Posted on: September 16, 2020 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 0

Over the weekend a stunning bit of news came out. Apparently, U.S. intelligence is claiming that there is a specific threat from Iran against the American Ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks. If true, this could represent a serious risk of escalation between the U.S. and Iran. The risk of a military confrontation, even war, is magnified if Trump believes that it would help his re-election chances.

The timing of this news, so close to the election, is only one among many reasons to question the veracity of these reports. By now, any report coming from the Trump administration cannot be taken at face value. Even before Trump, in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. citizenry and the people of the Middle East learned a hard lesson about the consequences of trusting too much in the U.S.’ honesty and reliability. With Trump’s toadie, John Radcliffe, now in the position of Director of National Intelligence, we must subject important intelligence claims to intense scrutiny. No benefit of the doubt can realistically be given anymore.

That’s an exceedingly difficult position for us to be in as a country. By their nature, intelligence agencies often cannot substantiate their claims, and this can be for good reasons as well as bad ones. And as we can see all too clearly among supporters of Donald Trump, blind doubt can lead to conspiracy theory thinking, and that can be just as dangerous as blind trust (and most frightening when the two come together). Yet we must do the best we can, and, with a claim as important, yet as dubious, as this one, we must examine it closely.

Aside from the convenient timing and the fact that, supposedly, this threat was in the air well before Radcliffe took over, but has only recently intensified and, therefore, become public knowledge, there are logical questions that cast doubt on the report.

First, the target, Lana Marks, is hardly someone whose assassination would be remotely comparable to that of Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, whose killing by the U.S. would presumably be avenged by this action. Marks is an insignificant figure in the Trump administration. She is an ambassador because she has known Trump for a decade, is a member of his Mar-a-Lago club, and a large donor to his campaign. Her previous career was as a designer of handbags. She was born and grew up in South Africa, hence this assignment.

No one in Iran would see killing her as suitable revenge for Soleimani’s death. Moreover, an Iranian operation of this sort in South Africa would put an enormous strain on Iran’s relationship with Pretoria, at a time when Iran desperately needs as many friends around the world as it can get. South Africa’s relationship with Iran is warm and cooperative. While it’s certainly not inconceivable that Iran might put that relationship at risk to strike a blow at the United States, this would be a huge cost for a ridiculously small blow.

Iranian leaders—hardliners as well as more moderate voices—are not ignorant of American politics. They fully understand that an attack against an American official before November 3 plays right into Trump’s hands, rallying anti-Iran sentiment around the president, and rallying nationalist feelings that would surely be channeled into Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

Avenging Soleimani

We should be clear that Soleimani’s killing at the beginning of the year was a major escalation by the Trump administration. It was obvious that there was no immediate reason to have done it; official excuses about an imminent attack on Americans were vague, unsubstantiated, and wildly inconsistent. Few American leaders objected to the killing itself, but some were alarmed at the potential for escalation.

After an attack on an airbase hosting U.S. troops in Iraq (an attack that seemed intended to kill a minimal number of Americans), the threat of further Iranian action was averted by tragedy, as an Iranian missile mistakenly took out a civilian airliner, killing 176 people and prompting enormous outrage among the Iranian people.

It remains unclear whether Iran still intends an act of vengeance for Soleimani, but it would not be surprising at all if they did. But, having waited this long to act, it makes no sense that Tehran would not wait some six weeks longer to avoid helping Trump’s re-election.

None of these points, unfortunately, prove the intelligence reports false, but they certainly raise significant questions about them.

Trump himself raised even more today, when he tweeted, “According to press reports, Iran may be planning an assassination, or other attack, against the United States in retaliation for the killing of terrorist leader Soleimani, which was carried out for his planning a future attack, murdering U.S. Troops, and the death & suffering…caused over so many years. Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!”

Setting aside the saber-rattling, why is Trump pointing to “press reports” rather than his own intelligence services? And why would he point out a report in POLITICO, not exactly one of his favorite news sources? Indeed, the reporters who broke this story—Nahal Toosi and Natasha Bernard—are two of the most reliable foreign policy reporters in Washington these days, which usually means three strikes against them from Trump.

You’d think Trump would be talking about his own intelligence reports, even if he didn’t read them. Someone must have told him about Iran targeting his friend. Or so one would think.

It’s more than feasible that Iran might have explored the possibility of an action in South Africa, and that this exploration tripped some U.S. intelligence radar. But part of the world of intelligence is that many possibilities are explored, only some are pursued, and it’s important to know the difference.

There is no way to be sure about this, one way or the other. But given the timing; the sensitivity of the situation with Iran that Trump has foolishly raised to dangerous heights with his misguided and failed “maximum pressure” policy; the obvious questions that must be answered; and the potentially cataclysmic consequences of escalating tensions with Iran to the point of confrontation, we need to make sure this isn’t a manufactured crisis in preparation for an “October surprise” to swing the November vote. The only reasonable course, given the experience of recent and older history, is to assume that’s what it is unless proven otherwise.