Iran's relationship with the United States, and Western world in general, has been defined by the assumption that they are in some sense untouchable. Many in the West subscribe to this notion as well. Analysts are quick to point out that intense Iranian nationalism is a barrier to any attempts at deconstruction/reconstruction of their political system. Invaders, even those with good intentions, are not welcome. Counterterrorism types are quick to point to Iran’s feared global network of terror facilitators and proxies who will respond to any conventional military attack with wave after wave of terrorist attacks on every corner of the globe. This is Iran’s version of mutually assured destruction and it has served them well.
Our own capabilities have served us well too. The Iranian political class does not want what is assuredly an unsurvivable conventional war. Their strategy, executed quite well I think, has been to challenge the West on multiple fronts while always pulling back short of the line. They believe that they can play dirty while the West is shackled by ethical constraints and fear of putting boots on the ground.
By identifying and targeting those who actively work to support Iran’s most evil intentions (nuclear scientists for example) we can send a different message: you are not safe. In fact, you are not safe anywhere. You are not safe when you travel and, more importantly, you are not safe in your homeland. We will, if you persist, kill you during your morning commute. Do not sleep too soundly in that five star hotel because we just might smother your ass with a pillow.
Individual specificity is how we can wage war with Iran right now. It is brutal and ugly but it is less brutal and ugly than the alternative. In a war against individuals innocents are spared and justice is served. The illusion of safety for bad actors who support terrorism and seek the destruction of our state is shattered. Apply these tactics on a larger scale, over time, and these regimes will likely find it increasingly difficult to place intelligent people in supporting roles. The message to scientists, agents, oppressors, even “religious” leaders is clear: you are not just a small irrelevant cog in a larger machine, you are not lost in the crowd, you are the enemy and we will kill you.
There are definitely signs that this is happening, both in the struggle against Iran and in the greater war on terror. But is it happening on the scale needed to change some of these long standing assumptions? This is largely a covert effort (which it should be) so evaluation is difficult. Observers can only point to Iran’s behavior as an indicator. My gut feeling is that our capabilities in this area are increasing (just wait until we get indoor nano-scale lethal UASs) as is our comfort level with the approach but we’re not quite there. Iran continues to move aggressively froward on a dangerous track. Ironically, our greatest hope in preventing a devastating war is in taking off the gloves and getting dirty. We have to be as ruthless as our enemies without abandoning the values that set us apart.
Photo: Car of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, Iranian nuclear scientist. Assassins reportedly attached magnetic bombs to his vehicle.