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U.S. intel warns Iran targeting Americans as Biden nears nuclear deal that would end sanctions

Iran threatens U.S. targets on U.S. soil, seeks to develop networks within U.S. homeland, warns intelligence community's 2022 Annual Threat Assessment.

Published: March 10, 2022 4:23pm

Updated: March 13, 2022 11:21pm

The U.S. intelligence community assessed last week that Iran will threaten Americans, both directly and through proxies, and continues to develop networks inside the U.S., highlighting an issue that's long troubled security officials but has received little public attention.

Almost as if on cue, Iran on Sunday claimed responsibility for a missile barrage that struck near a U.S. consulate under construction in northern Iraq. U.S. officials also blamed Tehran. No casualties were reported.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a U.S.-designated terrorist group, said it was attacking Israeli targets, indicating the attack may have been revenge for a recent Israeli airstrike in Syria that killed two IRGC commanders. However, IRGC-linked media also connected the strikes to the U.S. killing Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of the IRGC's elite Quds force, in 2020.

The U.S. intelligence assessment and Iranian attack come as the Biden administration pushes to revive a nuclear deal with Iran that would provide the Iranian regime with a windfall of cash through sanctions relief, much of which Tehran is expected to spend on its military and terrorist groups.

"We assess that Iran will threaten U.S. persons directly and via proxy attacks, particularly in the Middle East," the intelligence community's 2022 Annual Threat Assessment states. "Iran also remains committed to developing networks inside the United States — an objective it has pursued for more than a decade."

The report, published Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, added that Iran "has previously attempted to conduct lethal operations in the United States" and will launch attacks against U.S. forces and other Americans in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere.

The prospect of Iran plotting to target the U.S. homeland — especially through its chief proxy, Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group based in Lebanon — isn't new. Iran and Hezbollah have maintained sleeper cells and sleeper agents in the U.S. for years, waiting for Tehran's signal to strike.

"Based on my experience and recent investigations, it is highly likely that both Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have 'sleeper networks and operatives' in the U.S. that could be activated in the event of the outbreak of hostilities between the U.S. and Iran," said Mitchell Silber, former director of intelligence analysis at the New York City Police Department. "During my time at the NYPD, we had robust investigations related to both Lebanese Hezbollah and separately Iran. The Iran/Lebanese Hezbollah threat was one that was always at the top of our threat matrix."

One Hezbollah operative told the FBI during interviews in 2016 and 2017 that, if the U.S. and Iran went to war, "the U.S. sleeper cell would expect to be called upon to act." That operative, Ali Mohamed Kourani, and another Hezbollah member were carrying out preoperational surveillance for potential Hezbollah attacks in the United States and Panama, according to U.S. prosecutors.

An FBI agent who interviewed Kourani later recalled him stating: "I am a member of 910, also known as Islamic Jihad or the Black Ops of Hezbollah. The unit is Iranian-controlled."

Experts have said Hezbollah, which answers to and reportedly receives about $700 million a year from Iran, is present in at least 15 U.S. cities and "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world." Before 9/11, it killed more Americans than any other terrorist group.

"It's our assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook," Nick Rasmussen, then-director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, said in 2017.

Over the past two decades, there have been several documented incidents of Iranian and Hezbollah agents monitoring and collecting intelligence on various targets across the U.S., including Jewish facilities, for potential terrorist attacks. Many were prosecuted or expelled from the country.

Iran has also targeted former top Trump administration officials.

In January, the State Department sent to Congress two assessments which cited a "serious and credible threat" on the lives of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Trump administration Iran envoy Brian Hook. The State Department assessed both men needed round-the-clock, U.S.-taxpayer funded diplomatic security details.

Last month, the State Department told Congress in a report that it's paying more than $2 million a month to provide 24-hour security to both Hook and Pompeo for threats they face from Iran, according to the Associated Press.

Last week, the Washington Examiner reported that at least two IRGC members have been plotting to assassinate John Bolton, who served as former President Trump's national security adviser.

