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Iran IPB: The Asymmetric Threat, Terrorism

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

I don’t think Saddam Hussein figured out that America was actually going to invade Iraq until American tanks started streaming into Baghdad. Until that moment, I think he kept thinking, “These aren’t the first air strikes; they won’t be a the last.” Because of this, despite the imminent threat to his regime, Hussein never tried to launch a second 9/11 or cause any terrorism on American soil.

If his regime was so evil and so vile, why not attack America asymetrically? Probably because he never had the capability.

When it comes to Iran, I wonder, will the Ayatollahs consider such a drastic step? They have the capability. In the words of Jeffrey White, will America “find itself involved in a ‘secret war’ of terrorist attacks and special counter-terror operations outside the main theater of conflict?”
Unlike other options for war--such as a vicious naval war in the Persian Gulf or a proxy war in Afghanistan--when it comes to launching terror attacks, Iran has some time. While America could bomb ballistic missiles sites as soon as the war starts, it would have to run counter-terrorism operations around the world to eliminate suspected IRGC Quds Force members, Iranian intelligence operatives or proxies, a much harder task.

And I mean around the world. Iran could choose to attack Americans in America, Americans in Europe, Europeans in Europe, Americans and Europeans in the Middle East, Israelis in Israel, Israelis elsewhere in the Middle East, or any of its neighbors in their countries. Iran has many intelligence agents and sources in almost every Middle Eastern country.

In other words, Iran has plenty of options. And counter-terrorism forces will have a hell of a time trying to stop them.

In the last few weeks, NPR, The New York Times and others have started reporting on this possibility. Like all good reporting--and my own--each report comes with plenty of hedging. Terrorism requires an extraordinary amount of planning. The Mumbai attacks, for example, required dozens of visits by at least one operative, and countless hours of training for the attackers. The 9/11 attacks required flight school training for at least eight people. Even the well-funded IRGC Quds Force only has so many people it can spare for terrorism. (One estimate puts it between 5,000-15,000 people total in the organization. Like I said, not as much is known about this group.)
Iran has two primary options to kill a lot of Americans. In the first, Iran will use the sources and proxies it developed in Iraq to launch attacks against the Green Zone in Baghdad. While this requires planning and manpower, Iran could easily support very lethal operations against Americans there.

The second option--setting up sleeper cells in America--doesn't worry me, as I mentioned yesterday. Unlike the low hanging fruit the FBI Al Qaeda branch currently plucks--extremists who can't distinguish between legitimate Al Qaeda and a hole in the ground--if Iran had already set up Hezbollah members, they would have the training to avoid detection. If discovered, though, the presence of sleeper cells would give the administration/nation a reason to fight for regime change in Iran. That last fact is why I don’t see Iran investing heavily in setting up Iranian sleeper cells in America.

I won’t write up a “best case/worst case” option for today’s post. There are just too many variables. Instead, I am going to run down all the options that are possible for the IRGC in an “asymmetric: terrorism” response. If Iran decides to go terrorist, the options available are the usual--bombings (of car, suicide, and plane), hijackings, hostage takings and assassinations--and possibly unusual--the things like the 9/11 attacks no one had thought of before.

Conduct terror attacks on the Green Zone in Iraq - Very likely. Especially with mortars or IEDs targeting American convoys.

Conduct terror attacks on Gulf Cooperation Council countries - Possible. The Quds Force has intelligence operatives spread throughout the region and each GCC country has a sympathetic Shia population.

Conduct terror attacks in Europe - Unlikely for the same reasons Iran will avoid upsetting America. Plus, this would draw in European support for regime change.

Conduct terror attacks in America - This is an example of scenario that makes war so hard to predict. If Hezbollah already has cells in America, than this scenario becomes amazingly likely. Why not attack if America has attacked you already? I don’t think Iran has gone to these lengths, though. If discovered, the presence of terror cells in America would make war a foregone conclusion, something the Ayatollahs want to avoid. For a much better analysis of the threat of Hezbollah, read this Andrew Exum article in World Politics Review.

Conduct terror attacks on Israel - Possible, but I believe Iran will target Israel with ballistic missiles, which I will cover tomorrow.

Nothing - Self-explanatory. Means that Iranian leadership believes terror attacks would do more to enrage their enemy then sap their will.

Bottom Line: The IRGC Quds Force, Iranian intelligence and their proxies have a pupu platter of options to choose from, but only so many men to execute them. Further, many of these missions have a high risk factor, which means losing a lot of their force to only hurt, but not weaken, these countries. In some cases, say a terror attack on the U.S. home soil, it could backfire, encouraging an overwhelming counter-attack.