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Testimony October 25, 2023

The urgent threats posed by the Iranian regime: Atlantic Council experts testify before the US House Committee on Homeland Security

By Nathan Sales and Thomas S. Warrick

On October 25, 2023, Nathan Sales, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and Middle East Programs, and Thomas S. Warrick, director of the Future of DHS project at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense, testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security. Their remarks appear below as prepared for delivery.

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Nathan Sales: How the US can protect Americans and Israelis from Iran-backed terrorism

Thomas S. Warrick: Steps the US Congress can take to address the Iranian regime’s threat to the homeland

Nathan Sales: How the US can protect Americans and Israelis from Iran-backed terrorism

Chairman Green, Ranking Member Thompson, and Members of the Committee, it is a pleasure to be here today.

My name is Nathan Sales. I am the founder and principal of Fillmore Global Strategies LLC, a consultancy that provides legal and strategic advisory services on matters at the intersection of law, policy, and diplomacy. I am also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a member of the advisory board at the Vandenberg Coalition, and a senior advisor at the Soufan Group.

From 2017 to 2021, I served at the US Department of State as the ambassador-at-large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism. Concurrently, I was the acting under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, as well as the special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. I previously served at the US Department of Homeland Security as deputy assistant secretary for policy, and at the US Department of Justice as Senior Counsel in the Office of Legal Policy, where I worked on counterterrorism policy. I am here as a private citizen, but my testimony is informed by my experiences working on national security and counterterrorism for the US government over the course of two decades.

Today I will begin by describing the Iranian terrorist threat to the US homeland; then discuss Tehran’s campaign of terrorism against Israel, including Americans in Israel; and conclude with suggestions on what more can be done to better protect Americans from the specter of Iran-backed terrorism.

This hearing is taking place in the aftermath of a horrific terrorist attack on our ally Israel—an attack that has Iran’s fingerprints all over it. On October 7, hordes of gunmen from Hamas—a Palestinian terrorist group that the Islamic Republic provides with money, weapons, and training—invaded southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, perpetrating horrors seemingly taken from the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel. More than 1,400 men, women, and children were mercilessly slaughtered, and around two hundred hostages were carried off into captivity, including infants and toddlers.1Abbas Al Lawati et al., Israel Is at War with Hamas. Here’s What to Know, CNN, Oct. 16, 2023, October 7 was the deadliest day in Israel’s seventy-five-year history. More than that, it was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. It was also a dark day for America, with thirty-two US citizens killed and an estimated eleven missing, some of whom are being held hostage in Gaza, as of this writing.232 Americans Killed in Israel-Hamas Conflict, State Department Says, CBS News, Oct. 19, 2023, That makes October 7 the deadliest attack on Americans by international terrorists since 9/11 and the fourth deadliest such attack in history. I look forward to discussing with the Committee what the United States should do to prevent future atrocities like these.


The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism. Acting through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and numerous terrorist proxies, the regime has murdered countless innocent civilians, taken hostages remorselessly, and shed blood on an industrial scale. The threat it poses is not confined to the Middle East but extends across the entire world—including the United States.

Let me share just a few examples of the Iranian threat to the homeland.

Right now, as we speak, the Islamic Republic is actively plotting to assassinate a number of former senior US officials here on American soil. Last year, the Justice Department announced charges against an IRGC member believed to be the ringleader of a plot to murder John Bolton, the former national security advisor. The would-be assassin reportedly also was targeting former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. These former officials and others like them now live under constant, twenty-four-hour government protection because of the Iranian threat to their lives.3Jennifer Hansler, US Sanctions Iranian Officials Accused of Plotting Assassinations Abroad Including Against Bolton and Pompeo, CNN, June 1, 2023,

Meanwhile, in July 2022, the Islamic Republic tried to assassinate one of the witnesses at today’s hearing: Masih Alinejad, the celebrated Iranian-American human-rights activist. This brazen attempt on her life—the regime sent a gunman armed with an AK-47 to her Brooklyn home in broad daylight—came on the heels of a plot in 2021 to kidnap her in New York and render her back to Iran to face torture or execution.4Benjamin Weiser & Glenn Thrush, Justice Dept. Announces More Arrests in Plot to Kill Iranian Writer, N.Y. Times, Jan. 27, 2023,

