants Iran to know who carried out this cyberattack. But observers have noted that the Iranians surely knew who was responsible even without the publicity. Others wrote that this was just needless boasting on Israel’s part. However, another psychological element of cyber warfare may have been at play.

In launching a cyber assault, the attackers know that they are revealing some of their capabilities to the enemy. This creates a constant dilemma about whether to strike, and how. The latest events could signal that Israel or Iran — or both — are interested in goading the other into striking now, to prepare for an all-out war later.

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One way or another, Israeli defense officials believe that an Iranian counterpunch may be imminent. Such strike could very well trigger a severe Israeli response. While the essence of this battle is technological, managing it is reminiscent of a high-stakes chess game.

Now, Israel waits for Iran’s next move.