On January 3, 2020, the United States killed Qassem Soleimani with a drone strike just outside Baghdad International Airport. In an instant, the most powerful Iranian soldier of his generation was reduced, along with his fellow carpoolers, to smoldering chunks of flesh surrounded by mangled SUV parts. The operation was not quite finished. The message sent by missile was followed, a former US intelligence official told me, by a verbal message, like a love note attached to a box of chocolates. The official, who worked on Soleimani’s portfolio and requested anonymity to speak freely, did not see the message but said it was calculated to threaten, reassure and avoid an uncontrolled escalation. He summed it up: Soleimani’s murder is an isolated event. This is not the start of a new campaign. But if you retaliate – and retaliation is defined as hurting even one US citizen, anywhere – we will hit you harder than you hit us. You will lose every turn. Your only decision is how many rounds we are going to do and how humiliated you want to be.
Read: Qassem Soleimani haunted the Arab world
Although Iran vowed revenge and days later sent a volley of missiles to a US base in Iraq’s Anbar province, it appears to have taken Valentine’s Day seriously. (No one was killed in the Anbar strike. Iran, however, tested the limits of the threat: More than 100 US personnel were later found to have lasting neurological effects from the explosions.) But in the past six weeks, three incidents suggest Iran is ready for another round, this time with new, more amateurish tactics.
- On July 29, a man with a loaded AK-47 was arrested after hiding place at the Brooklyn gates of America’s most prominent Iranian dissident, writer Masih Alinejad. The man was Khalid Mehdiyev from Yonkers. The FBI disturbed a distinct Iranian ground against her last year; it was to abduct him and take him to Iran via Venezuela. She told me that the FBI warned her: “This time they wanted to kill you.” She says that two days after the July incident, current national security adviser Jake Sullivan called her to warn her that this second attempt may not be the last and to emphasize the government’s commitment. to hold Iran accountable. “It’s clear to them that it’s Iran,” she said. (Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment.)
- On August 10, the FBI unsealed a criminal complaint against a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Shahram Poursafi, for offering someone in the United States cryptocurrency for the murder of former national security adviser John Bolton. He demanded that the assassin, whom he had met online, kill Bolton in time for the second anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination. Bolton told CNN he was bothered by the low price of his head: just $300,000, compared to the handsome million Poursafi suggested he could pay for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
- On August 12, a New Jersey man stabbed author Salman Rushdie in the face, neck and stomach during an event in upstate New York. Hadi Matar’s mother told the Daily mail that he had gone to his ancestral home in Lebanon a few years ago and returned furious that she had failed to raise him strictly in his Shia faith. On social media, Matar reportedly posted photos of Iran’s leaders, including current leader Ali Khamenei and his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, who handed down Rushdie’s death sentence in 1989 for writing satanic verses. Iranian state media practically begged for recognition of their government. Newspapers celebrated him and sometimes mentioned Soleimani. A particularly sinister photo in jam e jam showed Rushdie with devil horns, pointy ears, and an empty, puckered eye socket.
Afshon Ostovar, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me that since Soleimani’s assassination, Iran’s military and intelligence services have been obsessed with proving that they too can kill senior officials of hostile countries. “They desperately want to achieve some form of revenge,” Ostovar said. “But this secret stuff,” like the US assassination of Soleimani or Israel’s killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, “is something they just don’t have a handle on.” Instead, they have has tried and lack to execute operations abroad, says Ostovar, and each failure reminded them of their weakness. Killing Bolton or Pompeo, the second target of Bolton’s plot, would restore confidence in their status on the international assassination scene.
But even assuming a strong connection to Iran, these three recent cases would not demonstrate that it can kill with the same professionalism and brilliance as Americans and Israelis. (Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is widely believed to have been carried out remotely, by killer robots that self-destructed on the spot after completing their mission.) The plots to kill Bolton, Alinejad and Rushdie aren’t even as sophisticated as them Mykonos case in Berlin in 1992, which involved trained agents, not freelance blunderers, at a Mob-style restaurant.
These plots may look more like the Islamic State attacks in 2015, many of which involved little more than moral support from Islamic State headquarters in Raqqah. One of the great strategic innovations of the Islamic State compared to its faltering predecessor, al-Qaeda, was to realize that it did not need spectacular and expensive plots like September 11, and that it could terrorize cheaply by encouraging jihadist morons abroad to stab and run over infidels using knives and rental trucks. He didn’t need to train assassins and equip them with fake IDs or diplomatic cover. He could just use cheap volunteer or contract labor, a hit man.
George Packer: Killing Soleimani was worse than a crime
These knucklehead proxy operations likely reflect the limits of what Iran can do. They may also represent Iran’s test of the Valentine’s Day wire, to see what it can do without being fought back. (And not for the first time. As mentioned, the military at the Anbar base suffered lasting injuries.) Alinejad told me that Iranians abroad already to know that in Turkey, Germany and even Canada, the power of Iran is great enough to threaten the lives of its enemies. Now Iran may be trying to show that it can hit Americans in the United States too.
The Biden administration is not powerless here. Climbing isn’t his only option either. He considers a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime to be preferable to no deal – and a deal would likely be set back years by any assassination of a US official, even a retiree from a now-disadvantaged administration. (All of this begs the question: how much does Iran want a deal, anyway?) An appropriate response to the development of a new assassination campaign would be to make any deal contingent, such as the one under the President Barack Obama was not, on Iran’s renunciation of its international terrorist operations. Otherwise, in light of these recent cases, any compromise with Iran will look like an amicable agreement, box of chocolates or not.