Iran’s imposition of “sanctions” on dozens of Americans amounts to an assassination threat against members of former President Donald Trump’s administration, according to a senior U.S. official who threatened “severe consequences” for any harm done to them.
“Make no mistake: the United States of America will protect and defend its citizens,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday. “This includes those serving the United States now and those who formerly served.”
Iranian officials have made explicit their interest in killing one of the people involved in the U.S. strike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The regime observed the second anniversary of his death last week, which occasioned a flurry of truculent rhetoric and the unveiling of economic sanctions by Iran that U.S. observers take as a proxy for a threat of violence.
“Wherever it is needed, we will provide for the basis of revenge against the Americans from within their houses and by people by their side without us being present,” IRGC Quds Force Commander Sardar Esmail Qaani said in remarks published by Iranian media. “If wise people in America are found who deal with those who committed the atrocity of assassinating Commander Soleimani, this action will be much less burdensome for America than if the offspring of the Resistance Front, who know no bounds, to themselves go and take this revenge.”
That statement sharpens the point of the economic sanctions that Tehran unveiled this weekend, according to observers.
“In essence, a government official in the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism invited Americans to partake in domestic terrorism against one another,” said Foundation for Defense of Democracies research fellow Behnam Ben Taleblu, who translated the Iranian general’s remarks. “The Islamic Republic has tried to use intimidation, harassment, the threat of violence, as well as actual violence, to include kidnapping, terror, and assassination, to silence critics abroad for four decades. In this regard, its latest ‘sanctions’ can be seen as another vector in its terror campaign.”
Sullivan promised to retaliate against any such operation. “We will work with our allies and partners to deter and respond to any attacks carried out by Iran,” he said. “Should Iran attack any of our nationals, including any of the 52 people named yesterday, it will face severe consequences.
Iranian officials threatened FDD in 2019, citing the influence of their experts within the Trump administration as evidence that the think tank had engaged in “economic terrorism” against the regime. Tehran has shown a significant interest, but limited capacity, to act within U.S. territory in recent years, as evidenced by the failed attempt to bomb a restaurant in Washington, D.C., in 2011 and the FBI’s exposure of a kidnapping plot against an Iranian-American journalist living in Brooklyn.
“So they are doing this kind of thing all the time,” said former White House deputy national security adviser Victoria Coates, who specialized in Middle East and North African affairs during her tenure at the NSC under Trump. “So far, they haven’t been successful, but they only have to be successful once.”
Coates is one of the individuals named on Iran’s new sanctions list, which she agreed is “a euphemism for something more concrete” than an economic punishment or refusal to grant a hypothetical visa request.
“It would be reassuring if either somebody from the White House or the FBI wanted to reach out and say, ‘There are no current threats against you of which we are aware; do you have any concerns?’” she said.
Coates said that she isn’t aware of any such contact between the Biden team and former Trump administration officials such as herself and credited Sullivan for issuing the “very welcome” statement on Sunday. “They’ve been pretty busy,” she acknowledged. “There’s been a lot going on … I’m very glad he’s focused on it.”
Sullivan urged Iranian officials not to mistake intra-American disagreements about the wisdom of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as a sign that violence against the Trump team would be tolerated.
“As Americans, we have our disagreements on politics,” he said. “We have our disagreements on Iran policy. But we are united in our resolve against threats and provocations. We are united in the defense of our people.”