Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

Tension between Iran and the United States has heightened with the revelation that the United States, along with Israel, launched the Stuxnet cybersabotage directed against Iran’s nuclear program back in 2010. This comes as no surprise to Iran, which suspected this all along.

Wall Street Journal writer Siobhan Gorman spoke with a former U.S. official connected to the Stuxnet attack who claimed the cybersabotage was “part of a larger campaign” and a “preferable alternative to airstrikes.” After quoting this former official, Gorman moved on to illuminate the groups connected with developing the technology for the attack: the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Idaho National Laboratory (run by the Department of Energy), and the Department of Homeland Security.

I find it strange that Gorman did not discuss the Department of Defense. Writing with Julian Barnes last year, Gorman reported on a decision from the Pentagon that cyber-attacks against America could be classified as acts of war. This announcement came ahead of a Pentagon report, expected to appear the following month, explaining its decision about cyber-attacks being acts of war.

The document, titled “Department of Defense Cyberspace Policy Report,” wasn’t published until November of last year, but it explained what Gorman said it would. Drawing from the United Nations Charter on what constitutes an act of war, the report argued that “some activities conducted in cyberspace could constitute a use of force, and may as well invoke a state’s inherent right to lawful self-defense.” The words “some” and “may” make the statement vague and open to interpretation, but it’s clear enough that cyber attacks are classifiable as acts of war.

Earlier in the report, it explains that the United States is working with its allies to improve its cyber-defenses in order to defend the “strategic calculus.” Furthermore, it states that attacks meant to cripple America’s cyber-infrastructure would be taking a “grave risk,” bound to be responded to by the Commander in Chief with “all means necessary.”

So, then, what Gorman did not note, but dearly needs noting, is that the United States, by its own official position, carried out an act of war against Iran.

Iran can easily make the case that their nuclear energy is a crucial component of its national economy (especially with the severe sanctions imposed upon it the world over). According to the Cyberspace Policy Report, economy, along with military and government, are the three key areas that merit national response if cyber-attacked. After all, a United States military official warned potential cyber-aggressors to expect an even more violent response: “If you shut down our [America’s] power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.” It’s doubtful Iran will respond immediately according to this idea, but based on the military official’s perspective, they certainly reserve the right to do so—“with all means necessary”—at this point.

Let us recall the words of Christ regarding hypocrisy, double-standards, and the likes: “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3) Considering the Department of Defense document came out over a year after America’s cyber-attack of Iran, it’s quite apparent that America forgives (or overlooks) its own acts of war in the name of national defense, security, and the preservation of its interests. America would no doubt leap, however, to quickly respond to cyber-attacks by others against it as acts of war. It should thus be no surprise that America is accused of hypocrisy and hegemonic imperialism.

I agree that Iran having nuclear weapons is by no means ideal. Yet we must wonder if Iran can be blamed for potentially pursuing nuclear weapons as a deterrent when it lives with the daily threat of military action against it by Israel and now the knowledge that future cyber-attacks, even more aggressive than 2010’s Stuxnet, could be imminent. Iran, too, has national interests and concerns about national defense, even if those interests aren’t America’s.

See also: Not Fit for Dinner: The Faith Policy of Rick Santorum


  1. Another great article, Ryan.

    A parallel with this is how SecDef Panetta spoke of being upset with Pakistan’s lack of cooperation in the WOT. Well, we routinely violate their airspace and kill (along with “suspected militants”) their citizens. These are clearly acts of war, yet WE are upset with THEM.

    “American Exceptionalism” used to mean something noble. Now it just means that we can do whatever the hell (not profanity, but an accurate description of our actions) we want.

    Back to Iran, looking at http://www.juancole.com/2011/12/iran-has-us-surrounded-all-right.html it is clear that Iran would certainly not be paranoid to peruse nuclear weapons (not that there is proof that they actually are). And remember now their nuclear scientists have been wacked in acts of terror (if not by the US then at least with our tacit approval).

    My God, what kind of sick nation have we become?

