The commander of Iran’s special operations Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, recently posted a controversial image to his Instagram account. It features Soleimani himself holding a walkie-talkie while the White House is engulfed in flames behind him. The caption reads, “We will crush the USA under our feet.”
Earlier this year, intelligence officials and former White House officials testified before Congress that an Iranian-supported attack on U.S. soil is not a purely fictional scenario. The officials acknowledged that “we do face a threat” due of the existence of “sleeper cells” within the U.S., directed by Iran and/or Hezbollah. And just a few weeks ago, the Justice Department indicted two Iranians on spying charges after they allegedly conducted surveillance on Jewish facilities in Chicago.
But would Iran actually authorize a terrorist attack against the U.S. and risk military retaliation? Thirty-five years ago during the Lebanese Civil War, the regime learned how selectively attacking U.S. targets could work in its favor, as long as it could maintain plausible deniability. The bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, committed by Iranian agents and possibly approved at the top levels of the Iranian government, led to a strategic victory for Iran. Although the attack killed more than 300 people, the U.S. had no immediate evidence of state involvement, and ultimately chose to withdraw its forces from the city.
This single incident informed much of Iran’s future uses of terrorism. If you can wear your enemies down through attrition and confusion, why confront them directly?
But Iran also learned in the following decade that unconventional tactics can have significant costs. Iran’s involvement in the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, which killed 19 U.S. service members and injured nearly 500, damaged its relationship with other Gulf states, as well as its diplomatic standing around the world. And the subsequent findings by a German court that Iranian agents were behind the 1992 assassination of Kurdish leaders in Berlin threatened its relationship with European countries.
As a result, Iran moved towards more furtive forms of terror sponsorship and scaled back its open support for terrorist groups. Despite these lessons, Iran continues to be cited as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, primarily because of its financial and logistical assistance to Hezbollah, Palestinian terrorist groups, and other organizations throughout the Middle East.
It is unlikely that Iran would ever support an overt attack against the U.S. homeland. But if an attack could be conducted in a way that would obfuscate Iran’s responsibility — even temporarily — terrorism offers an attractive foreign policy option. My own research has revealed that states are most likely to support terrorist attacks against other states when 1.) they are in a particularly adversarial relationship and 2.) when they are significantly weak relative to their adversary.
With the abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, the relationship between the U.S and Iran is more adversarial than it has been in at least a decade. Iran is also weaker than it has been in some time. Beginning in 2017, Iran’s regime experienced the largest public protests against it in nearly 10 years, with the sanctions only fueling this dissent. While Iran has experienced periods of weakness in the past, and its relations with the U.S. have never been ideal, the two conditions are now inextricably linked.
The Iranian regime therefore finds itself in increasingly dire straits, and if it believes that the U.S. is largely to blame, then it is likely to consider all means of redressing its grievances. In other words, Iran might be backed into a situation in which it becomes convinced that the benefits of sponsoring an attack against the U.S. could outweigh the costs. At some point, even a U.S. retaliation could benefit the regime by shifting the average Iranian’s focus to external enemies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Iran blamed the U.S. for last week’s deadly attack against its military parade and promised a “swift” response.
For now, Iran is likely to consider such an attack against the U.S. an extremely risky prospect. Its threats will remain empty threats. But as the situation deteriorates, both inside and outside Iran, that calculus is likely to change.
Source » washingtonexaminer