Dubai, United Arab Emirates
A cyber attack on Tuesday paralyzed gas stations across Iran and left angry drivers in long lines.
Neither group immediately admitted to the attack, which rendered the government-issued electronic cards that many Iranians use to buy subsidized fuel at pumps useless.
It resembled another attack months earlier that appeared to directly challenge Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei when the country’s economy collapsed under American sanctions. These economic problems are exacerbated as the US and Iran do not yet have to jointly enter into Tehran’s shattered nuclear deal with the world powers.
State television quoted an unnamed official from the country’s National Security Council admitting the cyberattack hours after showing pictures of long lines of cars waiting to fill up in Tehran. Associated Press journalists also saw lines of cars at Tehran gas stations with pumps turned off and gas stations closed.
â€œI waited a few hours for the gas stations to reopen so I could fill up,â€ says a motorcyclist who only mentioned his name as Farzin. “There is no gasoline wherever I go.”
The semi-official ISNA news agency, which first labeled the incident a cyberattack, said those who tried to purchase fuel from the machines using a government-issued card instead received a message that read “Cyberattack 64411”. Most Iranians rely on these subsidies to refuel their vehicles, especially given the country’s economic troubles.
Although the ISNA does not recognize the meaning of the number, this number has been linked to a hotline run through Khamenei’s office that handles issues related to Islamic law. ISNA later removed her reports, claiming she was also hacked. Such claims of hacking attacks can come quickly when Iranian media releases news that anger the theocracy.
Persian-language satellite channels overseas posted videos apparently recorded by drivers in Isfahan, a large Iranian city, showing electronic billboards: â€œKhamenei! Where’s our gas? â€Another said,â€œ Free gas in the Jamaran gas station, â€a reference to the house of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
State television said officials from the oil ministry were holding an “emergency meeting” to resolve the issue. Some petrol stations that only accept cash and are not in the promotion card network continue to pump fuel.
The use of the number “64411” reflected an attack on the Iranian rail system in July, during which the number was also displayed. The Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point later attributed the access attack to a group of hackers who called themselves Indra, after the Hindu god of war.
Indra had previously targeted firms in Syria, where President Bashar Assad kept Assad in power through Iran’s intervention in his country’s grueling war.
Cheap gasoline is practically a birthright in Iran, which despite decades of economic hardship is home to the fourth largest crude oil reserves in the world.
Subsidies enable Iranian motorists to buy regular gasoline for 15,000 rials per liter. That’s 5 cents per liter, or about 20 cents per gallon. After a monthly 60-liter quota, it costs 30,000 rials per liter. That’s 10 cents per liter or 41 cents per gallon. Regular gasoline costs an average of 89 cents per liter, or $ 3.38 per gallon, in the US, according to the AAA.
In 2019, Iran was faced with days of mass protests in around 100 cities and towns over rising gasoline prices. Security forces arrested thousands and Amnesty International said 304 people died in government crackdowns. Tuesday’s cyberattack occurred in the same month as the 2019 gasoline protests on the Persian calendar.
The attack also occurred on the birthday of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who fled the country shortly before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, suffering from cancer.
Iran has faced a number of cyberattacks, including one in which a video of ill-treatment at its notorious Evin prison was leaked in August.
The country disconnected much of its government infrastructure from the internet after the Stuxnet computer virus – widely considered a joint American-Israeli creation – destroyed thousands of Iranian centrifuges at the country’s nuclear facilities in the late 2000s.