Pretoria plot fits Iran’s pattern of behavior
US intelligence officials believe that Iranian operatives are seeking to assassinate Lana Marks, the American ambassador to South Africa, who has been in the post since last year. The plot, which US officials have known about since the spring, reportedly involves the Iranian Embassy in Pretoria. President Donald Trump tweeted a stern warning to Iran after Politico reported the plot last month.
While some have guffawed at the allegation, it fits a clear pattern of growing Iranian ties in Africa and the willingness of the regime to launch terrorist attacks around the world. It is worth noting Iran has deep ties with South Africa. The country has long been a significant trading partner of Tehran. Iranian foreign direct investment in South Africa in 2018 stood at a reported $135 billion.
South Africa has also been a source of military technology for the pariah state. Rogue South African scientists may have aided Iran’s chemical weapons program in the early 1990s, according to declassified US intelligence documents released by the Washington-based Property of the People group. Hezbollah has often been considered an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, but the terrorist group is also well established in many parts of Africa. It has been accused of operating training camps and conducting fundraising in South Africa since at least 1994. As early as 2004, a US State Department document warned of a South African political group inspired by “Iranian Shiite fundamentalism.”
However, South Africa has broken with Iran over with the Pretoria plot. While the Iranians have dismissed the allegations, South African officials have launched an investigation and vowed to protect all foreign diplomats in the country. President Cyril Ramaphosa has also been briefed on the matter.
Second, it follows the increasingly public revelation of Iranian terrorist plots in both the US and Europe in recent years. In 2018, the Trump administration arrested two Iranian agents for spying on Iranian opposition groups in the US. The same year, the Danish government accused Iran of plotting attacks against opposition figures in Denmark. Meanwhile, the French government accused Iran of plotting to bomb a Paris rally attended by thousands of Iranian exiles organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The investigation led to arrests in several countries and a cooling of ties between Iran and the EU. The trial of an Iranian diplomat charged in connection with that case will begin next month in Belgium. Elsewhere, Albanian police announced that Iran had been plotting a similar strike in that country last year.
Also in 2019, Dutch authorities alleged Iran had paid a Moroccan gangster to kill two dissidents in Holland. One of those slain was Ahmad Mola Nissi, the leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, who was shot five times in front of his home. Such attacks in Europe have precedents in the 1990s too. In 1992, a group of Kurdish dissidents was assassinated at Mykonos Cafe in Berlin. Several senior Swedish politicians who happened to be visiting Berlin at the time of the murders narrowly missed having dinner at the same restaurant that night due to scheduling issues.
It follows the increasingly public revelation of Iranian terrorist plots in both the US and Europe in recent years.
The Pretoria plot is also reminiscent of a 2011 incident, in which Iranian operatives sought to hire Mexican gangsters to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US as he dined at the Cafe Milano restaurant in Washington. The plot was foiled, one of the plotters was handed a lengthy prison sentence, and President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, Saudi diplomatic efforts at the UN produced a resolution condemning the attack. The resolution called on “Iran to comply with all of its obligations under international law, including the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons.” Still, as the above incidents highlight, such plots have sadly continued in jurisdictions around the world.
South Africa may seem like an unlikely place for the regime to launch a “revenge” attack for the January US airstrike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani and the deputy leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. However, Marks is a personal friend of Trump. Born in South Africa, she is conversant with both Xhosa and Afrikaans — two of South Africa’s 11 official languages. After a brief tennis career, she made her fortune as a fashion designer. As such, the foiled plot may have been designed to humiliate Trump before the Nov. 3 presidential election.
At this point, the details of the Pretoria plot are unclear. However, the potential threat is an important reminder that the specter of IRGC terrorism stretches far beyond the Middle East.
- Joseph Hammond is a journalist and former Fulbright Public Policy fellow with the government of Malawi. Hammond has been a recipient of fellowships organized by several think tanks, including the National Endowment for Democracy, the Atlantic Council of the United States, the Heinrich Boll Stiftung North America Foundation, and the Policy Center for the New South’s Atlantic Dialogue.