Russia and Iran have formally partnered to expand their joint communications technology and cyber warfare capabilities. These increased cyber capabilities constitute an emerging significant threat to the United States and the international community. In addition to signifying an emerging threat internationally, the increased cyber capabilities of these authoritarian regimes constitute a threat to the citizens of their own countries. This joint agreement will aid their governments in both suppressing dissent within their own borders as well as in expanding their capabilities to interfere with Western systems of free and open use of the internet.
The agreement will help Russia and Iran facilitate cybersecurity, cyberwarfare, exchange of technologies, training, and coordination of efforts toward interfering with the international community. Additionally, implied in this agreement is the sharing of information regarding U.S. cyber operations and capabilities. This sharing of information creates an additional security threat to the U.S. and its allies. Within Russia and Iran, think tanks including the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies report this agreement will help facilitate the authoritarian governments’ building of surveillance states within their own countries. Shared advancements in technology, cyberinfrastructure, and technology training will enable the surveillance of civilians and political dissent to become more feasible and pernicious. Russia and Iran have also agreed to assist each other in developing software and technology resources based in their own countries, as opposed to in the West which is currently the norm. This includes developing alternatives to common western computer operating systems such as Windows, internet hosting, as well as other software platforms and internet technologies.
Through shared technology, training, and resources, Russia and Iran will be able to further authoritarian aims at home and abroad. According to The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a leading think tank in DC, this agreement includes the presentation of mutually favorable media coverage, producing favorable media content, imposing counter-narratives to Western media, and cooperation in targeting media toward western audiences. Overall, the agreement will perpetuate greater authoritarian state influence and control of the open internet.
At present, United States’ cyber capabilities are not optimally effective. Members of the United States Congress and the Government Accountability Office have been critical of U.S. cyber capabilities, highlighting their problems and inadequacies. There are known issues with interagency coordination and cooperation, underfunding, and other problems.
In order to counter the growing authoritarian cyber threat, the Biden administration will need to allocate resources and provide the leadership necessary for the United States to maintain a strong and unified cyber defense capability. Organizations promoting the defense of democracies argue that if regimes like that of Russia and Iran get their way, international use of free and open internet may become compromised.
Russia and Iran are aiming to further their ability to control what is presented on the internet for international and domestic media consumption and to spread propagandistic narratives to further their own interests and control their own populations. While conventional military threats often garner the most popular attention, cyber threats also pose a significant threat to the Western way of life. Cyber threats require attention, funding, and support in order to be properly addressed.