  2. This is a misunderstanding of the situation. Let’s move it back a hundred years or so. Airplanes were new technology. They were about to be used in WWI for the first time in combat, just a few years later. It would have been possible, in 1912, for the US War Department (as it was then called) to have defined air-to-air combat as an act of war, and to advocate defensive measures against it, if used against the USA. Would that mean that the US could NOT use airplanes in warfare a year, or six years, later? Of course not!

    In the same vein, the US today has defined Cyberattacks as an act of war. This does not mean that the US cannot use Cyberattacks when it believes its own national interests are threatened. In response to the comment near the end of this post, the US has national interests, the same as any other country, and has the same right to protect those interests as any other country. (It is always possible for the US, as for other countries, to misread a situation, to make errors, including making the wrong response. But other nations do this as well. It would be more productive to ask the question of whether any US interests were threatened and whether the response was proper or not, rather than to accuse the US of using a tactic defined as “an act of war” in pursuit of those interests.)

  3. Fred, I don’t agree with your analogy. Saying that the use of a particular weapon may be an “act of war” does not mean that it cannot be used in wartime, as it appear you suggested calling ariel attacks “acts of war” would preclude using them in WW I.

    Rather, we have not (yet) declared war against Iran, yet we pursue hostile actions against that nation (as we did in 1953, when we overthrew the elected government of Iran to install a dictator there.)

    Does this not seem unjust?

  4. Fred, it’s well to keep in mind that acts of war are permissible when a nation is at war. To take up your example of airplanes circa 1912, I do not disagree that the use of planes then would be merited for combat measures beginning in 1917, when the US entered World War I.

    In the case of Iran, however, no war has been declared against Iran (yet). There is no combat going on between Iranian and American soldiers (unless you count Iranian-born Al-Qaeda operatives, in which case the “war” is with individuals, not Iran as a nation). The state of affairs with Iran is by no means pleasant or at ease — but America has not officially declared war against it.

    Now, if America did declare war against Iran and then launched the Stuxnet attack, that might be one thing — and a potentially defensible course of action. But to launch what a nation itself deems an act of war outside of a declaration of war is an act of aggression, classified as a major crime in international law. Sorry if you think this is an unproductive point to make, but a spade’s a spade, and we should call it such.

    One can take the argument in the “productive” direction you suggest, but to do so would grant that neither legal frameworks (national and international) nor declarations of war are irrelevant, since all that matters is national interest and whether a nation has pursues that interest in what it considers fair measure. It might “work” for one nation, particularly if it’s weaponized as magnificently as America, but to adopt this measure across the board is to invite sheer militant anarchy the world over. It’s also to unravel the advances made after World War II in international law.

    We also have to ask if, in the case of Iran, America even needs to take action to protect its national interest. Take, for instance, a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Jacques E. C. Hymans (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137403/jacques-e-c-hymans/botching-the-bomb), where he notes that Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear facilities actually gave incentive to and motivated Iraq to expedite their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Nations like Iraq and Iran were or are reassured that nuclear weapons must be needed and important when other nations (Israel and America) validate their importance by attacking them.

    Hymans points out that it’s best to leave authoritarian regimes to hinder their own nuclear pursuits rather than launch a military campaign against the nation’s nuclear facilities. Generally, authoritarian leaders like Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law put too much pressure on nuclear scientists, causing them undue stress and diminished motivation, thus crippling the nuclear program.

    So we can ask the two evaluative questions you propose (neo-conservative in origin, from which the doctrine of preemptive warfare derives). Were any US interests threatened by Iran’s 30+-years-in-the-making-and-still-floundering-nuclear-program? Yes and no — but more so no than yes. Was the Stuxnet response proper or not? Considering America committed an act of war outside of declared war and has probably encouraged Iran a) to double down on their pursuit of nuclear technology and b) pushed them to be even more secretive about their nuclear efforts, I would venture to say America’s response was terribly improper.

  5. Sorry, Daniel — I didn’t see your response until after I wrote my response. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have overlapped your point.

