Opinion |

Rushdie Attack: How Russia Taught Iran How to Get Away With Murder

Once you license and then appease a foreign government kidnapping and killing on your soil, everyone and everything is fair game. Russia's assassination campaigns should have taught us that

James Snell
James Snell
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi shake hands at the Saadabad palace, in Tehran, Iran this summer
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi shake hands at the Saadabad palace, in Tehran, Iran this summerCredit: Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
James Snell
James Snell

In a normal country and in normal times, the reports that Salman Rushdie's would-be murderer was in online contact with an element of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would be a big deal. Indeed, if a state other than Iran had an international terrorist organization like the Revolutionary Guards embedded within its government – at the heart of every aspect of its politics and economy – there would be hell to pay.

Such a regime would be at constant risk of being overthrown by its neighbors and the United States. It would not have cadres of advocates and fans in Washington. There would be no faction within the U.S. presidential administration pushing for its path to nuclear weapons to be strewn with roses and with weak restrictions.

But this is Iran, and it is special.

Iran can fight ideological wars in four of its neighboring countries, and no one bats an eye. It can, through deceit and double-dealing, come to the very brink of nuclear armament, and use that fact not just to stave off collapse, but to extort the rest of the world for cash.

It can kidnap academics and journalists and dual nationals with regularity. And not only can it get paid off every time, but it can also cause political crises within these democracies because their governments in question did not cave in fast enough, or with sufficient apology.

Hezbollah supporters march past posters of Hezbollah and Iranian leaders in southern Lebanon in August.Credit: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT - AFP

And, as the last week has shown, it can inspire sectarian thugs to stab grand old men of letters by lying for decades about the contents of a book written before the failed assassin was born. What's more, had the assailant succeeded in killing Rushdie, he would have been eligible for a huge cash payout, now standing at $3.3 million, offered by Iran – still in force, and recently increased by a government-linked "cultural organization."

Days before Rushdie was attacked, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the foiling of at least three Iranian attempts to murder public figures in America. The Iranians had recruited operatives and put into action plots to kill the dissident journalist Masih Alinejad, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There are numerous other targets in America who have not made the threats against them public.

Imagine if China had done this, or North Korea. Would the reaction to those countries have been so muted and so placid? Would the State Department have decided that, well, this is bad, but the true repudiation of this violence is to knuckle down even harder at the nuclear negotiating table?

We ought to know, as Alinejad has said, that the murder campaign will keep on rolling even if individual attempts are picked up by the feds. Rushdie looks to have survived – thank God – but the odds are that soon, someone else will be murdered by Iran on U.S. soil. It might be a writer you admire, or a politician you would have voted for.

This violence ebbs and flows. Iran and America have been in undeclared conflict since 1979, when the Islamic Revolution came to power and started a war, in effect, on the rest of the world. On a single day in 1988, America sank most of Iran's navy. In 2020, America killed Revolutionary Guards Commander Qassem Soleimani, the face of Iran's increasingly overt attempt to take over the entire Middle East. It's only fair, some argue, that the Iranians have their fun, too – exporting their revolution to their neighbors one by one, and getting to kill a few Americans in recompense.

This is foolish masochism on its own terms, but it's also tactically unsound. Where I live, in Britain, we've been running this experiment too, and the results are not encouraging.

In Britain, your chances of being murdered by Russian intelligence are probably slightly greater than being fatally struck by lightning. The known killings are already significant.

UK military specialists in chemical weapons clean-up operations wearing protective suits decontaminate a home after the poisoning by Russian agents of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, YuliaCredit: Matt Dunham / AP

Ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko's murder in 2006 via a radioactive isotope was the most gruesome and the most public, and the attempted poisoning by Novichok nerve agent of Sergei Skripal in 2018, which resulted in the death of an unaware British civilian, was yet another murder in Britain carried out by Russia with a weapon of mass destruction. Around these deaths swirl dozens of maybes – what of the Russian defectors who died while jogging, or whose "suicides" are suspicious? It only muddies the waters further.

Britain is definitive proof that once you license terrorist murder by a foreign government on your soil, everyone and everything is fair game. The intelligence agencies of the tyrannies never run out of possible victims. They never tire of the project and hang up their boots in the belief they have made their point. Russia's invasion of Ukraine this year was mounted on a cushion of two decades' impunity for other crimes.

Iran can only take the same lesson from the Rushdie attack. Just one more go at Rushdie, the ayatollahs must be saying. With just a little more luck, they think, we'll really show everyone what we mean.

James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. Twitter: @James_P_Snell

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