On April 13, 1993, shortly after leaving office, President George H.W. Bush traveled to Kuwait in order to celebrate that country’s liberation from Iraqi occupation. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, still smarting from defeat in the 100-hour ground war, saw an opportunity for revenge. The Iraqi plot allegedly involved using a car bomb to assassinate Bush. Fortunately, Kuwaiti security found the bomb and, the day before Bush’s arrival, arrested seventeen plotters. Forensic examination of the bomb’s circuity showed the Iraqi connection and so, on June 26, 1993, President Bill Clinton ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on Iraq’s intelligence headquarters.
Biden’s team may want a different relationship with the Tehran, but the president-elect may nevertheless face a similar scenario. When Biden enters office, his team will roll back if not end the “maximum pressure” campaign. This would be a mistake—one based on Biden’s belief in an imaginary Iran in which the so-called reformists both do not share core regime ideology and exert meaningful control over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and intelligence services—but elections matter and Biden won.
While Biden and other Obama administration veterans may believe that Tehran shares their desire for détente if not reconciliation, important elements within the Iranian regime believe otherwise. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have taken the hardest line on Iran since Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher oversaw multiple executive orders tightening sanctions on Iran and plugging extraterritorial loopholes.
Certainly, Biden’s team will want to loosen “maximum pressure” sanctions if only to give some incentive for the Iranians to return to the negotiating table. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, however, has already made clear that the lifting of all sanctions is a precondition to returning to the table. Of greater concern, however, should be Iran’s continued insistence on avenging the deaths of Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani and chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Just a day before the first anniversary of Soleimani’s death, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Hassan Salami told Guardsmen, “Any action taken by the enemy against us will be responded with a reciprocal, decisive, and firm blow.” It is a threat that Biden’s team should not ignore.
Iranian officials have repeatedly promised revenge for the death of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh. While some pundits and politicians worried at the time of the strike on Soleimani that war could be on the horizon, Tehran knows that would be suicidal: the last time the Iranian military sought to confront the United States directly, they lost their navy and much of their air force. Rather, it is likely Iranian officials could try a more personal response against Pompeo and those most closely involved with constructing his Iran policy or those it deems involved in the death of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh.
It would not be the first time the Islamic Republic has turned to assassination. The Carter administration did not sever diplomatic relations with Iran due to the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran: Carter hoped keeping the Iranian embassy in Washington open could facilitate diplomacy. Rather, he shuttered Iran’s Massachusetts Avenue embassy after it helped direct the assassination of an Iranian dissident in Bethesda, Maryland. Nine months after the USS Vincennes accidently shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, a pipe bomb blew up a minivan driven by Sharon Rogers, the wife of the Vincennes’ captain; that case remains unsolved. The New Haven-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center has documented many other Iranian assassinations in both Europe and the Middle East. Over the last decade and, especially in recent years, Iranian authorities have re-embraced the tactic with enthusiasm. That the Biden administration, having embraced the calumny that tightened visa restrictions were a “Muslim ban” may make any Iranian retaliation easier although Iranian authorities just as often pay Lebanese and others to do their dirty work. Iranian authorities may also misjudge the rancor of the U.S. political debate and believe that both progressive animosity toward Trump administration veterans and moral equivalence would temper a Democratic administration’s reaction.
Former presidents and their spouses get lifelong secret service protection, but cabinet secretaries and their aides do not. Biden, however, should consider making an exception for those whom Iran has placed in its crosshairs. Even if Biden, Secretary of State-select Tony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan wish to believe that diplomacy can tip the power inside Tehran toward reform, they must recognize that Iranian security forces act autonomously from elected political officials. They need to make clear on day one that any Iranian attempt to avenge Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh by targeting Trump administration veterans or, indeed, any American will be a casus belli. And, lest the Iranian government not fully understand American seriousness or have any control over the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence service, they must take proactive steps to protect Pompeo and his Iran team.