Iran has upped the ante in its hostile relationship with the United States as an intercepted communication revealed that the Islamic Republic made threats against Fort McNair and the Army’s vice chief of staff.

As first reported by the Associated Press, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted messages in January from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In the messages, IRGC members discuss attacking Ft. McNair, an Army base located on the Potomac River just about a 10-minute drive from the White House.

The Iranians discussed using a boat loaded with explosives, killing the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff General Joseph Martin while infiltrating and surveilling the base. The method harkens back to al-Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole. 

Washington Channel map and satellite photos show the area of Ft. McNair (right) and the area around the general’s quarters. (Google Maps)

The attack on the Cole occurred in the port of Aden in Yemen in October 2000. A small boat approached the Cole, which was at anchor in the port, and detonated explosives tearing a huge hole in USS Cole’s side and killing 17 sailors. 

According to intelligence officials, who spoke to the Associated Press, IRGC commanders are unhappy that following the assassination of MG Qassem Soleimani by the U.S. Iran’s retaliation has yielded few results and no U.S. fatalities. 

After the U.S. killed Soleimani in Baghdad with a drone missile strike Iran responded by firing ballistic missiles on the Ain al-Asad airbase and other bases in Iraq only causing minimum damage.

U.S. bases in the Middle East have been attacked by Iranian proxies which give Tehran a modicum of plausible deniability. Yet, the U.S. has debunked Iran’s deniability as these proxies have taken their orders from the IRGC’s Quds Force. 

The Army wants to add a buffer zone of 250 to 500 feet from the shore of the Washington Channel. This would limit access to as much as half the width of the busy waterway running parallel to the Potomac River. Nevertheless, local officials from the District are fighting the Army because the buffer zone would limit access to the busy Washington Waterfront District.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s representative in Congress, has been adamant against a buffer zone stating that the military has not shown any evidence that a threat exists. 

“I have asked the Department of Defense to withdraw the rule because I’ve seen no evidence of a credible threat that would support the proposed restriction,” Norton said. “They have been trying to get their way, but their proposal is more restrictive than necessary.”

During a meeting with District officials, the commander of the Military District of Washington (MDW), MG Omar Jones cited, “credible and specific” threats against Army leaders who live on the base. 

Iranian threats against Washington aren’t new. In early January, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials had announced that they heard a digitized voice stating, “We are flying a plane into the Capitol on Wednesday. Soleimani will be avenged,” on one of their radio frequencies.

President Trump’s administration didn’t escalate with counterattacks after Iran’s ballistic missile attacks against U.S. bases in January last year. But an Iranian attack inside of the United States could change that and even lead to open warfare.

The Army going public with the interceptions may indicate that the U.S. considers the threats to be credible. Simultaneously, by bringing the IRGC discussions to light, the U.S. deprives Iran of deniability. 

Therefore, given the stakes, such an attack by Iran or its proxies against the U.S. would be a foolhardy move to make. Nevertheless, while it is doubtful, it can’t be discounted, which is why Army officials are trying to take precautions.