In August 2022, an IRGC supporter tried to murder acclaimed author Salman Rushdie at a book festival in New York state, stabbing him multiple times on stage. In a grotesque irony, Rushdie, who has been under an Iranian death sentence since the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses in the 1980s, was set to speak on the subject of America’s role as an “asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.”5Ginger Adams Otis, Author Salman Rushdie Stabbed Onstage at New York Event, Wall St. J., Aug 12, 2022, The assailant reportedly was in contact with IRGC officials before the attack.6Mitchell Prothero, Salman Rushdie Stabbing Suspect “Had Contact With Iran’s Revolutionary Guard”, Vice News, Aug. 14, 2022, Whether or not Tehran formally tasked him with the assault is beside the point. The regime put a multi-million dollar bounty on Rushdie’s head—which was reaffirmed and even increased as recently as 2016—so it is fully responsible.7Thomas Erdbrink, Iran’s Hard-Line Press Adds to Bounty on Salman Rushdie, N.Y. Times, Feb. 22, 2016,

A decade earlier, in 2011, the Iranian regime attempted to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States by bombing a popular restaurant in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood. Had the plot succeeded, it could have resulted in mass casualties—not just the intended target, but countless innocent Americans who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. For Tehran, that was a feature of the operation, not a bug. Discussing the possibility of other deaths, one of the plotters reportedly stated: “They want that guy done, if the hundred go with him f**k ’em.”8U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Two Men Charged in Alleged Plot to Assassinate Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, Oct. 11, 2011,

Critically, Iran has attempted to carry out several of these plots by exploiting vulnerabilities in our southern border. In the attempted assassination of John Bolton, Tehran planned to use a Mexican national with ties to drug cartels.9Nick Schifrin, Iranian Man Charged for Trying to Assassinate Former National Security Adviser John Bolton, PBS, Aug. 10, 2022, It likewise attempted to use a Mexican drug cartel in the plot against the Saudi ambassador.10Charlie Savage & Scott Shane, Iranians Accused of a Plot to Kill Saudis’ U.S. Envoy, N.Y. Times, Oct. 11, 2011, There is a significant risk that Iran-backed and other terrorists might take advantage of these vulnerabilities again in the future. The US Customs and Border Protection field office in San Diego recently warned that Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorists “may attempt travel to or from the area of hostilities in the Middle East via circuitous transit across the Southwest border.”11Adam Shaw & Bill Melugin, CBP Memo Sounds Alarm on Hamas, Hezbollah Fighters Potentially Using Southern Border to Enter US, Fox News, Oct. 23, 2023, More broadly, CBP has reported a dramatic spike in the number of individuals on its Terrorist Screening Dataset watchlist who were apprehended crossing the southern border: zero in fiscal year 2019, three in fiscal year 2020, fifteen in fiscal year 2021, ninety-eight in fiscal year 2022, and 169 in fiscal year 2023.12U.S. Customs and Border Protection, CBP Enforcement Statistics Fiscal Year 2023, Oct. 23, 2023, The Terrorist Screening Dataset “is the U.S. government’s database that contains sensitive information on terrorist identities.” It “originated as the consolidated terrorist watchlist to house information on known or suspected terrorists (KSTs) but has evolved over the last decade to include additional individuals who represent a potential threat to the United States, including known affiliates of watchlisted individuals.” Id. Those are just the ones we know about. It is not implausible that other watchlisted individuals have been able to enter the country undetected.

Of course, the Iranian regime targets Americans abroad as well as at home. The IRGC was responsible for killing 603 American soldiers in Iraq, in part due to the advanced explosively formed penetrators it provided to its terror proxies in the country. That is one-sixth of all U.S. fatalities during the war in Iraq.13Alex Horton, Soleimani’s Legacy: The Gruesome, Advanced IEDs that Haunted U.S. Troops in Iraq, Wash. Post, Jan 3, 2020, In Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic reportedly paid Taliban fighters a one thousand dollar bounty for every American soldier they killed.14Report: Iran Pays $1,000 for Each U.S. Soldier Killed by the Taliban, NBC News, Sept. 5, 2010,

