In his remarks, Jeffrey outlined the expanding network of Iranian terrorist proxies. Tehran has long sponsored Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Palestine. But in recent years, a number of other Iran-backed militias have grown up in the region, often seeming to emulate the Hezbollah model. These include Shiite partisan groups in Iraq as well as those that are providing support for the Assad regime and what is left of the regular military in Syria. The US government and other opponents of the Iranian regime also accuse it of providing assistance and strategic direction to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
As this network continues to grow in both size and organization, there is a clear risk of its multiple components becoming increasingly close-knit under the banner of Iranian “resistance” to Western influence. This prospect is, of course, regarded with great concern by the Trump administration and other entities that are striving to both expose and disrupt Tehran’s terrorist infrastructure. Jeffrey underscored those concerned in his remarks on Thursday, arguing that if collective action is not taken to mitigate Iran’s regional influence, its terrorist network could develop into a threat much like the one that was posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in recent years.
In order to prevent that outcome, Jeffrey recommended “stability ops to break Iran’s meddling influence.” And according to Newsweek, the State Department representative also pointed to Saudi Arabia a particularly effective American partner in carrying out such operations. This reflects the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to expand upon regional partnerships that can be expected to advance American interests while counterbalancing adversaries. Furthermore, it speaks to what Newsweek identifies as a shifting mission in Syria, from the defeat of ISIL to the expulsion of the Islamic Republic and all its militant allies.
This is a goal that the Trump administration hopes to accomplish with the help of the aforementioned economic sanctions. In justifying withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last May, the president called attention to the Iranian regime’s expanding influence and its destructive role in regional conflicts, arguing that sanctions relief had been misappropriated to support those activities.
This argument was also effectively repeated by the State Department this week. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported on Thursday that Nathan Sales, the Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, had informed reporters of the total figures regarding Iran’s spending on regional militant organizations. Approximately 700 million dollars per year is reportedly dedicated to Hezbollah, while Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups receive an additional 100 million. This leaves 200 million dollars in annual spending, the recipients of which were not identified by Sales, though they presumably include the Iraqi, Syria, and Yemeni Shiite militias that have created some of the most recent concerns for Middle Eastern stability and global security.
Also under Iran’s influence are separatist and rebel groups operating inside the territory of the regime’s regional adversaries, including Saudi Arabia. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was presumably referring to these entities when he declared on Thursday that Saudi Arabia would soon be targeted by Iranian activities that would prove to be “covert but painful.” According to Tehran Times, Jafari’s comments were made in response to purely verbal Saudi attacks, which Iranian officials described as “empty rants.”
Jafari also took aim at the United States with the same speech, saying, for instance, that “America’s authority and dignity are on the decline, and the day will come, much sooner than expected, for the full elimination of this satanic power.” His remarks did not rise to the level of explicit terror threats against Western adversaries, but the presence of such threats has been made a matter of public record over the past year.
In August, two individuals were indicted in an American federal court for spying on behalf of the Islamic Republic. At least one affidavit from a federal investigator involved in the case specified that some of the suspects’ activities had evidently been designed to set the stage for terrorist attacks on Iranian opposition activists on US soil. This conclusion was made all the more credible by the fact that less than two months earlier, on June 30, European authorities disrupted a plot by Iranian operatives to set off explosives at the Iran Freedom rally, which had been organized near Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Even in the wake of arrests relating to this case and the spying activities, Iranian plots continued to target the West, as evidenced by another arrest in Denmark in late October. That arrest was related to apparent plans for the assassination of opposition activists living in Copenhagen. The announcement by Danish authorities was accompanied by government officials pressuring their European counterparts to take action to rein in Iran’s belligerent activities. In this way, Denmark has joined the US in the effort to bring greater international focus to Iran’s history of terrorism.
While Denmark appears to be focused only on that threat as it applies to Western powers, the White House has taken a much broader view. But whether looking solely at Europe or also at the Middle East, it is arguably important to note that the threat is not limited to bombings and assassinations, but includes growing capabilities in the area of cyberterrorism as well.
This is the message being expressed by such cybersecurity experts as Brett Bruen, the president of Global Situation Room, Inc. In a report on the Iranian cyberterrorism threat published on Friday, Fox News quoted him as saying, “We are very likely to see Tehran in the coming days and weeks target American interests,” in retaliation for the re-imposition of nuclear-related sanctions. Other such experts have previously reported upon significant levels of growth in Iran’s hacking capabilities and its organization of online campaigns involving direct attacks, illicit information gathering, and also social media disinformation of the sort that Russia used in an effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election.
The growth of Iran’s potential and actual cyberterrorism activity follows the same trajectory as the development of its traditional terrorist infrastructure, and some commentators have been quick to link these two phenomena together. As Fox pointed out, a recent report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies concluded that the Islamic Republic could be expected to lash out both online and offline in the midst of ongoing threats from both the international community and the domestic population.
Iranians in numerous cities and towns have been participating in anti-government protests since the beginning of the year, many of which explicitly call attention to the same financial misappropriation that the US president used in justifying his withdrawal from the nuclear deal. One of the ways in which the regime has sought to keep these protests under control is through expansions in its already vigorous restrictions on the internet and social media.
Speaking to Fox News about the Iranian cyber threat, one State Department official called attention to this situation, saying, “The Iranian regime prevents its own people from using the Internet in an attempt to bar them from obtaining information or connecting with the outside world, and yet the Iranian leadership uses it freely for their own nefarious purposes.”