A reported threat against the U.S. ambassador to South Africa raises the specter that Iran will seek to use a high-profile terrorist attack or assassination to upend the 2020 presidential election, according to U.S. analysts.
“Iran understands how vivid such a Benghazi moment could be for the Trump administration,” said Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu, referring to the 2012 terrorist attack in Libya that claimed the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. “Therefore, the idea of an attack against an American official has not receded from their minds.”
U.S. intelligence officials reportedly have warned Ambassador Lana Marks that she may be targeted by operatives connected to the Iranian Embassy in Pretoria, as Tehran seeks to avenge the January killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. U.S. intelligence officials suspect that Marks may have attracted Iranian attention, according to Politico, due to her personal relationship with President Trump and her posting in a country in which Iran has a good relationship with the government and a substantial network of agents.
“The Iranians may feel that they can act in South Africa with impunity,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin said, before suggesting that U.S. intelligence officials publicized the threat in order to diminish its likelihood. “I suspect that the leak of this to the press is a way of putting pressure on South Africa, saying that there’s going to be no plausible deniability here.”
South African security officials acknowledged, in the wake of the report, their “duty to protect maximally” all foreign diplomats deployed to the country.
“The agency is interacting with all relevant partners both in the country and abroad, to ensure that no harm will be suffered by the US Ambassador, including any other Diplomatic Officials inside the borders of our country,” the South African state security department said in a Monday bulletin. “It should be noted that the nature of the allegation and attendant threat doesn’t permit us to give any detailed updates on the investigations.”
In any case, Marks, a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, isn’t the only U.S. ambassador with personal ties to the president, and South Africa isn’t the only country where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Iranian proxies have a foothold.
“They could be worldwide,” Rubin said, saying that Shia Muslims who left war-torn Lebanon in recent decades carried Iranian influence with them to various countries in Africa and South America. “The fact of the matter is, Iran really is a state sponsor of terrorism with global reach.”
The publicity devoted to the South Africa threat might have a secondary goal of discouraging attackers in other countries, as well.
“There are other plots going on, and maybe by doing this, they would deter Iran, at least in South Africa,” the Heritage Foundation’s senior Middle East analyst, Jim Phillips, surmised. “But it may be that the signal is, ‘We’ll let you know that we know about this and [let you] wonder what we know if you go ahead with these other plots.’”
Ben Taleblu agreed that Iran probably has “a plethora of targets” in mind. “This is a real measure of risk tolerance by the Islamic Republic,” he said, recalling that Trump’s administration has a policy of military retaliation if Iran or Iranian proxies kill an American. “Having such an attack would indicate a significant level of confidence on behalf of Iran’s intelligence and security apparatus that America may be too paralyzed to respond kinetically.”
Rubin offered a similar assessment that the “poisonous political atmosphere” of a presidential campaign stretch-run might embolden Iran to attempt to create a Benghazi-style humiliation for Trump.
“They could make it into Trump’s Benghazi,” the AEI scholar said. “Even if the Iranians have fingerprints on it, would American politicians spend more time blaming their political adversaries in the United States, or would they unify against the people that actually conducted the attack? A lesson of Benghazi is American politicians will never miss an opportunity to target each other, rather than their enemies.”