Perhaps the most potent tool in Tehran’s global terror campaign is Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group responsible for the 1983 attacks on the US embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed sixty-three and 305, respectively.15Matthew Levitt, The Origins of Hezbollah, The Atlantic, Oct. 23, 2013, Today, Hezbollah is the Islamic Republic’s proxy of choice for terrorist attacks on Israelis and Jews around the world. In Argentina, in March 1992, Hezbollah bombed the Israeli embassy, killing twenty-nine; two years later, in July 1994, it bombed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing eighty-five.16Ronen Bergman, Mossad Sheds New Light on Argentina Terrorist Attacks in 1990s, N.Y. Times, July 22, 2022, In Bulgaria, in July 2012, a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists and their bus driver.17Benjamin Weinthal, Hezbollah Terrorists Who Killed Israelis in Bulgaria Bus Blast Get Life in Prison, Jerusalem Post, Mar. 21, 2023, In the past several years, the group has been caught planning attacks or stockpiling explosives in Western Europe, Latin America, the Gulf, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.18U.S. Dep’t of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2020, Dec. 2021, at 266 [hereinafter 2020 Country Reports],; US Accuses Hezbollah of Storing Explosive Chemical in Europe, AP, Sept. 17, 2020,

Hezbollah is also active here at home. Between 1997 and 2020, 128 suspected Hezbollah members were arrested in the United States.19Anyssia S. Kokinos et al., Hezbollah’s Operations and Networks in the United States, June 2022, at 4,’s_Operations_and_Networks_in_the_United_States_June30_2022.pdf. See also Colin P. Clarke, Hezbollah Has Been Active in America for Decades, The National Interest, Aug. 26, 2017, In recent years the FBI arrested three suspected Hezbollah operatives who were conducting surveillance on the Panama Canal and casing potential targets in New York City, including the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Times Square, and Rockefeller Center. Two have been convicted of various terrorism-related crimes and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, while the third case remains pending.20U.S. Dep’t of Justice, New Jersey Man Sentenced To 12 Years in Prison for Receiving Military-Type Training From Hezbollah, Marriage Fraud and Making False Statements, May 23, 2023,; U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Hizballah Operative Sentenced to 40 Years in Prison for Covert Terrorist Activities on Behalf of Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization, Dec. 3, 2019,; U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Two Men Arrested for Terrorist Activities on Behalf of Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization, June 8, 2017, We have to assume that other Hezbollah operatives are here as well, hiding in plain sight and awaiting activation orders in the event of open conflict between Iran and the US or Iran and Israel.


Which brings us to the horror in Israel.

Iran is pursuing an encirclement strategy with respect to the Jewish state—surrounding it with a range of terrorist proxies to threaten its citizens and apply pressure. Hamas is just the tip of the iceberg.

To the north, in Lebanon, Iran has spent decades lavishly bankrolling Hezbollah, building a corrupt state within a state that serves Tehran’s interests and impoverishes the Lebanese people. According to the US State Department, the Islamic Republic has provided Hezbollah with some $700 million a year.212020 Country Reports at 267. Hezbollah now sits on a massive arsenal of 150,000 rockets and missiles, and with Iran’s help it is developing the capability to build its own precision guided munitions that could reach all of Israel’s territory.222020 Country Reports at 122, 131. In the northeast, in Syria, the IRGC is hard at work propping up the brutal Assad dictatorship, greatly adding to the misery of the long-suffering Syrian people. Hezbollah fighters are there, too, of course.

In the south, in Gaza, Iran-backed Hamas runs a terror statelet whose priority is not providing basic services to the Palestinian people, but devoting enormous resources to terrorism—tunnels, rockets, even incendiary kites and balloons. Extensive Iranian support in the past several years has enabled Hamas to dramatically improve its capabilities. Hamas has never wavered from the goals it announced in its founding covenant in 1988: killing Jews and destroying Israel.

“Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious…. The Day of Judgement will not come about,” [the covenant] proclaims, “until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him…. There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.”23Quoted in Bruce Hoffman, Understanding Hamas’s Genocidal Ideology, The Atlantic, Oct. 10, 2023,

Hamas’s neighbors in Gaza, Palestine Islamic Jihad, are also on Tehran’s payroll. All told, Tehran has provided various Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza and the West Bank with upwards of one hundred million dollars annually, according to the State Department.242020 Country Reports at 272-73. This year, Iran’s support to Hamas alone has ballooned to $350 million a year, according to Israeli security sources.25Samia Nakhoul, How Hamas Secretly Built a “Mini-Army” to Fight Israel, Reuters, Oct. 13, 2023, It might come as a surprise that Shia Iran would bankroll Sunni terrorists like Hamas, but their shared hatred of Jews and of Israel allows them to overlook their theological differences to form an alliance of convenience.

