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Iran Targets Diplomats and Political Opponents—on U.S. Soil
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Iran Targets Diplomats and Political Opponents—on U.S. Soil

In addition to threats against John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, the Islamic Republic has surveilled members of the think tank community.

Iran is expanding its proxy warfare beyond its malign activities in the Middle East to another front: American soil. 

Individuals working on behalf of the Iranian government have targeted several prominent members of the think tank community through both in-person surveillance and cyber operations, The Dispatch has learned. 

At the center of the regime’s campaign is United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a U.S.-based advocacy group promoting policy to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Sources indicate that Iran’s targets within the organization’s ranks include UANI CEO and former George W. Bush administration official Mark Wallace, former Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Thomas Kaplan, an American billionaire and UANI’s original funder. 

“The threat existed from the very beginning. It’s just gotten more and more pervasive,” Kaplan said, asked by The Dispatch when he first became aware that he was in Iran’s crosshairs. “I’d been sort of given signals that the Iranians were watching, and that didn’t inhibit me. And it still doesn’t inhibit me despite the fact that the threat level is now at an official level. To the contrary, it just reinforces my opposition to this particular regime.”

Kaplan has received “duty to warn” notices from the FBI, which alert targets to threatening activity by hostile foreign powers. Sources say that suspected Iranian-directed operatives have conducted “pattern of life” analyses—tracking UANI affiliates’ movements and routines—in possible preparation for planned abductions or assassinations. In at least three instances, UANI affiliates were photographed by unknown individuals. 

In cyberspace, suspected Iranian hackers have attempted to carry out various phishing operations on UANI members. Records obtained by The Dispatch show efforts by unknown actors to circumvent two-factor authentication, impersonate think tank leadership, and stage fake events with suspicious RSVP links. UANI believes these hacking campaigns to be the work of Charming Kitten, an Iranian government-linked cyberwarfare group. 

“The threats to Americans are multiple, pervasive, and systematic,” Wallace said, asked by The Dispatch about Iran’s targeting of UANI. “It’s not a localized event. This is a strategic effort by the Iranians to intimidate, exert their strength—a show of force—because they feel like they can either manage, or deal with, or temper any response.” 

“I’m not aware of any time in our history that a hostile foreign government is systematically and pervasively targeting attacks on American soil against Americans,” Wallace added. “This is a state actor pursuing these activities against Americans. That sure looks to me like an act of war.”

The organization and its targeted members are now tasked with providing their own cyber security and private security details, which Kaplan described as “not cheap,” declining to provide additional information. “It just goes with the territory, I suppose,” he says. “It’s a price we have to pay, but as Americans, we shouldn’t. It should be very, very, very clear that we’re off limits.” At least one other policy institute has been subject to threats from Iran, The Dispatch confirmed.

News of Iran’s campaigns surveilling private researchers and activists comes amid a series of high-profile attacks and attempted attacks on former government officials, Iranian exiles, and other regime opponents in the United States. Those affected say the plots—and the networks of Iranian operatives and local recruits tasked with carrying them out—speak to the Islamic Republic’s sense of impunity.

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed court documents detailing an Iranian conspiracy to assassinate Bolton via proxy. 

Beginning around 2021, Shahram Poursafi—a Tehran-based member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—allegedly tried to commission a Texas-based individual to take pictures and videos of Bolton. Per the complaint, Poursafi eventually requested that the connection hire someone to carry out Bolton’s assassination for $300,0000 and alluded to a follow-up “job” for $1 million, in a reported reference to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

An accompanying 28-page affidavit described in great detail the frequent contact between Poursafi and his local conduit, including deliberations on where to carry out the attack, what weapon to use, and when. On several occasions, Poursafi urged the recruit to hurry the process along, imposing IRGC deadlines on the operation. In one instance, the recruit asked Poursafi about his background in “this type of work.” In response, Poursafi said that “it was like crossing the street: It was better not to spend too much time looking in one direction, but just to do it,” the affidavit reads. 

