In autumn 1979 the revolutionary government of Iran waged war against the United States by invading and occupying its embassy in Tehran and holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. That act of war was recognized for what it was but never received a like retort. Nor did Iran ever apologize for the act or compensate the United States for the damages. Since that time there have been no formal relations between the United States and Iran. That is, the two states remain at war. That gives continuing force to the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s “fatwa” declaring permanent war against the “great Satan” (United States) and the “little Satan” (Israel).
Only in this context can one make sense of the present bold attempt by Iran to concoct a plot to commit a dramatic assassination on United States soil. It is not that the act is without precedent. On September 21, 1976 Orlando Letelier was assassinated in Washington, D.C. in a conspiracy generally believed to have originated with the government of Chile (which he formerly served as Ambassador to the United States). There is strong indication that United States authorities knew of the pending assassination but failed to deliver a warning or to act to prevent it, because it served the purposes of U. S. security policy. Accordingly, this deed by a sovereign power, violating United States law and sovereignty, was never treated as a potential act of war.
In this context, the action of the Iranian government through the Quds force of its Revolutionary Guard, on its face an act of war, has the color of prior precedent to foster ambiguity about the nature of a potential United States response. Further, aiming at the Ambassador of Saudia Arabia instead of explicitly United States targets introduces further ambiguity as to whether this was meant as a direct assault against the United States.
In other words, this calculated endeavor has all the hallmarks of an operation by the Iranian government to test how far it might go in striking against the United States without incurring risk of direct, military response. The attacks of 9/11 brought about direct military response, precisely because they were correctly read as an attack on the United States. Iran’s patient and careful war against the United States is predicated on gradual insults to American power and influence without incurring open and public awareness of the determination to persist in Khomeini’s vision of destroying the United States.
Why now? Consider: the United States, strategically speaking had by the end of the decade of the 2000s effectively surrounded Iran militarily. As of 2008, however, the United States intention to relax that military threat had become clear and by now the realization of that intent is well underway. That means that Iran can act to displace U. S. influence in that region (as the so-called Arab spring facilitates) and at the same time to legitimize the global struggle against the U. S. But the global struggle, heretofore identified primarily with Osama bin Laden, can only be preserved by means of concrete deeds that illustrate both a capability and a resolve to wage war.
What to do? The United States should convey forcefully that never again will it permit insults to its sovereign with impunity. The assassination attempt would have been a Fort Sumter moment for Iran, expanding its particular and continuing war against the United States into an expression of the global jihad. For that reason, it is imperative that the United States openly recognizes and declares that it remains at war with the state of Iran, based on Iran’s known aggressions against the United States, and the United States reserves to itself the choosing of the moment and manner in which it will bring that war to a successful conclusion, barring a fruitful suit for peace by Iran itself.