Iran crisis presents counterterrorism risks and opportunities

Iran crisis presents counterterrorism risks and opportunities
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Developments over the last two weeks have escalated tensions between the United States and Iran to new heights in this now more than 40-year struggle. Iran responded to the U.S. strike in Iraq against former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qassem Soleimani by launching missiles against military bases in Iraq housing U.S., Iraqi and other coalition personnel. 

While no casualties were inflicted, the Iranian supreme leader and President Trump have rebuked each other and issued stern warnings about potential escalation beyond the current situation. The coming days and weeks will tell whether military operations will resume. In the meantime, there is concern surrounding Iran’s potential use of terrorism and U.S. counterterrorism approaches against that threat.

As my colleague Josh Kirshner and I wrote last June, Iran maintains a range of asymmetric capabilities it could employ in the ongoing conflict with the United States should the supreme leader authorize such operations. Among those capabilities is Iran’s use of terrorism. It already has a long track record of supporting terrorist activity throughout the region and other parts of the world. Of most concern would be any Iranian-backed terrorist plotting against the United States homeland directly. The failed 2011 attack against the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., surprised many terrorism experts and revealed two major insights.


First, according to the official Department of Justice indictment that spelled out details of the plot, the IRGC-QF directed the attack from Tehran.

Second, the lack of open hostilities between the United States and Iran then – as opposed to now – did not prevent the QF from advancing the plot or worrying about the potential casualties involved if the attack were to be successful in the nation’s capital, according to the indictment. If such was Iranian thinking then about terrorist attacks against the United States, what might Tehran be considering now if hostilities were to escalate?

Beyond Iran’s direct role in plotting terrorism, the country’s relationship with Lebanese Hezbollah stretches back nearly 40 years and provides another option in its terrorism toolkit. Hezbollah began in the early 1980s as a small, clandestine terrorist organization backed by Iran that specialized in lethal attacks and kidnappings against U.S. personnel and interests. One of those attacks involved a massive truck bomb attack against the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983.

In the 1990s, its operatives collaborated with Iranian officials to conduct two mass-casualty attacks against Jewish targets in Argentina. Now it is a far more formidable adversary based on significant Iranian financial support, military training and weapons supplies. Given the range of capabilities that Hezbollah possesses – both unconventional and more traditional – it could add a new dimension to the crisis should Iran ask or direct the group to repay the largesse the regime has bestowed on it over the years.

Since 9/11 U.S. counterterrorism efforts have focused mainly on the threat first from al Qaeda and its affiliated groups, and then in the 2010s on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its branches and networks. Similar to debates about rebalancing U.S. counterterrorism focus towards domestic terrorism given the spate of attacks in the United States and the West over the past few years, policymakers and members of Congress may call for a reprioritization of analysis, collection and resources (both dollars and capabilities) towards the Iranian terrorist threat in all its dimensions. 


Perhaps with some foresight, the Trump administration’s 2018 U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy called to “roll back Iran’s global terrorist network” and stated “with operatives deployed around the world, the IRGC-QF has the capability to target United States interests and possibly the homeland.” If there is indeed such a rebalancing, the potential for new legal authorities may also ensue as members of Congress already are raising whether the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations to Use Military Force (AUMF) provide enough justification to conduct military operations in a protracted conflict with Iran or its proxies in the region or elsewhere in the world.

One interesting aspect of President Trump’s statement following Iran’s missile attack centered on the possibility of counterterrorism cooperation with Iran. “ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran,” Trump said. “The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.” This may be one area that allows the United States and Iran to re-establish some type of security-related dialogue while advancing against a common objective, as ISIS remains entrenched in Iraq despite all the setbacks the group suffered as it lost its physical caliphate there and in Syria.

The crisis between the United States and Iran appears to have settled into a tactical pause, with both sides thinking through possible next steps that could include escalation, status quo or de-escalation. But if escalation resumes and a new round of hostilities emerge, the potential for Iran’s use of terrorism must be evaluated and pre-empted if such attacks are detected in advance. 

Conversely, a shift towards de-escalation opens the possibility of U.S.-Iranian cooperation – even if transactional – against ISIS, which could have additional benefits outside the counterterrorism sphere. As a result, the counterterrorism risks and opportunities seem equally weighted depending on where the crisis moves next.

Javed Ali was a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy during the Fall 2018/2019 semesters and served as a senior director for counterterrorism on the Trump administration’s National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.