DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – A cyber attack crippled gas stations across Iran on Tuesday, leaving angry motorists stranded in long lines.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which rendered the government-issued electronic cards that many Iranians use to buy subsidized fuel at the pump unnecessary.
It bore similarities to another attack months earlier that appeared to directly challenge Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country’s economy collapsed under US sanctions. These economic problems are escalating as the United States and Iran have yet to reinstate Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.
State television quoted an anonymous official with the country’s National Security Council as acknowledging the cyberattack, hours after broadcasting footage of long lines of cars waiting to refuel in Tehran. Associated Press reporters also saw lines of cars at gas stations in Tehran, the pumps turned off and the station closed.
“I’ve been waiting for a few hours for the gas stations to reopen so I can refuel,” said a motorcyclist who gave his name only as Farzin. “There is no fuel everywhere I go.”
The semi-official ISNA news agency, which initially called the incident a cyberattack, said it saw those who tried to buy fuel with a government-issued card through the machines receive a message instead. indicating “cyberattack 64411”. Most Iranians depend on these subsidies to power their vehicles, especially amid the country’s economic woes..
Although ISNA did not recognize the importance of the number, this number is associated with a hotline run by the Khamenei office that deals with issues of Islamic law. ISNA later suppressed its reports, claiming it had also been hacked. Such hacking allegations can arise quickly when Iranian media publishes information that anger the theocracy.
Overseas Farsi satellite channels posted videos apparently shot by drivers in Isfahan, a large Iranian city, showing electronic billboards saying, “Khamenei! Where is our gas? Another said, “Free gasoline at the Jamaran gas station,” a reference to the house of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
State TV said Oil Ministry officials were holding an “emergency meeting” to resolve the issue. Some gas stations that only accept cash and are not part of the subsidy card network have continued to pump fuel.
The use of the number “64411” reflected a July attack on the Iranian rail system which also saw the number displayed. Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point later attributed the train attack to a group of hackers named Indra, named after the Hindu god of war.
Indra previously targeted companies in Syria, where President Bashar Assad retained power thanks to Iran’s intervention in his country’s bitter war.
Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, which is home to the world’s fourth-largest reserves of crude oil despite decades of economic hardship.
Subsidies allow Iranian motorists to buy regular gasoline at 15,000 rials per liter. That’s 5 cents per liter, or about 20 cents per gallon. After a monthly quota of 60 liters, it costs 30,000 rials per liter. It’s 10 cents per liter or 41 cents per gallon. Regular gasoline costs 89 cents per liter or $ 3.38 per gallon on average in the United States, according to AAA.
In 2019, Iran faced days of mass protests in around 100 towns and villages over rising gasoline prices. Security forces arrested thousands of people and Amnesty International said it believed 304 people were killed in a government crackdown. Tuesday’s cyberattack occurred in the same month in the Persian calendar as the gasoline protests in 2019.
The attack also occurred on the birthday of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who, suffering from cancer, fled the country in 1979 just before the Islamic Revolution.
Iran has faced a series of cyber attacks, including one that leaked video of abuse at its infamous Evin prison in August.
The country disconnected much of its government infrastructure from the Internet after the Stuxnet computer virus – widely believed to be a joint US-Israel creation – disrupted thousands of Iranian centrifuges at nuclear sites across the country in the late 2000s .
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.