It has been revealed that the Iranian government was considering assassinating Lana Marks, the American ambassador to South Africa. With tensions between the United States and Iran mounting, this new information will likely usher in a new phase of escalation.

Politico.com broke the story late Sunday citing U.S. intelligence reports and statements from an unnamed U.S. government official familiar with the situation. The story was confirmed by another official who has seen the intelligence. According to a U.S. government official, the Iranian Embassy in Pretoria is involved in the assassination plot.

There are also reports that Iran is targeting the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Harry B. Harris. 

If the information is accurate, this would be a major escalation of the ongoing conflict between the two countries.

According to the intelligence in the report, Iran has been planning on taking out Marks for months. But intelligence operatives found that the threats had in recent weeks become more “specific.”

According to the report, the intelligence community issued a directive known as “Duty to Warn” which requires U.S. intelligence agencies to notify a potential target if intelligence indicates their life could be in danger. Marks has been made aware of the threat and the government is taking precautionary measures. 

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Marks, 66, has been the ambassador to South Africa since last October. She was born in South Africa and speaks both Afrikaans and Xhosa. She is a very successful businesswoman and has been a personal friend of President Trump for many years. While, on the surface, she appears to be a strange target for assassination, intelligence analysts have said that the Iranians have a large proxy network in the country and an attack could be passed off as a local issue. Additionally, given her friendship to the President, the assassination would be a personal hit against Trump.

This alleged plot shows that Iran continues to seek retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed MG Qassem Soleimani in early January. After the retaliatory ballistic missile strike against a U.S. base, it was thought that each side has pulled back from violence against each other. 

MG Qassem Soleimani (IRGC photo)

However, this operation, if it were carried out, would ratchet up the violence to the point of open warfare and put tremendous pressure on the U.S. and the Trump administration to strike back. 

There can be no comparison between assassinating an Ambassador and a tactical strike on Soleimani. Soleimani was an active participant in the war in Iraq, an enemy combatant, and had been held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and the wounding of countless more. After the campaign against ISIS in Iraq began, Soleimani and Quds Force, which he led, created militias that were responsible for over three dozen attacks against American bases.

Quds Force introduced improved IEDs to the Iraqi insurgents. These explosive devices were specially designed against American vehicles. 

The drone missile strike that took out Soleimani and killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi-Iranian military commander who headed the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). 

Soleimani’s SUV after getting hit by a drone strike. (Iraq Security Forces)

While Iran has assassinated people outside its borders and used kidnapping and terrorism in the Gulf, targeting a diplomat would further isolate the Tehran regime internationally. It would risk sparking an outright war with the United States.

The arms embargo against Iran, which Tehran has been fighting to have rescinded, would be doubled down. Iran’s already teetering economy would also be completely shattered. 

Furthermore, such a move would go completely against Iran’s goal of avoiding an open war with the U.S — which is why it has been using proxies in Iraq and Syria. Using proxies allows Iran deniability, however ludicrous as it controls everything that its militias do. 

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So, why was the report leaked? That’s the big question. It could be that the U.S. intelligence community believes that the threat and the plot are credible enough to bring them out in the open. If an assassination were to occur now, even if by a proxy, Iran’s deniability would be gone. 

A conflict for killing an ambassador may just unite the American voters and keep Trump in office for another four years. In a close, contentious election, it could swing votes for the Trump administration, something the mullahs in Tehran do not want. 

This issue will bear close watching in the near future. Thus far, the U.S. government and Tehran haven’t issued any official statements, but the rhetoric will soon follow.