It’s time to make Iran think twice about harming US citizens
Iran appears to have declared open season on U.S. citizens that it doesn’t like. The Aug. 12 stabbing of the author, Salman Rushdie, in Upstate New York was just the latest in a string of recent attempts targeting Americans known to be on Iran’s kill list. Yet, President Biden has no evident plan, or even intention, to hold the Tehran regime accountable. To deter future attempts, demonstrate resolve and establish U.S. credibility, he needs to retaliate kinetically.
Starting in 2021, and accelerating in recent weeks, Iran has been implicated in plots to kidnap and (a year later) kill the Iranian-American rights activist Masih Alinejad, assassinate former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton and murder Rushdie — all on American soil. Tehran has denied its involvement in all three incidents.
The Biden administration’s response to Iran’s state-sanctioned policy of working to murder Americans has been to express outrage, go after individual perpetrators and double down on its efforts to bribe Iran back into the 2015 nuclear deal. After the Department of Justice revealed the plot against Bolton, both national security advisor Jake Sullivan and secretary of state Antony Blinken warned that Iran would face “severe consequences” — but only in the event that an attack actually succeeded. The clear implication was that anything short of that was a matter to be handled by law enforcement, not national security policy.
Accordingly, both an armed man caught last month surveilling Alinejad’s home and Rushdie’s assailant are in custody, while five Iranian security officials involved in the various plots have been indicted in absentia, unlikely ever to be brought to justice. But as for the Iranian regime itself, responsible for encouraging or directing these attacks against American citizens as a matter of state policy, there’s been no accountability whatsoever.
Basic common sense suggests this approach is deeply flawed and incentivizes the Tehran regime to keep trying to harm Americans. And such displays of U.S. timidity only undermine U.S. leverage in the nuclear talks, increasing the risk that any deal that emerges will be even worse for U.S. interests than the 2015 agreement.
Instead of inviting Iranian contempt, the U.S. should demonstrate a modicum of resolve. For starters, the Biden administration needs to immediately deny Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, a visa to attend next month’s meeting in New York of the United Nations General Assembly. Allowing Raisi to set foot in the United States at the very moment his regime is actively scheming to terrorize Americans in their homeland would be an act of supreme national cravenness that would only heighten the threat — not just from Iran, but from other U.S. adversaries as well.
More significantly, Biden could at long last walk away from the nuclear negotiations and make clear that any sanctions relief for Iran’s battered economy is off the table until it ceases all efforts to harm Americans anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the United States should work with its partners to intensify diplomatic, economic and military pressure against the full range of Iran’s malign activities.
Further, Biden can seek to deter Iran not just by denying its regime benefits but by inflicting significant punishment on it in the only currency of power that its leaders understand — military strength. To deter murders, societies severely punish attempted murder, and to deter attacks by a hostile foreign power, countries need to be willing to impose a high price for attempted attacks as well.
If Iran’s leaders were certain that every time they attempted to harm an American they would suffer a response, whether covertly or overtly, of greater lethality and higher cost, their enthusiasm for targeting the United States would quickly temper. That’s certainly been Israel’s experience to the point where the Iranian regime now feels safer attacking U.S. citizens and U.S. targets than Israeli ones. That’s hardly the position the world’s most powerful nation wants to find itself in.
No one should forget that Al Qaeda’s catastrophic attacks of 9/11 were preceded by a decade’s worth of smaller attacks against U.S. targets that went inadequately answered. In contrast, President Trump’s killing of Iranian leader major general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 kept Tehran on its heels for the rest of his term.
After the armed man was arrested outside her home last month, Jake Sullivan told Masih Alinejad that the U.S. will “use all tools at its disposal to disrupt and deter threats from Iran.” President Biden needs to enforce that commitment, in order to deter future attacks against Americans on U.S. soil and to help restore America’s global position and deterrence.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is President and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). John Hannah, a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, is the Randi and Charles Wax Senior Fellow at JINSA.