Would Iran really risk war with US by killing an ambassador?
While most countries tolerate with impunity the Iran regimes threats and actions, they generally believe there are some redlines to what Iran will do.
Members of the Iranian Army take part in the annual military drill, dubbed “Zolphaghar 99”, in the Gulf of Oman, Iran on September 7, 2020
(photo credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
Iran’s regime plotted against a US ambassador, Lana Marks, as it considered how to respond to the US killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, according to shocking reports on Sunday evening in an article at Politico.
These are serious accusations. Iran would risk not only conflict with the US over an attack on a US ambassador, but would also risk international isolation. While most countries tolerate with impunity the Iran regime’s threats and actions, they generally believe there are some redlines to what Iran will do.
In the past Iran has shot down a civilian airliner, it has kidnapped and assassinated people in the Middle East and Europe, it has fired missiles at Iraq, used drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia and incited genocide against Israel. It illegally sends weapons through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It has mined boats and tankers in the Gulf of Oman and hijacked and taken at least one tanker, and has used tankers and ships to violate sanctions. It recently murdered an innocent wrestler.
However, all that being said, an attack on an ambassador is a major and unprecedented step. Governments just don’t plot assassinations of other government’s ambassadors in third countries.
Politico alleges that US officials were aware of these threats “since the spring” and that intelligence became more specific recently. In addition, the “Iranian embassy in Pretoria is involved in the plot.” Iranian embassies have frequently been involved in plots to assassinate dissidents in the past, especially in Europe. Iran has also plotted attacks on SU forces in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere. Attacks on diplomats seem to be another realm in Iranian thinking.
SO WHAT’S going on? Iran would have known that the US ambassador to South Africa was relatively new and not a career diplomat, but rather linked to US President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. At this point the article argues that US intelligence made her aware of the threat.
Iran has a keen understanding of Trump, at least the regime seems to think it does. It has not tested the US too much, judging Trump to be the kind of person who will hit back if US soldiers are killed. It assesses that the president’s long-term goal is to leave the Middle East.
Tehran has also assessed that the US administration is divided between those who wanted harsher responses, like former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and those who are more isolationist. It also judged that former US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was critical of Iran but did not want war. The Islamic Republic has used the threat of “war” to bluff the US.
But Iran never wanted war. That is why it sought to use proxy groups to fire rockets at US forces in Iraq, but generally did not try to kill anyone. After the US killed Soleimani, which came about because Iran did kill a US contractor and then sent proxies to attack the US embassy, Tehran allegedly put US CENTCOM commander Kenneth McKenzie on its “hit list.”
Iran views CENTCOM as America’s version of the IRGC. After Washington determined that the IRGC was a terrorist group, Iran’s media began referring to CENTCOM as “terrorists.” This decision by Iran was a bit bizarre, because CENTCOM is not the US equivalent of the IRGC: it is a regional command. But Tehran views CENTCOM as the US military because it always has to contend with the command since Iran is within its area of operations.
TEHRAN’S REGIME is quite sophisticated, so its bizarre decision to label Central Command as terrorists seemed to give its fighters a blank check to strike at US military assets in the region, but not elsewhere. In a way, Iran viewed this now as a war between the IRGC and CENTCOM, but since the Guard Corps abroad works through proxies, this became a kind of shadow conflict.
Iran can’t do real war with US Central Command because its army and navy are no match for the US. All Iran can do is use asymmetric warfare, such as missiles, drones, mines, IEDs and other weapons to harass America. And that is Iran’s model: not a real war. Iran has never wanted war, but it judges that the US is so afraid of more “endless wars” that it will always shrink from a confrontation.
Would Iran’s intelligence arm, which has plotted assassinations from Iranian embassies in the past, decide to go so far as to strike at a US diplomatic mission? Tehran has allegedly done this before in 2012 confrontations with Israel where it activated agents in three countries to strike at Israeli diplomatic targets. But Israel is not the US and it is not the Trump administration.
Iran might judge that the killing of US ambassador Chris Stephens in Benghazi in 2012 did not meet with a US response. But it likely knows that if Trump were in charge, then the killing of a US ambassador would have met with an immediate strike.
Trump has already said that he called off strikes on Iran in 2019 after Iran downed a US drone because he did not view them as proportionate. Iran knows this. Proportionate response to an attack on a US diplomat would be a harsh response. Washington would not view it as similar to the Soleimani assassination. The administration indicated what proportion looks like in March when Iran-backed proxies killed three members of the US-led coalition in Iraq. The US struck back immediately against Kataib Hezbollah.
Iran also knows how Trump thinks because it can read the recent accounts in Bob Woodward’s new book. It was Trump that pushed for the Soleimani hit while others urged caution. This leaves many questions about Iran’s logic and motivations.
Assuming the threat is accurate, some have suggested that this may be Iran purposely putting the US on the wrong track. Others have suggested on social media that this report might be designed to stoke tensions or create other controversies.
THIS LEAVES two questions. Was Iran’s threat serious? And why was the information about the threat revealed now? The first question is about Iran and revolves around how and why Iranian intelligence agents or others decided on this target. The second question is about why this information might be released. Is it to warn Iran off to reduce tensions? Or is it just a leak? And if it is a leak, what is the point of leaking this now?
There are no good answers to these questions. There are good questions about why Iran would embark on this unprecedented and incendiary path and how its agents even thought they would pull this off. Iran’s specialty in assassinations is not on hard to get targets. Its proxies have used car bombs in Lebanon.
Tehran’s allies in Iraq have used pistols, kidnapping and other means. In Europe, its agents have used things like knives. In the bomb plot targeting the MEK, the agents had only a half a kilogram of explosives. In Turkey a dissident was shot dead. None of this points to Iran being capable of a major attack, as would likely be required against a high level US diplomat or an embassy. And it doesn’t account for the fallout that would occur after such an attack.
Iran thrives on making the US seem isolated. It has gotten Russia and China to end an arms embargo via the UN and has gotten the Europeans to side with it and Turkey. The Islamic Republic thrives on claiming it obeys international law even if it doesn’t, and skirting close to the lines on things like its nuclear program. It often has plausible deniability for attacks in Iraq or the Gulf of Oman. But striking at a US ambassador is not easy to deny.
It would be like the Al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in the 1990s. It would give the Trump administration the tools it wants to isolate Tehran. No intelligent person in the Iran regime apparatus would give the go-ahead on something so unprecedented so close to a US election. Unless, of course, Iran wants Trump to stay in office and judges that it can weather the fallout. Or unless its agents in South Africa and elsewhere have simply been told to put in place plots against any US target.