"They operate almost entirely in what we refer to as the gray zone, that space between normal international competition and armed conflict," the commander of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, said Wednesday in Washington, calling it "an area ripe for cyberspace operations."
"We at CENTCOM are examining ways to compete in the gray zone," he said. "Integrating cyberspace operations as part of a holistic approach is clearly a critical part of that."
Tehran's 'malign influence'
U.S. intelligence and military officials have long warned of Tehran's "malign influence" in the Middle East. And they say Iran is increasingly relying upon its cyber operations to shape both the battlefield and the information environment in places like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Votel told an audience at the Billington CyberSecurity Summit that, like Russia, Iran has focused its attention on social media, and has seen its efforts pay off on the international stage.
"[Iran's] ability to use cyberspace to manipulate information out there, to propagate their message, I think, is the key aspect that we deal with," Votel said. "The recent disagreement between Saudi Arabia, the [United Arab] Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt with Qatar is a glaring example."
Russia and China
Although Votel described Iran as "clearly the top threat" to long-term stability in the Middle East, he said Russia and China have also been carrying out various types of cyber operations across the region.
But the CENTCOM commander said he believes efforts to counter Iranian, Russian and Chinese cyber operations across the Middle East could soon get a needed boost.
Votel called President Donald Trump's decision last month to elevate the status of U.S. Cyber Command "very helpful," saying it would help the U.S. military to normalize the need to include a cyber component in almost all of its usual operations.
CENTCOM, which is responsible for U.S. military operations spanning 20 countries from Egypt to Pakistan, is also concerned about the Islamic State terror group.
Despite continued losses by IS fighters on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, U.S. military officials worry about a strengthening "virtual caliphate" that continues to cultivate followers.
"Not all of our adversaries have tanks, fighter aircraft and warships, but they all have computers and they all have access to the web," Votel said.