After Albania severed diplomatic relations with Iran on Wednesday over the disruptive July cyber-attack and expelled Iranian diplomats and embassy staff, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and its minister Esmail Khatib on Friday.
The US Treasury Department accused them of being tied to the cyber-attack on Albania and engaging in other cyber activities against the US and its allies.
The incident that temporarily disrupted Albanian government websites and other public services was partly investigated by a cyber security research team from Microsoft.
Its report says that the Iranian operation involved a combination of digital espionage techniques, data-wiping malware and online information ops aimed to embarrass Albanian government officials and punish Albania for supporting an Iranian dissident group based in the country.
According to Washington, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence was directing several networks of cyber threat actors involved in cyber espionage and ransomware attacks in support of the Tehran government, singling out the MuddyWater group, suspected of carrying out digital espionage campaigns since 2018.
MuddyWater exploited foreign network vulnerabilities using ransomware to steal sensitive data.
Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson pointed out that with its cyber-attack against Albania, Iran disregarded norms of responsible peacetime state behavior in cyberspace which includes refraining from damaging critical infrastructure.
Nelson stressed that the US will not tolerate Tehran’s increasingly aggressive cyber activities, which the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated later.
On Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani rejected the US sanctions as ineffective and politically motivated, strongly condemning the US Treasury’s immediate support for, as Tehran claims, the false accusation of the Albanian government.
That, according to Kanani, shows that the American government has designed this scenario and, at the same time, accused the US of supporting the opposition People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, or Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers terrorist and which are hosted by Albania since 2013.