Iran’s Changing Calculus: Will it Strike Inside the United States?

Attacks on Iran may provoke a response against the United States. Eli Lake on the dangers of escalation.

Ebrahim Noroozi, AFP / Getty Images

The U.S. intelligence community is worried that mysterious assassinations and bombings aimed at Iran’s nuclear program may be spurring the Iranian leadership to pursue attacks inside the United States, according to current and former U.S. officials.

On Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that a plot last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States “shows that some Iranian officials—probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”

The alleged 2011 plot to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador—using contacts in a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the hit—was uncovered in October.

“The Iranians feel—and they have said this already—that they are under attack via economic pressure and things blowing up in their country,” says Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security for counterterrorism who served under President Bush and the senior adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “The Iranians seem to be responding by trying to attack the United States and its allies abroad.”

While U.S. generals have stated in public testimony that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has killed U.S. soldiers in Iraq and worked with insurgents who target Americans in Afghanistan, it was not until 2011 that the U.S. government accused Iran publicly of trying to launch an attack on U.S. soil.

Clapper’s testimony is the first time, however, that a U.S. official has publicly suggested the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador may have been approved by Iran’s supreme leader.

U.S. officials working on the Iran file told the Daily Beast that Clapper’s words were chosen carefully. “Some people are concerned that Iranian perceptions of what is happening to them may lead them to believe they are already in some kind of conflict,” one official said.

What is happening to them includes the Jan. 11 bombing of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a 32-year-old physicist who, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, was in charge of procurement for the Natanz enrichment facility. Five Iranian scientists or engineers affiliated with Iran’s nuclear program have been killed since 2007 and a sixth attack on a scientist was foiled. Four of those attacks used the same kind of magnetic limpet bomb, affixed to the vehicles of the targets.

Many national-security experts speculate that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is behind the assassinations. Israeli officials have made little effort to dispel such speculation.

After Roshan was killed in Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the unusual step of publicly denouncing the attack and stating the United States played no role. In the past those statements were delivered at the spokesman level.

There have also been a string of industrial explosions at facilities associated with Iran’s weapons programs, such as a Nov. 12 blast at a missile-testing facility outside of Tehran that killed Maj. Gen. Hassan Moqqadam, the head of the country’s missile program.

“There’s been great deal of speculation about events in Iran surrounding its nuclear program,” says a U.S. official who would only speak on background. “Iranian paranoia about these events could lead them to lash out. I’m not saying it will happen, but it’s an option people have to consider.”

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Iran’s intelligence service and its Revolutionary Guard Corps may have already started lashing out. On Tuesday, Azeri authorities announced that they had thwarted an attack aimed at Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan and alocal rabbi. The country’s national-security ministry issued a statement claiming two Azeris were arrested who worked with an Iranian named Balagardash Dadashev to procure sniper rifles, explosives, and handguns from Iran.

On Jan. 14, Thai authorities announced arrests that they said had thwarted an Iranian plot against tourist destinations and possibly Israeli and Jewish targets in Bangkok.

Zarate said Clapper’s prediction about Iranian attacks represented a new assessment for the U.S. intelligence community. “This is a big deal for two reasons,” he said. “It suggests the calculus at the highest level of the Iranian government to cross the most serious red line, which is to attack inside the United States, has changed. Also, the regime already feels fundamentally threatened. This suggests that the Iranians are ready to engage in an all-out proxy war.”

Until recently, the U.S. intelligence assessment was that Iran had the ability to attack the United States through its allies in Hizbullah, but would not cross that line unless the country was attacked militarily. In 2010, Michael Leiter, who was then the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was asked during Senate testimony, “Do you think if there’s an escalation between Iran and Israel that we will see more of a threat here in the United States?” Leiter responded with one word: “Yes.”