Farther afield, in Yemen, the Iranian regime provides the Houthis with precision weapons they use to attack airports, energy infrastructure, and other civilian targets across the region while bringing the Yemeni people to the brink of famine. Lately, the Houthis have signaled that they might start targeting Israel with Iranian drones.26Tom O’Connor, Iran-Backed Houthis Ready to Join War on Israel with Drones and Missiles, Newsweek, Oct. 9, 2023,

Why does this all matter to the United States? For several reasons. First, we have a vital national interest in ensuring that Israel, our closest ally in the region and the only democracy in the region, is secure against its many enemies—enemies that seek its extermination. When Hamas and its supporters say they want a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea”—i.e., from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—what they are really saying is that they reject the right of Israel to exist at all. They are saying they want the region to be cleansed of Jews. Or, as you might put it in German, a Palestine that is judenrein.

Second, the United States and Israel have common enemies. For the Islamic Republic, Israel may be the Little Satan, but America is the Great Satan, and the Iranian terror proxies that want to slaughter Israelis want to slaughter Americans as well. Consider Hamas. The October 7 attack killed at least thirty-two US citizens, making it the deadliest attack on Americans by international terrorists since 9/11 and the fourth deadliest such attack in history.27The 9/11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 Americans, followed by the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut (241 Americans killed), and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland (190 Americans killed). More Americans were killed on October 7 than in the attacks on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 (nineteen Americans killed), the USS Cole in 2000 (seventeen Americans killed), our embassy in Beirut in 1983 (seventeen Americans killed), or our embassies in East Africa in 1998 (twelve Americans killed).

In all, Hamas has killed at least seventy-eight Americans in at least thirty terrorist attacks stretching back to the 1990s, according to research by the Soufan Group. For example, in August 2001, Hamas terrorists bombed a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem, killing sixteen people, including three Americans: Malki Roth, who was just fifteen; Judith Shoshana Greenbaum, who was pregnant and whose unborn child also died; and Chana Nachenberg, who succumbed to her injuries this year after twenty-two years in a coma. The mastermind of the bombing, Ahlam Ahmad Al-Tamimi, is now living freely in Jordan, where she hosts a show on a Hamas-affiliated television channel. Tamimi is on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists and the US Justice Department unsealed criminal charges against her in 2017 for her role in the attack.28Raffi Berg, Jerusalem Sbarro Pizza Bombing Victim Dies After 22 Years in Coma, BBC News, June 1, 2023,; Spencer S. Hsu, U.S. Unseals Charge Against Jordanian Woman in 2001 Jerusalem Sbarro Bombing, Wash. Post, Mar. 15, 2017, Despite the existence of a valid extradition treaty between Washington and Amman, the government of Jordan has refused to extradite her to the United States to face justice for her crimes.

In July 2002, Hamas bombed a busy cafeteria at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem around lunchtime. Nine people, including five Americans—all students—were killed. Hamas claimed responsibility for the atrocity at a rally in Gaza City that was attended by ten thousand supporters.29Israel Arrests Suspects in University Bombing, CNN, Aug. 21, 2002,; Seven Killed, Dozens Wounded in Bomb Blast at Israel University, AP, Aug. 1, 2002, The next year, in August 2003, a Hamas suicide bomber detonated a bomb aboard a bus in Jerusalem, killing twenty, including five US citizens. Three of the American victims were young children: Yitzhak Reinitz (nine years old), Tehilla Nathanson (three years old), and Shmuel Taubenfeld (three months old).30Mideast Awaits Israeli Response, CBS News, Aug. 20, 2003,

