By William Tucker
Since the successful Iranian revolution of 1979, Iran was not satisfied to have secured an Islamic theocratic government within their country but wanted to spread their influence abroad and initiate a Shia revival. This meant the newly minted Islamic Republic of Iran would have to take on numerous Arab dominated states that were loyal to the Sunni tradition. Iran, under their Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, tried to spread their revolution through Shia proselytizing overtly and fostering Shia militants covertly.
While many Iranians were pleased to see their former Shah ousted, they were not fully on board with replacing an authoritarian government with a totalitarian one. Following the revolution, Iran became embroiled in economic turmoil and faced an invasion from neighboring Iraq. The downturn in stability led many dissidents to flee Iran seeking refuge in the West. Iran viewed these dissidents as a threat to the revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini signed off on an assassination campaign to eliminate this threat. Iran’s use of assassins to target these dissidents and other enemies of Iran continues and several attempts recently revealed in the U.S. demonstrate this.
The Attack on Salman Rushdie
The most recent attack on British novelist Salman Rushdie shows just how dedicated Iran is willing to go to eliminate its foes. Rushdie is a target of the Iranian state for his novel ‘Satanic Verses’ – written in 1988 – that many Muslims view as blasphemous. The late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 urging Muslim’s to kill Rushdie and the fatwa has inspired many people to make the attempt.
John Bolton and Mike Pompeo Were Allegedly Targeted
While its astonishing that a nation-state would go to such lengths to kill a novelist over a book written more than 30 years ago, it is very much in line with Iran’s approach to dealing with its foes. Though the targeting of a novelist is one thing, attempting to assassinate foreign officials, current or former, is quite another. In mid-August, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) unsealed court documents relating to an alleged Iranian attempt to kill former National Security Adviser John Bolton and possibly former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Iranian Attempts to Assassinate Top Diplomats
According to DOJ, an officer of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard sought an individual based in the U.S. willing to conduct surveillance on Bolton. This officer offered $300,000 in exchange for the surveillance before asking this U.S. based contact to find someone willing to kill Bolton. The documents go on to show that the Iranian officer began pushing his contact to take on the job himself to meet an Iranian imposed deadline. It appears that the U.S. had active intelligence on this plot as the FBI was able to notify Bolton of the threat in the spring of 2020 and offered regular updates as the operation evolved. Iran used a similar tactic several years ago when they conspired to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. while he dined at a café in Washington D.C. That plot failed, too, but such failures have not yet dissuaded Iran from pursuing such a path. And that’s where the danger lies.
The US Stance on Iran’s Tactics
So far, the U.S. has warned off Iran stating that any attack would be met with severe consequences, but Washington has not pushed back against attempts that are in the planning stages or failed in execution. Failing to do this allows Iran the latitude to keep trying to kill U.S. officials or dissidents residing in the U.S. Eventually Iran may find success in one of these violent plots forcing the U.S. to respond. With so many crises or emerging crises, a conflict with Iran can strain resources needed elsewhere to manage more immediate U.S. interests. Washington should ensure that this issue is managed before a violent attempt on an official’s life is successful.