Last week, Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old raised in the United States but loyal to Iran’s IRGC and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stabbed author Salman Rushdie as he prepared to give a talk in western New York.
The Iranian government both celebrated and denied responsibility. Kayhan, whose editor the supreme leader appoints, wrote, “A thousand bravos … to the brave and dutiful person who attacked the apostate and evil Salman Rushdie in New York … The hand of the man who tore the neck of God’s enemy must be kissed.” The Foreign Ministry, however, said, “We firmly and strictly deny any connection between the assailant and Iran.”
Such disavowals are disingenuous, but they work.
Consider what Iran has gotten away with by pleading that its terrorism was the work of rogue agents: In 1989, assassins gunned down Kurdish dissidents in Vienna. In 1992, it was Berlin’s turn. In 1992 and 1994, Iranian terrorists struck Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires. Two years later, an Iranian operation destroyed a U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia. Beginning in 2003, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxy militias targeted Americans in Iraq, ultimately killing more than 600. In 2007, the IRGC began hijacking ships, seizing British and, in 2016, American sailors. IRGC tanker hijackings continue. In 2019, after Iran shot down a $176 million American drone, President Donald Trump eschewed retaliation.
Command structure and strategy evolved differently in Iran. Whereas the West has Machiavelli and Clausewitz, Iranians turn to writers from nearly a millennia ago who wrote their advice in a genre known as “mirrors for princes.” Rather than streamline command, Iranians duplicate it in order to force bureaucracies to compete against and inform on each other. The same philosophy applies to terrorism: After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, analysts debated whether the Badr Corps or Jaysh al Mahdi were the pro-Iranian militia; the answer was both. Iranian patronage shifted back and forth to keep both in check. Likewise, in 2010, Kuwaiti security captured two Iranian terrorist cells, one answering to the IRGC Quds Force and the other to the Intelligence Ministry. Interrogations showed neither was aware of the other’s presence.