Let’s be clear: The Islamic Republic manifestly bears responsibility for the October 7 Hamas attack. It has enlisted Hamas as a proxy in its broader terror campaign against Israel, and it has spent years providing the group with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of cash, weapons, and training to enable precisely the sort of bloodshed unleashed on October 7. To be sure, Tehran’s exact role in the attack remains somewhat opaque at the moment.31According to Wall Street Journal reporting, Iran helped plan the attack and gave the final go-ahead on October 2. Summer Said et al., Iran Helped Plot Attack on Israel Over Several Weeks, Wall St. J., Oct. 8, 2023, Some New York Times sources likewise recount that “a tight circle of leaders from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas helped plan the attack starting over a year ago, trained militants and had advanced knowledge of it,” while in September the Times reported that Israel “had intelligence suggesting … Iran’s supreme leader had ordered a wide campaign against Israel including targeting its citizens abroad, conducting sabotage inside its borders, and smuggling sophisticated weapons to the Palestinians to ignite a civil war in the West Bank.” Farnaz Fassihi & Ronen Bergman, Hamas Attack on Israel Brings New Scrutiny of Group’s Ties to Iran, N.Y. Times, Oct. 13, 2023, On the other hand, administration officials have pointed to a preliminary intelligence assessment suggesting that certain elements of the Iranian regime were surprised by the timing and scope of the attack, though they likely knew Hamas was planning attacks on Israel. Adam Entous et al., Early Intelligence Shows Hamas Attack Surprised Iranian Leaders, U.S. Says, N.Y. Times, Oct. 11, 2023,; Warren P. Strobel & Michael R. Gordon, Iran Knew Hamas Was Planning Attacks, but Not Timing or Scale, U.S. Says, Wall St. J., Oct. 11, 2023, Yet, in a broader sense it doesn’t matter. Whether or not Tehran “planned” or “directed” or “ordered” or “approved” the Hamas attack is hairsplitting. Tehran certainly enabled the attack, providing weapons and training in recent years that vastly improved Hamas’s lethality, and it has celebrated the attack as advancing its strategic objectives. We are therefore entirely justified in holding the regime accountable for the innocent lives lost.


What then should the United States do about October 7, and about the wider terrorist threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the homeland and to Americans abroad? At a minimum, we must impose real costs on Tehran to deter terrorism, enforce sanctions to deny the regime resources for terrorism, and back Israel to the hilt.

First, the Biden administration must do more to deter Iran from plotting assassinations in our country. One might have expected the administration to insist, as a precondition for nuclear or other talks, that the regime abandon its efforts to assassinate former US officials and activists. It did not. At a minimum, one might have expected the administration to obtain, as an element of the recent agreement with Tehran to exchange prisoners, an Iranian commitment to abandon its assassination plots. Again, it did not. Instead, Iran’s president—Ebrahim Raisi, who has been under US human rights sanctions since 2019 for his role in the regime’s 1988 “death commission” that slaughtered thousands of political prisoners—has reaffirmed (on American soil, no less) the regime’s intent to assassinate Americans. Here is what he said at the United Nations last month, referencing the 2020 operation to eliminate US-sanctioned terrorist Qasem Soleimani:

“The Islamic Republic of Iran, through all tools and capacities in order to bring to justice the perpetrators and all those who had a hand in this government sanctioned act of terror, will not sit until that is done. The blood of the oppressed will not be forgotten.”32Quoted in Farnaz Fassihi, Iran’s President Threatens U.S. Officials From the U.N. Podium, Dimming Hopes for a Rapprochement, Seattle Times, Sept. 19, 2023,

The Justice Department certainly deserves credit for prosecuting some of those involved in the Bolton plot. And I imagine the targets of Iran’s assassination campaign appreciate the White House’s promise that, “[s]hould Iran attack any of our citizens, … Iran will face severe consequences.”33The White House, Statement by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Iran’s Continued Targeting of U.S. Citizens, Aug. 10, 2022, (Of course, they might prefer for some of those consequences to be imposed now, while they are still alive, as a deterrent.)

But these efforts pale in comparison to how we responded to past attempts to kill American officials. In 1993, the United States uncovered a plot by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush during a trip to Kuwait. President Clinton retaliated by launching twenty-three Tomahawk cruise missiles at the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service in Baghdad. As President Clinton explained, a firm and decisive response was essential because the plot, which was “directed against a former president of the United States because of actions he took as president,” was ultimately “an attack against our country and against all Americans.” He continued: “We could not and have not let such action against our nation go unanswered. From the first days of our revolution, America’s security has depended on the clarity of this message: Don’t tread on us.”34David Von Drehle & R. Jeffrey Smith, U.S. Strikes Iraq for Plot to Kill Bush, Wash. Post, June 27, 1993, Saddam got the message, and the scheme was abandoned. No one is calling for a military strike on Tehran, but indictments and statements are plainly inadequate to establish deterrence. Tehran should have more to fear than a sternly worded press release.