    Re your first comment: you are, I think, spot-on about Pakistan’s anger over drone warfare.

  6. I need to clarify what I meant by the fourth paragraph in my response to you, Fred. I wrote, “One can take the argument in the “productive” direction you suggest, but to do so would grant that neither legal frameworks (national and international) nor declarations of war are irrelevant, since all that matters is national interest and whether a nation has pursues that interest in what it considers fair measure.” It should read as follows:

    One can take the argument in the “productive” direction you suggest, but to do so would grant that neither legal frameworks (national and international) nor declarations of war are relevant, since all that matters is national interest and whether a nation has pursued that interest in what it considers fair measure.

    Sorry for any confusion.

  7. Your turn into the religious is odd to me. Is there any exegetical reason to think that Matthew 7.3 applies in any meaningful way here? Isn’t this as misguided as attempts to read references to the nation of Israel in the old testament as a proxy for the United States? You are making a fundamentally secular argument, why introduce this religious pastiche?

  8. Rich, I can understand why the decision seems odd to some. As far as the immediate context for the verse goes, Christ is speaking primarily about people’s lives. A secondary context does not seem to appear since antagonists to his ministry (Pharisees, Roman officials, etc.) are not present during the Sermon on the Mount (or do not object so strongly to him yet).

    I’d say there’s biblical precedent for passages with immediate personal meaning functioning in a political context as well. The story of David’s adultery comes to mind (2 Samuel 12). After his crimes, the prophet Nathan comes to him and shares a parable. When David passes judgment against the man in the parable, Nathan then says that the condemned man is David himself. Because of David’s political power, the parable and its moral has both personal and political implications.

    So to return to Christ’s sentence: I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply it here. Like the “Golden Rule” spoken by Christ, this verse has far-reaching implications, probably because it simply conveys a very challenging principle. It’s a principle Christians and people of other beliefs can agree on. (To give a personal example, I recall hearing my father, who rejects Christians for their hypocrisy, cite this verse more than once.)

    There’s no doubt a danger of improperly interpreting Scripture in such a way that it leads to wayward conclusions, as you suggest about the US overestimating its identity based on its alliance with Israel. I’d be far afield if I’d tried to interpret the Stuxnet attack based on, say, Daniel and Revelation. I think the application of this verse from Matthew is fairly used here, but I can also see how it could seem elementary, gimmicky, or forced.

  9. It is so sad how many Christians are like sheep, always blindly follow whatever Israel wants, PLEASE No war with Iran and losing more American lives, your fight is yours!! NOT the USA’s fight!
    Close to 5,000 of our American boys lost their lives along with two and half trillion spent to protect Israel from “WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION in Iraq and none were found, Remember?! NOW It’s a Irans threat of nuc’s that was even opened to U.N. inspection and none were found at bomb level, but Israel won’t allow the inspection sits on a pile of nuc’s??? Is there something not fair about this picture, if you lived in that region!?? Most important none of these countries are a threat to the USA!?
    Remeber the USS Liberty, Americans killed for a lie, the Lavon affair, Beruit bombings etc they were all mistakes Israel says?!.., Americans KILLED for what???? Zionism, NOT biblical Israel??!
    More and more and hopefully more Americans and Jewish Americans are waking up to this arrogant looking the gift horse in the mouth syndrome! It’s obvious there is no respect for the USA from Israel!
    GOD loves biblical Israel, and it’s peoples, His people! but am very sure NOT the Zionist goverment!
    Just leave the USA out of it, please! and please also maybe not being the one and ONLY Halocaust victims,, Israel won’t even recognize the Armenian holocaust (genocide),, 4 million Christians kiiled for their faith and also the first nation to accept Christ by MANY his Apostles! Where was or is the Christian church here in support for their brothers, ZERO!!!???? shame!
    AND of course your always quickly called a anti-semite if you speak the truth or question Israel in anyway, even if you are a Jew?! America FIRST, don’t drain us anymore, were broke!!!!

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