In an interview with The Dispatch, Bolton said the FBI first alerted him to Iran’s intention to target him in the spring of 2020, shortly after the U.S. strike on IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani. Over the course of the following year, he said, the notices became more urgent and more specific. In one meeting with more than a dozen FBI agents just before Thanksgiving of last year, Bolton asked that his security detail be reinstated—a request authorities eventually granted. 

“I said then, ‘look, if it’s this serious, why don’t you talk to the Secret Service to see if maybe they should come back into action here, having lost the Secret Service the day I resigned,” Bolton told The Dispatch. “Trump cut it off within hours, which is not the normal practice, but anyway, that’s Trump for you.”

The conspiracy bears striking resemblance to the planned assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, during the Obama administration. In 2011, Manssor Arbabsiar—an Iranian national—was sentenced to 25 years in prison for planning the killing of al-Jubeir and accompanying attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in DC. The suspect allegedly confessed to being “recruited, funded, and directed by men he understood to be senior officials in Iran’s Quds Force.”

Bolton and other prospective targets of Iranian operations in the U.S. are quick to praise the around-the clock-efforts by law enforcement to prevent prospective attacks from coming to fruition, but they also view the apparent prevalence of such plots as a major policy failure, particularly as the Biden administration pushes forward with indirect negotiations with Iran to resurrect parts of the Obama-era nuclear deal. Iranian negotiators sent their formal response to the European Union’s proposed agreement on Monday. 

“The White House has a compartmented brain. It’s got the nuclear negotiations over here and the terrorism threat over there, whereas in the minds of the ayatollahs in Iran, there’s no compartmentalization at all,” Bolton said. “This is part and parcel of their arsenal.”

After the scheme targeting Bolton was made public by the Justice Department last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement vowing that “any attack would be met with severe consequences.” But many have criticized the assertion as an admission of the administration’s apparent unwillingness to respond to attempted attacks. 

In January, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a condemnation with near-identical language after Iran sanctioned 51 Americans: “Should Iran attack any of our nationals, including any of the 51 people named yesterday, it will face severe consequences.” Several analysts have pointed to the administration’s continued reliance on a failed deterrence strategy. “I’m sure the U.S. government has known that even after our statements to Iran, the Iranians didn’t care and they haven’t changed their approach. It’s really irresponsible,” said Gabriel Noronha, the State Department’s former special adviser for Iran.

“They don’t fear any consequences,” Mark Dubowitz, CEO of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Dispatch. “The worst that’s going to happen to them is a strongly worded tweet from Tony Blinken or a DOJ indictment of somebody that’s not even in the country. That’s hardly a severe consequence.” 

“It almost looks like somebody has to get killed before everybody wakes up,” one threatened individual said on the condition of anonymity. 

That premise was almost put to the test last Friday, when a New Jersey man stormed the stage of a speaking event in Western New York and stabbed Salman Rushdie 10 times. Rushdie has lived with a $3 million bounty on his head since 1989, when former Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill the author for his depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in The Satanic Verses. Rushdie is expected to survive the attacks, but he remains in the hospital in critical condition, his family said

A recent editorial in Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei-affiliated Kayhan newspaper praised the assailant, 24-year-old Hadi Matar: “Bravo to this courageous and duty-conscious man who attacked the apostate and depraved Salman Rushdie in New York. Let us kiss the hands of the one who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife.” Matar had been in “direct contact” with IRGC members over social media prior to the attack, Vice reported Sunday. While there isn’t yet evidence of Iranian regime foreknowledge or direction of the attack, many experts believe that it was at least regime-inspired. 

Earlier this month, a man with a loaded AK-47 showed up at the Brooklyn home of Masih Alinejad—an Iranian women’s rights activist and journalist—in an apparent murder plot. Last year, the Justice Department charged four Iranian intelligence officials with conspiring to abduct Alinejad from New York. 

“If we’re going to continue to treat this solely as a law enforcement matter, then we’re just repeating this vicious cycle of Iran attempting brazen attacks on American soil,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director at UANI.

 “There is no public evidence the US or Europe have deterred Iran from terrorism on our territory,” Norman Roule, former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, told The Dispatch. “The absence of any significant penalty for failed attempts at terrorism on our territory means that Iran will continue such operations until they are successful.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.