Second, the administration should resume robust sanctions enforcement to deny the Islamic Republic resources to fund terrorism around the globe. The Iranian regime is richer today than it has been in years. A great deal of attention has been paid to the six billion dollars held in South Korea that the White House agreed to unfreeze as part of a deal to release some of the American hostages held in Iran. The administration deserves credit for announcing that, in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel, it will deny the regime access to those funds “for the foreseeable future”35Michael Crowley & Alan Rappeport, U.S. and Qatar Deny Iran Access to $6 Billion From Prisoner Deal, N.Y. Times, Oct. 12, 2023, While the hostages deal provides that the $6 billion may only be released for “humanitarian purposes,” id., Iran’s president has stated that the regime will spend the money “wherever we need it.” Dan De Luce, Iranian President Says Tehran Will Spend the $6 Billion Released in Prisoner Exchange “Wherever We Need It”, NBC News, Sept. 12, 2023, Moreover, money is fungible, and if Iran now has $6 billion to spend on food and medicine, that will free up $6 billion to spend on guns and bombs.—though it would be preferable to freeze the six billion dollars indefinitely, along with ten billion billion that was unfrozen in the summer of 2023 to cover energy payments from Iraq to Iran.36David S. Cloud & Ghassan Adnan, Iraq Tests U.S. Sanctions with Oil-for-Gas Deal with Iran, Wall St. J., July 14, 2023, The bigger problem, in my view, is the fact that the regime has been able to dramatically increase its energy exports, and thus dramatically improve its economic strength, over the past several years.

As a result of crippling sanctions, by the end of the previous administration, Iran’s economy was hobbled, its coffers were drained, and its ability to project power abroad was reduced. Tehran is in a substantially stronger position today. By 2021, the regime’s accessible foreign currency reserves were down to four to six billion dollars—roughly the same as Haiti. Now, the International Monetary Fund estimates that Iran’s reserves will hit forty-three billion dollars this year, and that was before the six billion dollars and ten billion dollars were unfrozen over the summer.37Washington Unlocks Frozen Iranian Funds, Jewish Inst. for Nat’l Sec. of Am., June 14, 2023, at 3, Energy analysts assess that, since 2020, Iran’s oil exports have increased by a factor of four or five, with the lion’s share of sales going to China.38Manuel Quinones & Bob King, Biden’s Choice: Let Iranian Oil Flow or Watch Prices Rise, Politico, Oct. 12, 2023, According to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a nonpartisan group that tracks Iranian energy sales, in August 2020, Iran was exporting an average of 749,000 barrels of oil per day.39United Against Nuclear Iran, Iran Tanker Tracking, In August 2023, its exports were up to an average of 1,932,000 barrels per day. In 2020, Iran sold $12.5 billion of oil. That number jumped to $43 billion in 2022.40United Against Nuclear Iran, Analysis of Iranian Oil Sales Under President Trump vs. President Biden, Oct. 6, 2022, Between January 2021 and September 2022, the regime’s oil sales to China alone totaled $38 billion.41Michael Crowley, U.S. Penalizes Chinese Companies for Aiding Iran’s Oil Exports, N.Y. Times, Sept. 29, 2022, In all, UANI estimates that Iran has been able to sell eighty billion dollars of oil since January 2021.42Nassim Khadem, As Israel’s War Against Hamas Escalates, US Sends a Warning to Iran, Raising Fears of a Recession, ABC News (Australia), Oct. 12, 2023, Eighty billion dollars can buy a lot of bombs.

