Even so, the attack on Marks is one of several options US officials believe the Iranian regime is considering retaliation after General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated by a US drone attack in January. At the time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US killed Soleimani to restore deterrence against Iran.
An intelligence policy known as the “Duty of Warning” requires US spy agencies to notify a potential victim if intelligence agencies say their life may be in danger. In the case of US government officials, credible threats would be included in briefings and security planning. Marks has been made aware of the threat, the US government official said. The information has also been included in the CIA World Intelligence Review known as WIRe, a classified product that is available to senior political and security officials in the U.S. government, as well as certain lawmakers and their employees.
Marks, 66, was sworn in as the US ambassador last October. She has known Trump for more than two decades and is a member of his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Critics of Trump have ridiculed her as a “handbag designer,”
The intelligence services aren’t entirely sure why the Iranians would target Marks, who has few, if any, known connections with Iran. It is possible that the Iranians may have considered their long friendship with Trump, the US government official said.
The Iranian government also operates secret networks in South Africa, officials noted, and has been gaining a foothold there for decades. In 2015, Al Jazeera and The Guardian reported on leaked intelligence documents describing an extensive secret network of Iranian activists in South Africa. Brands may also be an easier target than US diplomats in other parts of the world, such as Western Europe, where the US has closer ties with local law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Iran’s Islamist leaders have carried out attacks and taken hostages across national borders in the past since taking power after a popular uprising in the late 1970s. For the past few decades, Iran has generally avoided attacking US diplomats directly, although Iranian-backed militias have long targeted US diplomatic facilities and personnel in Iraq.
Trump alleged after Soleimani’s assassination that the Iranian general planned attacks on American diplomatic missions, although U.S. officials later questioned his claims. “They wanted to blow up our embassy,” Trump said in January, referring to the US’s massive, heavily fortified diplomatic alliance in Iraq. He later said in an interview with Fox News, “I can say I think it probably would have been four messages.”
Days after Soleimani’s death, Iran launched a volley of ballistic missiles at a military base in Iraq that housed US forces, causing traumatic brain injuries to dozens of American troops. Trump declined to retaliate, saying, “Iran appears to be stepping back, which is good for everyone involved and very good for the world.” However, he announced new sanctions against the Iranian regime and warned it of further retaliation.
However, some analysts said at the time that Iran would likely look for other ways to avenge Soleimani’s death. According to media reports, General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the US Central Command, was at the top of the Iranian hit list earlier this year. McKenzie said last month he expected a fresh “reaction” from Iran to America’s continued presence in Iraq.
“I don’t know what that reaction will be, but we will certainly be ready if it happens,” he said. On Wednesday, McKenzie confirmed plans to reduce the US troop presence in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000 by the end of September.
During an online forum in August, McKenzie said Iran was “our main problem” in the region, admitting that the threat posed by Iranian proxies in Iraq had hampered US efforts against ISIS, the radical Sunni terrorist organization and movement. “The threat to our armed forces from Shiite militant groups has resulted in us using resources that we would otherwise use against ISIS to ensure our own defense, and in our being less able to work effectively against them,” he said.
The White House-based National Security Council did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither an Iranian official with an Iranian mission to the United Nations nor a South African embassy official in Washington. Spokesmen for the State Department, the CIA and the Office of the Director of the National Intelligence Service declined to comment.
The United States and Iran have been bitter enemies for decades, sometimes open to each other – and cautiously engaging in diplomacy – but more often waging a shadowy struggle for power and influence across the Middle East. Under Trump, the two countries have turned into an outright military conflict more than once.
Last summer, the US accused Iran and its agents of a series of explosions against oil tankers. Iran shot down a US drone, and the US later managed to take down an Iranian drone.
Trump admitted that he almost authorized a direct attack on Iranian soil after Iran shot down the U.S. drone, but held back after being told 150 people could die – a toll he considered disproportionate held.
The dispute between countries intensified in the months that followed, particularly in Iraq, where America and the United States have long waged proxy wars. In December, an American contractor was killed in Iraq after an attack by a militia allied with Iran. The US responded by bombing the group, killing around two dozen of its fighters. Soon afterwards, protesters believed that parts of the US embassy grounds in Baghdad had been injured in connection with the militia.
In early January, the United States carried out an air strike that killed Soleimani while visiting Baghdad. Given the importance of Soleimani in Iran, this was a significant escalation, despite US officials calling it a defensive measure.
Soleimani headed the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that oversees much of the country’s military activities outside its borders. The Americans blame him for the deaths of numerous US troops in the region.
Iran vowed to take revenge. The first major step was the January 8 rocket attack on al-Asad military base in Iraq. At around the same time, an Iranian missile shot down a civilian airliner, killing 176 people and causing anger in Iran over the regime’s incompetence and the changing explanations for the incident and conviction abroad.
Iran and South Africa have worked together on several fronts over the past few decades, including at the United Nations, where South Africa temporarily stood up for Iran. The uranium deposits in South Africa are believed to have been of great interest to Iran when it ramped up its nuclear program, which Tehran has always insisted on for peaceful energy purposes, not a bomb. The couple also have a military relationship after signing some basic defense pacts.
Strange conspiracies linked to Iran have previously been exposed.
Nearly a decade ago, the US arrested an Iranian-American man who allegedly tried to hire Mexican drug cartel bombers to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States while dining at Cafe Milano, a swanky Washington restaurant frequented the rich and powerful of the city. The US accused Soleimani of overseeing the conspiracy.