These revelations came amid repeated public threats by senior Iranian officials to seek revenge for the death of Soleimani. Such threats appear to have inspired others to act on their own: Earlier this month, a woman stabbed her date whom she had met online in Nevada in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani, according to police.

Iran hasn't just targeted government officials.

Last July, the Justice Department announced charges against Iranian intelligence agents for plotting to kidnap an American citizen, journalist Masih Alinejad, in the U.S. and forcibly return her to Iran, where she was born.

A State Department spokesperson told Just the News it imposed sanctions on those behind the attempted kidnapping, describing it as an "unacceptable and egregious violation of fundamental international norms."

The Justice Department didn't respond to a request for comment on its efforts to investigate and prosecute plots by Iran and Hezbollah to attack targets on U.S. soil.

None of these plots by Iran appear to have caused the Biden administration to tamp down its efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which places temporary curbs on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions on the regime. Former President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord in 2018.

"The Biden administration has been sincere and steadfast in pursuing a path of meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the [nuclear deal] and to address our full range of concerns with Iran," the State Department spokesperson said. "A mutual return to compliance is in America's national interest. It is the best available option to restrict Iran's nuclear program and provide a platform to address Iran's destabilizing conduct."

The spokesperson was asked whether ongoing talks in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal should address Iranian threats on U.S. soil. "As we have previously stated, make no mistake: The United States will protect and defend its citizens," the spokesperson replied. "This includes those serving the United States now and those who formerly served."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken sidestepped the question on CBS' "Face the Nation," instead addressing the broad threat to Americans posed by Iran. "We will stand and act against those [threats] every single day" he said.

Blinken added that "nothing about the deal prevents us from taking action against Iran when it's engaged in actions that threaten us, threaten our allies and partners."

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, similarly indicated Iran's plots don't need to be addressed in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna.

"These other malign activities of Iran's, their plots against the U.S. personnel or Americans around the world we can deal with and have to deal with separately, and we should deal with them aggressively," he told CBS. "We need to go after all of this, not necessarily in one agreement."

Neither Schiff nor Blinken noted that under the nuclear deal being negotiated Iran will immediately gain access to an estimated $86.1 billion to $130.5 billion in foreign assets that currently are not fully accessible and readily available, according to Saeed Ghasseminejad of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Experts predict Iran will direct much of this money to terrorism and military expansion abroad.

"In 2015 and 2016, Iran used the windfall it received from the lifting of sanctions to spend on its military and terrorist groups," said Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst who also served as a staffer on both the House Intelligence Committee and the Trump administration National Security Council. "I expect this to happen again, as well as increased funding of Iranian proxies such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq."

Iran ramped up defense spending, which includes money for the IRGC, by more than 30% from 2016 to 2018 with U.S. sanctions lifted under the nuclear deal. In 2019, however, Iran significantly reduced defense spending after Trump withdrew from the accord and reimposed sanctions. Many of Iran's proxies, including Hezbollah, were hit hard by Trump's sanctions.

The IRGC's budget is scheduled to skyrocket by more than double this coming fiscal year, and sanctions relief from a nuclear deal will only add to its cash flow.

"The Revolutionary Guards dominates the civilian economy," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "By unfreezing assets, lifting sanctions, and encouraging new investment, the Guards can expect a windfall, most of which they will use to finance their ideological projects at home and abroad. Expect terror attacks and insurgency to increase sharply."

Given Iran's record, some counterterrorism experts are questioning the Biden administration's approach to the nuclear deal.

"Why, in the middle of all these foreign and domestic messes that the current administration has brought forward, would they even entertain a new deal," said Robyn Gritz, a retired FBI special agent who worked in counterterrorism for several years. "This will make the United States look even weaker, possibly funding a terror attack on our own soil. This is infuriating. The American people need to educate themselves on the terror history of Iran, the largest state sponsor of terror in the world."

As a teenager, Gritz recalled, the Paris hotel where she was staying on a school trip was bombed by Hezbollah. 

"The Hezbollah bombing campaign, which spanned several days, killed hundreds of people," she recounted. "Who do you think was funding that terror campaign? Iran."

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