Iran’s Knucklehead Assassination Strategy

Three recent incidents suggest that Iran is ready for another round with the United States, this time with new, more amateurish tactics.

Photo collage of the Department of Justice and Qassem Soleimani
The Atlantic

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, with his carpool companions, to smoldering bits of flesh surrounded by mangled SUV parts. The operation was not quite over. The message sent via missile was followed, a former U.S. intelligence official told me, by a verbal message, like a love note attached to a box of chocolates. The official, who worked on the Soleimani portfolio and requested anonymity to speak freely, did not see the message but says it was calculated to menace, reassure, and avoid uncontrolled escalation. He summarized it: The killing of Soleimani is an isolated event. It is not the start of a new campaign. But if you retaliate—and retaliation is defined as harming even one U.S. citizen, anywhere—we will hit you back harder than you hit us. You will lose every round. Your only decision is how many rounds we go, and how badly you want to be humiliated.

Although Iran vowed revenge, and days later sent a volley of missiles into an American base in Iraq’s Anbar province, it seems to have taken the valentine seriously. (No one was killed in the Anbar strike. Iran did, however, test the boundaries of the threat: More than 100 U.S. personnel were later found to have lasting neurological effects from the blasts.) But in the past six weeks, three incidents suggest that 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 lurking on the Brooklyn doorstep of the most prominent Iranian dissident in America, the writer Masih Alinejad. The man was Khalid Mehdiyev of Yonkers. The FBI disrupted a separate Iranian plot against her last year; it involved kidnapping her and taking her 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, the current national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, called to warn her that this second attempt might not be the last, and to stress the government’s commitment to holding Iran accountable. “It’s clear to them that this is 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 asked that the assassin, whom he’d met online, kill Bolton in time for the second anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination. Bolton told CNN that he was embarrassed at the low price on his head: just $300,000, compared with the cool million that Poursafi suggested he might pay for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
  • On August 12, a New Jersey man stabbed the author Salman Rushdie in the face, neck, and belly at an event in upstate New York. Hadi Matar’s mother told the Daily Mail that he’d gone to his ancestral home of Lebanon a few years ago and come back irate at her failure to have raised him strictly in his Shiite faith. On social media, Matar reportedly posted pictures of Iran’s leaders, including the current leader, Ali Khamenei, and his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, who issued Rushdie’s 1989 death sentence for writing The Satanic Verses. Iran’s official media practically begged for their government to be given credit. Newspapers celebrated it and sometimes mentioned Soleimani. One particularly lurid photo in Jam-e Jam showed Rushdie with devil horns, pointed ears, and an empty, puckered socket where his eye had been.

Afshon Ostovar, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me that since the Soleimani assassination, Iran’s military and intelligence services have obsessed over proving that they, too, can kill senior officials of hostile countries. “They desperately want to achieve some form of revenge,” Ostovar said. “But this covert stuff,” like the U.S. assassination of Soleimani or Israel’s killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, ”is something they just haven’t mastered.” Instead they have tried and failed to execute overseas operations, Ostovar says, and each failure has reminded them of their weakness. Killing Bolton or Pompeo, the second target in the Bolton plot, would restore confidence in their status on the international assassination scene.

But even assuming a solid connection to Iran, these three recent cases would not demonstrate that it can kill with the same professionalism and brio as the Americans and Israelis. (The Fakhrizadeh assassination is widely thought to have been carried out remotely, by killer robots that self-destructed on-site after completing their mission.) The plots to kill Bolton, Alinejad, and Rushdie are not even as sophisticated as the Mykonos affair in Berlin in 1992, which involved trained operatives, not freelance bumblers, in a Mob-style restaurant slaying.

These plots may more closely resemble Islamic State attacks in 2015, many of which involved little more than moral support from ISIS’s home office, in Raqqah. One of the Islamic State’s great strategic innovations over its doddering predecessor, al-Qaeda, was to realize that it didn’t need spectacular, expensive plots like September 11, and could terrorize much more cheaply by encouraging jihadist knuckleheads abroad to stab and run down infidels using knives and rented trucks. It didn’t need to train assassins and outfit them with fake IDs or diplomatic cover. It could just use volunteer or cheap contract labor, a gig assassin.

These operations by knucklehead-proxy probably reflect the limits of what Iran can do. They may also represent Iran’s testing of the valentine wire, to see what it can do without getting hit back. (And not for the first time. As mentioned, service members at the base in Anbar suffered lasting injuries.) Alinejad told me that Iranians overseas already know that in Turkey, Germany, and even Canada, Iran’s power is great enough to threaten the lives of its enemies. Now Iran may be trying to show that it can whack Americans in the United States, too.

The Biden administration is not powerless here. Nor is escalation its only option. It considers a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime preferable to no deal—and a deal would probably be set back by years by any assassination of a U.S. official, even one retired from a now-disfavored administration. (All of this raises a question: How much does Iran want a deal, anyway?) A fitting response to the development of a new campaign of murder would be to make any agreement contingent, as the one under President Barack Obama was not, on Iran’s renunciation of its international terror operations. Otherwise, in light of these recent cases, any compromise with Iran will look like a sweetheart deal, box of chocolates or no.