Lithuania Risks U.S. Relationship, Cyber-theft by Iranian Overtures

“The U.S. and Lithuania share a history as valued allies and strong partners,” affirms the State Department. But in its recent overtures with Iran, Lithuania risks damaging that relationship by undermining the central plank of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East: the diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran designed to compel fundamental regime behavioral change.

The U.S. and Lithuania have maintained unbroken diplomatic ties for almost 100 years, through Nazi and Russian occupations, and Lithuania is one of the most pro-American nations in the world. Since Lithuania regained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has provided more than $100 million in military aid. The U.S. also pushed strongly for Lithuanian accession to NATO in 2004. In trade, the U.S. conferred “most-favored-nation treatment” on the tiny Baltic state in 1925. Today, total trade is worth $2 billion each year.

Despite all that, senior Lithuanian diplomats are extolling Iranian ties and actively pursuing enhanced trade and economic cooperation. In June 2018, one month after the U.S. announced its decision to leave the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), Iran proposed the establishment of official respective embassies in Tehran and Vilnius to replace the existing “arms-length” arrangement. Then, just weeks after the U.S. fully withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal on November 5, 2018, Lithuania and Iran held a “Cooperation Conference” in Tehran. On the sidelines of the conference, Lithuania’s envoy to Iran, who also serves as Lithuania’s Turkish Ambassador, Audrius Bruzga said, “we are opening the windows to Iran. We celebrated the 25 years anniversary of our relationship with Iran but we just started to build its foundation for really a solid cooperation.” He continued, “we are building an economic and trade cooperation with Iran.”

This flies in the face of U.S. efforts to squeeze Iran “until the pips squeak” in this post-JCPOA period and apply “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo endeavors to build a global consensus, despite resistance from China, Russia, India and the European Union, it is galling for an otherwise long-standing American friend to fall in line behind the Ayatollah. As supposedly one of the biggest allies to the U.S., Lithuania should not be contemplating enhanced economic and trade with Iran, which remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and whose official state mantra is “Death to the U.S.A.”

Besides this unprincipled stance, Lithuania should also recognize the specific dangers that business collaboration with the regime will likely bring. Despite its small size, Lithuania is a heavyweight in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). It has a world-class digital infrastructure and a deep talent pool of ICT professionals among its 2.9 million population “who deliver critical services for global tech giants.” Its status as a pro-West, tech-savvy and business-friendly “Baltic Tiger” specializing in fintech and ICT inside the EU has convinced companies like Google, and Uber to set up offices in Vilnius.

Lithuania should not risk this well-deserved reputation as a reliable, trusted tech hub by entangling itself with the Iranian regime. Iran is already a relentless and sophisticated cyber-thief, targeting companies, infrastructure, universities and even hospitals in the U.S. Through closer collaboration with Iranian firms, Lithuania could inadvertently end up delivering “critical services” not only for global tech giants, but for terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-backed cyber-hackers. Similarly, Lithuanian cooperation with Iran would also represent a boon to Russia’s army of state hackers, which carry out “constant cyber-attacks on Lithuanian government departments.”

As well as the duel cyber-threat from Iran and Russia, Moscow is of course Tehran’s biggest patron in all areas, providing diplomatic cover, trade and financial cooperation and military assistance in Syria. As a former Soviet satellite, Lithuanians are alarmed at Russian meddling and expansionism in the Baltic region. Indeed, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė has consistently recognized the threat from Russia. In an interview with Germany’s Spiegel, she said “The likelihood [of Russian invasion] is high if we don't constantly defend ourselves.” In 2017, Lithuania completed the construction of a demarcation barrier along its southern and western borders which abut the Kaliningrad Region – a Russian territorial enclave on the Baltic Sea. Grybauskaitė has even explicitly rejected closer ties with Russia as “inexpedient and irresponsible in terms of national security.” So where Lithuania is clear-headed about the Russian threat, it is curiously fuzzy-headed about the Iranian.

In his long interview with an Iranian news outlet, Lithuania’s Iran envoy acknowledged, “the United States is a strategic ally and a trusted partner of Lithuania.” But Lithuania cannot have it both ways. A “trusted partner” can no longer be trusted if it seeks closer ties with the Iranian regime. The strength of the 97-year-old American-Lithuanian partnership has been forged in the fire of more than half a century of occupation. Lithuania should not flippantly sacrifice it now by cozying up to America’s most dangerous foe.