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Iran’s ‘state’ terrorism and an American policy of deterrence

History tells us that ignoring a pattern of escalating aggression — a failure to deter — courts disaster. We appear to be on that path with Iran.

For many years, the foreign policy establishment believed Tehran would only target the U.S. homeland in case of war. This theory collapsed in 2011 when the FBI foiled an Iranian plot to kill the then Saudi Arabia ambassador to the U.S. in an attempt that, if successful, would assuredly have produced mass casualties. The willingness to inflict mass casualties has remained a common theme in Iranian “state” terrorism. In 2018, a failed Iranian scheme to bomb a dissident gathering in Paris would have killed hundreds, including former U.S. officials. While the perpetrators were arrested, tried, and convicted in European courts, no serious action was taken against Tehran.

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

Salman Rushdie, who is under threat of execution from Iran after the publication of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed repeatedly 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 members of the IRGC on social media. Iranian state media loudly applauded the murderous assault.

Iran’s systematic targeting of Americans has grown to an unprecedented level. A recent Washington Institute for Near East Policy study of Iran-related assassinations, abductions, and surveillance operations targeting American and Western interests found at least 105 cases since 1979. A majority of these operations occurred in the past decade. There is no comparable example of another country targeting Americans on American soil. To be clear, this activity isn’t that of an individual terrorist, terrorist group, or a state sponsor of terrorism. This is the action of a “terror state.” While we firmly believe targeting American citizens constitutes an act of war, we ponder how many Americans must be targeted or killed for naysayers to admit such aggression constitutes an act of war. Is it two, five, ten, 100?

We see responses to Iranian terror are similar in nature and fecklessness. Compromised Iranian operatives are prosecuted by law enforcement, sanctions are sometimes levied against Iranian interests (with no financial assets in the West), and policymakers issue press statements claiming that a “successful attack” will be met with “serious consequences.” Little to no consequences guarantees 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 frustrate operations.

Historically, U.S. terror policy has been bolder. In 1993, President Clinton authorized an attack on Iraqi intelligence as a “firm and commensurate” response to Iraq’s 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 describe those who disagree with this position as war mongers, stifling a long-overdue policy debate.

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

Great risk comes from a policy that reinforces Tehran’s belief that its attacks may be undertaken at no cost.

Several steps deserve immediate consideration. First, the U.S. should deny the Iranian president and his representatives a visa to the United States for the upcoming UN General Assembly and use this event to rally support against Iranian “state” terrorism. To send a clear message, the U.S. should designate Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a terrorist under U.S. and international authorities. Much has been made of our revitalized relationship with Europe and our Arab partners. We should 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. Last, we should advise Iran unequivocally that we consider “state” terrorism against U.S. persons as an act of war. Absent a determined policy response to deter Iran, further attacks may ignite 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 fortitude. Nevertheless, a serious multipronged approach will ignite debate among Iran’s leadership as to whether “state” terrorism is worth the potential costs, including a military conflict.

Absent a different approach to Tehran’s aggression, we risk Iran achieving a catastrophic success that cannot be viewed as anything other than an act of war resulting in war. Our restraint should not be the very cause of such a disastrous outcome.

Mark D. Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for Management and Reform, is CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).

Norman Roule is a former National Intelligence Manager For Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a senior advisor to UANI.

Frances F. Townsend served as assistant to President George W. Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and is a senior advisor to UANI.

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