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Kinetic and cyber retaliation from Iran is 'certainly a possibility': Crowdstrike CEO

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Published on Jan 6, 2020

Crowdstrike CEO George Kurtz says cyber threats from U.S. adversaries like Iran are common. He tells CNBC's Jim Cramer how the cybersecurity firm fends off attacks.

Weeping over the coffin of slain Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, Iran’s supreme leader vowed severe revenge on America, echoing the anger of more than a million mourners in the streets of Tehran.

“Harsh revenge” awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared. The U.S. assassination of Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds force, the foreign arm of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has prompted “13 revenge scenarios,” Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary announced Tuesday.

“Even if there is consensus on the weakest scenario, carrying it out can be a historic nightmare for the Americans,” Ali Shamkhani said.

And the world appears to be taking it seriously: Markets fell on the news and money is moving into safe havens like gold in the face of potentially greater conflict in the Middle East. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has warned of “homeland-based plots” against infrastructure targets including cyberattacks by Iranian proxies like Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

“The Trump administration has essentially thrown a hand grenade into already extremely tense region,” Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC. “This move has exposed every American boot on the ground to a possible retaliatory attack.”

Soleimani’s killing followed the storming of the American Embassy in Baghdad by Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias in the last week of December, reportedly at the Soleimani’s direction. The violent demonstration was prompted by U.S. airstrikes that killed 25 of those militia members in retaliation for the group’s launch of rockets that killed an American contractor on Dec. 28. Washington has called on all U.S. citizens in Iraq to leave the country immediately, and it’s sending 3,500 additional troops to the region.

But as speculation mounts over Iran’s next moves, analysts say Tehran does not want to provoke an actual war with the U.S. despite it calls for vengeance.

Iran “will still try to avoid provoking an all-out war, but it will be challenging for them to retaliate in a way that allows them domestically to save face without at the same time triggering some sort of military response,” Aniseh Tabrizi, a Middle East research fellow and Iran expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told CNBC on Monday. She noted that with an economy buckling under American sanctions and a military far less equipped than that of the U.S., the country is not in the position economically or militarily to fight a conventional war.

The drone strike on Soleimani on Friday (late Thursday ET) was a blow to Iran — not just because the general was revered across much of the country for his role in leading Iran’s regional expansion and resistance against the U.S., but also because it now completely upends Iran’s calculations in terms of prospects for U.S. military confrontation, Tabrizi said.

Khamenei “has to respond in a way which is pretty forceful or else they risk losing face,” Karim Sajadpour, a Carnegie Endowment senior fellow, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Monday. “But with the erraticness of Trump, they have to be very careful how they respond,” he said, describing the supreme ayatollah’s approach as “calibrated.”

“Iran’s responses could come across a spectrum of measures, whether that’s on the Middle East or on its nuclear program, or through covert direct actions like cyberattacks on U.S. territory,” Geranmayeh said, highlighting the risk of attacks in third-country territory like Iraq and noting that Iran and the U.S. are practically neighbors in their theaters of operation in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Former CIA acting director John McLaughlin issued the same warning, writing in intelligence newsletter the Cipher Brief: “Iran will retaliate in some major way and probably turn loose its proxies such as the terrorist wing of Hezbollah and is militias in Iraq and Syria.”

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