Tehran will certainly use this windfall to support terrorism across the region, against Israel, and against the United States, and the White House should restore the economic pressure that brought Iran’s economy to its knees. Terrorism sanctions work. Sanctions deny terrorists the money they need to plan and carry out attacks. As I’ve mentioned, for years Hezbollah could count on its patrons in Tehran to provide it with upwards of seven hundred million dollars annually, and Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists received one hundred million dollars a year. But after the United States used sanctions to squeeze Iran’s economy, the money dried up. By 2019, both groups had to adopt “austerity plans” to cope with the shortfall. Hezbollah’s leader was reduced to going on TV and pleading for donations.43Special Representative Brian H. Hook, Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 116th Cong., Oct. 16, 2019, at 3,

Third, the United States must support Israel until it achieves its goals in the war with Hamas. This is not a war that Israel sought, but it is one that it cannot afford to lose. President Biden has spoken powerfully about Israel’s right to self-defense, a marked improvement over the confused messaging we initially saw from his administration. The day of the attack, the State Department’s Office of Palestinian Affairs tweeted a call for “all sides to refrain from violence and retaliatory attacks” (it was quickly deleted), which was followed the next day by a tweet reporting that Secretary of State Blinken urged a “cease-fire” in a call with his Turkish counterpart (it too was quickly deleted).44Katelyn Caralle, State Department Slammed for Deleting MULTIPLE Tweets Urging Israel to Stand Down on Retaliating Against Hamas, Daily Mail (UK), Oct. 9, 2023, Presumably these posts were scrubbed because higher-ups realized that standing in the way of Israeli retaliation and demanding a cease-fire would only reward Hamas and cripple Israel’s ability to prevent future attacks.

Now the White House will need to put the diplomatic heft of the United States behind the president’s words. Israel has articulated expansive goals for the war in Gaza—degrading Hamas to the point it is no longer capable of threatening Israel or functioning as a quasi-governmental entity, an ambitious goal that is comparable to the United States’ aim of destroying al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11, and defeating ISIS’s so-called “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria during the Obama and Trump administrations. The United States will need to ensure that Israel has the time and space it needs to accomplish its mission, pushing back against its critics at the United Nations and elsewhere when they inevitably begin to demand that Jerusalem stand down prematurely before its objectives are met.

At the same time, the United States must use its influence to ensure that Israel prosecutes the war in a way that causes as little harm as possible to civilians in Gaza. Heartbreaking images of human suffering have begun to emerge from the war zone and Israel—neither more nor less than any other combatant—should fully comply with law-of-war requirements designed to prevent civilian harm, as it has done in the past and has pledged to do now. We should also be clear about who bears responsibility for this suffering: Hamas, which has a long and sordid history of using Palestinian civilians as human shields; of storing weapons in and around schools, mosques, and other protected civilian infrastructure; and even of preventing Palestinian civilians from evacuating conflict zones. Hamas puts its own population at risk to further its murderous terror campaign. Its atrocities against Israelis and Jews and its cruelties to Palestinians are two sides of the same coin.

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking Member, and Members of the Committee, thank you again. I look forward to your questions.

Thomas S. Warrick: Steps the US Congress can take to address the Iranian regime’s threat to the homeland

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Thompson, members of the House Committee on Homeland Security, thank you for the honor to testify today on the Iranian regime’s threats to homeland security. I have forty years’ experience addressing challenges from Iran, starting in the private sector in 1981 with the Iran-US Claims Tribunal and the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis. I served ten years at the US State Department, including working to counter Iranian influence. I served more than eleven years at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), most of that as deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy, where countering the Iranian regime’s actions as the leading state-sponsor of terrorism was one of our foremost counterterrorism priorities. For a time, I was DHS’s senior-most Iran expert. I am proud to have served under four presidents of both parties. Today, I’m a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of the Future of DHS Project, working on a number of initiatives to strengthen the Department of Homeland Security. I co-lead our Counterterrorism Study Group and am the convener of the Experts’ Coalition on Borders, Immigration, and Trade. Our work supports the extraordinary efforts of the men and women of DHS and throughout the homeland security enterprise to keep our country safe.

