Will Iran's Response to Soleimani's Killing Implicate U.S. Foreign Student Policies?

By Dan Cadman on January 3, 2020

Most Americans probably know by now that a U.S. strike killed the commander of the Quds Force, the portion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for terrorism, assassination, and other illicit covert activities all over the world in furthering the strategic goals of the Islamic Republic.

Democrats who were panning Trump's soft-pedaled response to incursions of Iran-backed militias onto the grounds (and into some of the outer buildings) of the United States' largest embassy in the world, suggesting it was the beginning of his "Benghazi", are now spinning a 180 at the unambiguous response to Iranian-provoked aggressions to edgily declare that he may have brought us to the brink of war with the ayatollahs.

As David Sanger suggests in a news analysis for the New York Times, "[W]hile senior American officials have no doubt the Iranians will respond, they do not know how quickly, or how furiously."

That is undoubtedly true, especially since it caught the supreme leader flat-footed after tweeting that the United States could "do nothing" in response to the break-in or the attack on U.S. troops and contractors by pro-Iranian militias a few days before that; he's now caught in a Twitter trap of his own making. At this point, though, the tenor of the response, as Donald Rumsfeld would phrase it, is one of the "known unknowns". Sanger quotes some pundits as suggesting that war is inevitable, but goes on to note:

[I]t may not be a conventional war in any sense, since the Iranians' advantage is all in asymmetric conflict.

Their history suggests they will not take on the United States frontally. Iranians are the masters of striking soft targets, starting in Iraq, but hardly limited to that country. In the past few years, they have honed an ability to cause low-level chaos, and left no doubt that they want to be able to reach the United States.

For now, they cannot — at least in traditional ways.

But they have tried terrorism, including an abortive effort nine years ago to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington, and late Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security was sending out reminders of Iran's past and current efforts to attack the United States in cyberspace.

I am far from the first to note some of the rough parallels between the incursion into the U.S. embassy this past week by pro-Iranian militia fighters, and what happened in Tehran in 1979. While it isn't a perfect analogy, it seems more apropos than the Benghazi comparison. It was a given, for instance, that the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was never by students — it was by ruffians and thugs directly under the control of the ayatollahs, who were posing as students.

This brings me to my point: Despite the ill will between our countries; notwithstanding Iran's persistent attempt to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles; despite its constant efforts to create cyber havoc; notwithstanding its pervasive system of espionage and theft of American defense materials and secrets; and even in the face of evidence that the Iranians have been responsible for the death of over 600 armed forces members, as Sanger quotes David Petraeus, our country chose to admit for study into this country nearly 13,000 Iranian students during the 2017-2018 school year — and that doesn't include the figures for an additional cadre of Iranian exchange scholars. Chances are good that the numbers have risen since then.

Knowing, as the U.S. intelligence community does, that the IRGC and Quds Force have developed advanced overseas strike capacities in the form of covert cells, the question arises: How many of those foreign students and scholars are capable of acting on behalf of Iran in a horrific, escalating game of tit-for-tat, particularly one that begins to involve attacks on "soft targets" inside the United States?

Even Jimmy Carter, the genial but ineffectual president who lost his second term over the Iranian hostage crisis, understood that the presence of massive numbers of foreign students is a spear pointed at the soft underbelly of our national security.

They are ill-tracked, because there are no effective enforcement or compliance regimens in place, and they have never been an enforcement priority for any of the Homeland Security secretaries or ICE directors since formation of the department and bureau, as we noted in item No. 26 of our "Pen and Phone" midterm update (and elsewhere).

This must change. Let's hope it isn't too late.