Skip to main content

The Takeaway: Russia, Iran major cyberthreats targeting US, says intel community

Turkey as alternative European gas route; Russian Syrian mercenaries in Ukraine; Palestinians claim double-standard in Western response to Ukraine; Egypt balances US, Russia in dealing with Ukraine war.
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies.

The Lead: US Intel community assesses the threats from Iran and Russia

US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Director of Central Intelligence William Burns and other top national security officials are testifying this week before the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence on the Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, the unclassified “collective insights” about “the most direct, serious threats to the United States during the next year.”

Here are some report highlights showing how the intelligence community has assessed the threats from Russia and Iran, providing background and context for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and negotiations about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal.

Russia:

  • Non-interference pact with US: “Russia does not want a direct conflict with US forces” and “seeks an accommodation with the United States on mutual non-interference in both countries’ domestic affairs and US recognition of Russia’s claimed sphere of influence.”
  • US trying to undermine Putin: “Russia’s officials have long believed that the United States is trying to undermine Russia, weaken President Vladimir Putin and install Western-friendly regimes in the former Soviet states and elsewhere, which they conclude gives Russia leeway to retaliate.”
  • Increase clout in Middle East: “Moscow is using its involvement in Syria, Libya and Sudan to increase its clout, undercut US leadership, present itself as an indispensable mediator, and gain military access rights and economic opportunities.”
  • Nuclear weapons to deter conflict with US, NATO: “Moscow views its nuclear capabilities as necessary for maintaining deterrence and achieving its goals in a potential conflict against the United States and NATO, and it sees a credible nuclear weapons deterrent as the ultimate guarantor. … Moscow continues to develop long-range nuclear-capable missile and underwater delivery systems meant to penetrate or bypass US missile defenses.”
  • Top cyberthreat: “Russia is particularly focused on improving its ability to target critical infrastructure, including underwater cables and industrial control systems, in the United States as well as in allied and partner countries, because compromising such infrastructure improves and demonstrates its ability to damage infrastructure during a crisis.”
  • Weaponizing energy: “We expect Russia to continue to use energy as a foreign policy tool to coerce cooperation and force states to the negotiating table, as it recently did in 2021 when Russia stopped coal and electricity exports to Ukraine.”

Iran:

  • Existential struggle with US, partners: “Iran will continue to threaten US interests as it tries to erode US influence in the Middle East, entrench its influence and project power in neighboring states, and minimize threats to regime stability. The Iranian regime sees itself as locked in an existential struggle with the United States and its regional allies, while it pursues its longstanding ambitions for regional leadership.”
  • Not currently pursuing a nuclear weapon: “We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device. … If Tehran does not receive sanctions relief, Iranian officials probably will consider further enriching uranium up to 90%.”
  • No trust on JCPOA: “Iran’s hard-line officials deeply distrust Washington and do not believe the United States can deliver or sustain any benefits a renewed JCPOA might offer.”
  • Growing, aggressive cyber capabilities: “Iran’s growing expertise and willingness to conduct aggressive cyber operations make it a major threat to the security of US and allied networks and data.”

Energy: Need to know

The Biden administration this week banned Russian energy imports and has reached out to Venezuela, heavily sanctioned by the United States, as well as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to make up the difference. If there is a JCPOA deal, Iranian oil and gas would return to the global market.

From our regional correspondents

1. Turkey as possible alternative route to Russian gas

Turkey could play a prominent role in Europe’s search for non-Russian suppliers of natural gas, Muhdan Saglam writes.

Azerbaijan says it’s ready to boost supplies using the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, which carries 10 billion cubic meters of gas each year to Europe via Turkey. Though less likely in the short term, Turkmenistan could also pump gas to the continent through Azerbaijan and Turkey. Another possibility is the so-called EastMed pipeline, which would supply Europe with gas from Israeli waters. The pipeline deal collapsed in January after the United States pulled its support, but “the Ukraine crisis could now strengthen the prospect of redrawing the route via Turkey,” Saglam explains.

2. Russia seeks Syrian mercenaries for Ukraine fight 

Russia and private military contractor Wagner Group are in the early stages of recruiting Syrian fighters for potential deployment to Ukraine, Al-Monitor reported last week. Citing Syrian monitoring networks, Amberin Zaman and Elizabeth Hagedorn explained how the recruitment of Syrians with experience in urban combat mirrors Russia’s earlier deployments of mercenaries to war-torn Libya. The Wall Street Journal has since reported that Syrian fighters are already in Russia preparing to enter Ukraine. On Monday, the Pentagon said “there’s truth” to the rumored recruitment effort.
 
3. Syrian jihadis decry Chechen deployment to Ukraine 

Chechen fighters are also joining the fray. Kremlin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, who leads Russia's Chechnya region, boasted last week that his forces had deployed to Ukraine. Muslim Chechens previously fought alongside Russia in Syria’s civil war and are seen by many jihadis in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province as apostates. Khaled al-Khateb reports that Syrian opposition groups were quick to condemn the Chechens' participation in Ukraine’s conflict. “They are siding with an enemy who openly shows enmity against Islam,” said a jihadi source close to Idlib terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

4. Palestinians see double standard in Ukraine response 

Palestinians have lauded Ukrainian efforts to resist Russian aggression, but they see a double standard in the Western response. Daoud Kuttab writes that many Palestinians lament the “open show of hypocrisy by the international community, which did little to nothing to oppose the occupation of Palestinian territories.” 

But as the Palestinian people show solidarity with Ukraine, the Palestinian Authority is remaining neutral. Ahmad Melhem explains why Ramallah hasn’t taken an official position on Russia’s invasion. 

5. Egypt balances US, Russia ties amid Ukraine crisis

Egypt is also charting a middle course to the Ukraine crisis, writes George Mikhail. Cairo voted in favor of the US-backed UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion but is not shutting down ties with Moscow. Mohammad Hanafi reports that the Suez Canal Authority has also sought to remain neutral by refusing to ban Russian ships from traversing the waterway. For more reporting out of Egypt, read Hagar Hosny’s latest on how the North African country is searching for alternatives to Russian and Ukrainian wheat.

Multimedia this week: Israel’s Russia response, Palestinians in Ukraine

Watch: Palestinians in Ukraine, including many who escaped fighting in Palestine and the broader Middle East in recent years, once again face the risk of emigration as fighting intensifies amid Russia's devastating invasion. Check here soon for the video.

Listen: Ben Caspit speaks with Israel's most prominent high-tech entrepreneur, former Knesset member Erel Margalit, about Israel’s cyber capabilities and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempts to mediate the escalating crisis in Ukraine. 

Watch: Catch up on the week’s headlines with Joe Snell’s Middle East Minute.