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Experts say plot to assassinate US ambassador is ‘plausible’

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United States ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, may have to alter her Rosh Hashanah plans and lie low as the community prepares to usher in the New Year. This, as revelations of an alleged Iran-backed plot to assassinate her on home soil reverberated here and across the diplomatic world this week.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Sep 17, 2020

Some local terror analysts told the SA Jewish Report that news of the alleged plot was “plausible” and “wasn’t surprising”, while another said it was “unlikely”.

According to a report in the American online journal Politico quoting two anonymous US officials, Tehran has contemplated killing Marks to avenge America’s assassination in January of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the country’s Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Marks was probably chosen due to her closeness to US President Donald Trump, who ordered the killing of Soleimani.

“If carried out, it could dramatically ratchet up already serious tension between the US and Iran, and create enormous pressure on [US President Donald] Trump to strike back – possibly in the middle of a tense election season,” according to Politico.

Willem Els, senior training co-ordinator at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said America wouldn’t make public this serious information if it didn’t believe it to be credible.

“American intelligence would give out information like this only if it strongly believed it to be real and credible. It doesn’t do something like this lightly,” he said.

Els said there was also “too much at stake”, with bilateral relations at a stage when America didn’t “want to make waves” with the upcoming elections. “So, it must be a very real threat.”

Terror expert Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State said the news came as no surprise. “This doesn’t surprise me. Think about the Iranian strategy of using proxies, or how vulnerable South Africa is to these groups, or the fact that terror group Hezbollah operates here in South Africa. Or think of the terror attacks in Argentina [in 1992 and 1994] on Jewish targets because of developments in the Middle East. Or the Iranian involvement in South Africa during our own urban terror campaign in 1998 in Cape Town. So, I think it’s highly plausible.”

A source close to the ambassador said Marks had known about the alleged assassination plot for “quite some time”. He speculated that America, frustrated by the South African government’s alleged failure to act on vital US intelligence, might have leaked the information to speed up investigations.

Jasmine Opperman from the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium said an Iranian assassination plot here was “unlikely”.

She cautioned that it was impossible to interpret the Politico story thoroughly without more information being revealed from South Africa, Iran, and the US. She noted, nonetheless, that, she found the alleged plot improbable.

“This is highly unlikely. I cannot see why Iran would launch such an attack on South African soil when we have very good relations with Iran. I don’t believe they will mess it up by making trouble here,” she said.

Politico said that the US intelligence report wasn’t clear why the South African-born Marks would be Iran’s target for revenge, except that she is a close friend of Trump and a member of his exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort club in Florida. Some insiders believe it’s also because she’s Jewish.

Marks hit the ground running soon after being sworn in as ambassador in October last year.

The intelligence report pointed out that the Iranian government operated clandestine networks in South Africa, and might have considered Marks an easier target than US diplomats in other parts of the world, such as Western Europe, where the US has stronger relationships with local law enforcement and intelligence services.

Els told the SA Jewish Report that Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, was being used in other countries “to do its dirty work”.

“This isn’t something new for Iran. I’m not surprised at this revelation based on Iran’s history. It’s plausible that it would like to do something like this.

“It’s on record that conditions in South Africa are conducive for terrorists to operate so long as they don’t perpetrate any violence here. There is a lot of organising and a lot of financing taking place here, and it seems like our government turns a blind eye.”

What’s more, he said, South Africa didn’t have the resources to “monitor all the people that are operating at the moment here”.

The US embassy has so far declined to comment on the reported assassination plans.

Tehran has vehemently denied them. The spokesperson for the Iranian ministry of foreign affairs, Saeed Khatibzadeh, called the Politico report “hackneyed and worn-out. Anti-Iran propaganda”.

South Africa’s minister of state security, Ayanda Dlodlo, said this week the matter was “receiving the necessary attention” and that the State Security Agency was “interacting with all relevant partners in the country and abroad to ensure that no harm will be suffered by the US ambassador, including any other diplomatic officials inside the borders of our country.”

It’s widely reported that US intelligence agencies have been tracking Iran closely since the assassination of Soleimani to try to identify likely targets for expected revenge attacks.

Jevon Greenblatt, the director of operations at the Community Security Organisation in Gauteng, said the information was concerning. “You cannot ignore something of this nature. We will be closely monitoring the situation. We recognise there are a myriad threats to the community, and it’s our responsibility to protect it and empower it to protect itself.”

He said he wasn’t aware of any threat by Iran to the South African Jewish community. “However, based on history and recent reports in the media from around the world, Iran is a threat to all diaspora Jewish communities. This is interesting timing considering it’s Rosh Hashanah. We are on full alert.”

Zev Krengel of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies said the news was “horrifying”.

“Lana Marks has made an unbelievable impact on the lives of so many South Africans in a short space of time. That an American representative has been potentially endangered by Iran in our country is horrifying. If the allegations are correct, it’s disturbing and concerning for the local Jewish community and all South Africans.”

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