Iranian “State” Terrorism and the American Policy of Deterrence

History tells us that to ignore a pattern of escalating aggression – a failure to deter – is courting disaster. We seem to be on that path with Iran.

For many years, the foreign policy establishment believed that Tehran would only target the American homeland in the event of war. This theory came crashing down in 2011 when the FBI foiled an Iranian plot to kill the then Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States in an attempt that, if successful, would surely have resulted in many casualties. . The will to inflict mass casualties has remained a common theme in Iranian “state” terrorism. In 2018, a failed Iranian scheme to bomb a gathering of dissidents in Paris reportedly killed hundreds, including former US officials. While the perpetrators have been arrested, tried and sentenced by European courts, no serious action has been taken against Tehran.

Recently, the FBI foiled an attempted kidnapping and murder of Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad in Brooklyn, intervened to stop an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps murder plot against the former security adviser National John Bolton and disrupted a plan to assassinate former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There are multiple threats against other US citizens and former US officials, including former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

Salman Rushdie, threatened with execution by Iran after the publication of satanic verses, was stabbed multiple times while speaking in New York this month. The attacker made no secret of his devotion to the Supreme Leader and had been in direct contact with IRGC members on social media. Iranian state media strongly applauded the deadly assault.

Systematic targeting of Americans by Iran has reached an unprecedented level. A recent Washington Institute for Near East Policy study of Iran-related assassinations, kidnappings and surveillance operations targeting US and Western interests found at least 105 cases since 1979. The majority of these operations have taken place in course of the last decade. There is no comparable example of another country targeting Americans on American soil. To be clear, this activity is not that of an individual terrorist, terrorist group or state sponsor of terrorism. This is the action of a “terrorist state”. While we firmly believe that targeting American citizens constitutes an act of war, we wonder how many Americans must be targeted or killed for opponents to admit that such aggression constitutes an act of war. Is it two, five, ten, 100?

We find that the responses to Iranian terror are similar in nature and recklessness. Compromised Iranian operatives are prosecuted by law enforcement, sanctions are sometimes imposed against Iranian interests (without financial assets in the West), and policy makers issue press releases claiming that a “successful attack” will have ” serious consequences”. Little or no consequences warrant Iran’s continued planning of such attacks. Without consequences, Iranian “state” terror continues, its pace dictated by Tehran’s resources and the ability of Western governments to thwart the operations.

Historically, American terrorist policy has been bolder. In 1993, President Clinton authorized an attack on Iraqi intelligence in a “firm and proportionate” response to the Iraqi attempt to assassinate former President George Bush. Yet a military response against Iran is routinely condemned by some who argue that any such military operation will escalate into a conventional conflict. These same voices often portray those who disagree with this position as warmongers, stifling long overdue political debate.

The consequences of the current approach reinforce Tehran’s belief that it can act with impunity and undermine US credibility. If Washington does not respond to “state” terrorist actions constituting an act of war against its homeland and missile attacks on countries that are home to thousands of American citizens, allies and partners will inevitably question Washington’s reliability. A failure to respond to these acts of war makes these acts of war more likely and therefore war more likely.

A big risk comes from a policy that reinforces Tehran’s belief that its attacks can be undertaken without cost.

Several steps merit immediate consideration. First, the United States should deny the Iranian president and his representatives a visa to the United States for the upcoming United Nations General Assembly and use this event to rally support against Iranian “state” terrorism. To send a clear message, the US should designate Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a terrorist to US and international authorities. Much has been said about our revitalized relationship with Europe and our Arab partners. We must work with these countries to ensure that they reject meetings with senior Iranian diplomats and ensure that Iran understands that its diplomatic isolation is the result of its “state” terrorism. Finally, we should inform Iran unequivocally that we consider “state” terrorism against American persons an act of war. Absent a determined political response to deter Iran, further attacks could trigger the conventional conflict we all wish to avoid.

Tehran will respond defiantly. We should expect attacks on our forces in Iraq or Syria to test our mettle. Nonetheless, a serious multi-pronged approach will spark a debate among Iranian leaders about whether “state” terrorism is worth the potential costs, including military conflict.

Without a different approach to Tehran’s aggression, we risk seeing Iran achieve a catastrophic success that can only be seen as an act of war leading to war. Our restraint should not be the very cause of such a disastrous result.

Mark D. Wallace, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations for Management and Reform, is the CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).

Norman Roule is a former national intelligence official for Iran in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a senior adviser to UANI.

Frances F. Townsend served as President George W. Bush’s Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and is Senior Advisor to UANI.

Thelma J. Longworth