How we should address Iran’s threat to the United States

I’m going to summarize the threats that the Iranian regime poses to the United States homeland, but first, I would make two short points. The Hamas terrorist attack on October 7 ranks among the world’s worst terrorist attacks in modern history. In addition to the more than 1,400 Israelis killed, at least thirty-one American citizen deaths make this one of the worst terrorist attacks against Americans since the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. American resolve, as shown by the President’s and the Congress’s bipartisan support for Israel, and President Biden’s deployment of two aircraft carrier battle groups to the eastern Mediterranean, are an essential response to this terrorist attack and a warning to Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Americans have a stake in what will come after Hamas’s military defeat. The United States is already in discussions with the Israelis and other allies over the future of Gaza, to ensure these terrorist attacks do not repeat in a few years—and to ensure that Iran does not determine the future of Gaza. There is a role for our homeland security agencies in supporting this. But Iran’s role in funding, arming, equipping, and helping train Hamas terrorists is something that our government must, and will, address.

Second, today’s hearing takes place against the background of unprecedented efforts by the Iranian people, women and men, to fight for greater freedoms and justice against the current Iranian regime. We should acknowledge the historic importance of this struggle, which is led by Iranians and should have the support of all Americans. The Iranian regime has chosen to make the United States an adversary. The Iranian people want to make different choices.

Turning back to the subject of this hearing, I want to leave you with four important points.

First, Iran poses a threat to the security of the United States, including here in the homeland. We should not think of Iran as a purely Middle Eastern security challenge. That’s why today’s hearing is important. The phrase “great power competition” is the organizing principle for our national security agencies, but it has its limits. While China and Russia are “great powers,” and they do pose the greatest challenges to American security, Iran is not a great power but is nevertheless a serious challenge, and not just because of its nuclear program and its threat to overseas American allies like Israel and our Arab partners. Iran and its proxies are currently carrying out a campaign of hybrid warfare against the United States and our allies. I’m not the only one saying this: the director of national intelligence likewise warned of Iran’s hybrid approach to warfare in the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment.

This requires vigilance here at home, including from the private sector. North Korea is a challenge, too, but Iran poses a unique, multidimensional threat that requires us to think in 3-D technicolor, not just two-dimensional black and white. Given that chess originated in Iran, I’ve often heard the criticism that the United States plays checkers while the Iranian regime plays chess. Now is the time for the United States and our allies to start playing three-dimensional chess.

Second, we need to address the threat from the Iranian regime on a sustained, bipartisan basis. We will not succeed with a policy that changes radically if the White House or the Congress changes. A consistent, sustained, bipartisan response is how the United States won the Cold War. It took the United States decades of sustained, bipartisan effort, working with US allies around the world, and including efforts both at home and abroad, to win the Cold War without a hot war with the Soviet Union. We are approaching the challenge from China today with a similar bipartisan approach, including some excellent work here in the Congress. We need to build a sustainable, bipartisan strategy to address the threat from the Iranian regime. We need to play defense by protecting the homeland, including American citizens and the private sector, from Iran’s destabilizing actions. Both protecting Americans at home and turning Iran away from its destabilizing ambitions and its state-sponsorship of terrorism will require a sustained, bipartisan effort, working with US allies, and with an eye toward strengthening security, including in the private sector.

Third, one of the lessons the United States needs to embrace after October 7 is that strategic surprise is still possible. Even Israel, with all its focus, technology, and capabilities, was surprised by Hamas’s attack on October 7. The so-called “Iron Wall” between Israel and Gaza did not protect Israel’s citizens from the October 7 attack. What happened on October 7 is well past any effort to analogize it to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. The United States is thirty-five times the size of Israel. On a proportional basis, the number of Israelis killed on October 7 is more than half the number of Americans killed during the whole of the Vietnam War—and Israel suffered most of those deaths in a single day. The Iron Wall was not enough—we should learn that lesson, too. Today in the homeland security enterprise, every watch and warning officer, and every strategic planner in the US government, should be using red cells to look for vulnerabilities, including those we have not focused on. The Iranian regime is precisely the kind of threat that deserves this attention, especially in the areas of cybersecurity and countering Iranian disinformation. I will have more to say about these points below.

Fourth, I urge this committee to understand Iran’s peculiar sense of symmetry. Understanding Iran is a challenge, but Iran is far from incomprehensible. Eighty-four years ago this month, Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” What everyone forgets are his next words: “Perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Churchill was one of the most clear-eyed leaders in history about the Soviet Union. We need to be equally clear-eyed about the Iranian regime. The Iranian regime is not ten feet tall, and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, while dangerous and committed, is not lurking behind every tree.

Instead, we need to understand Iran’s peculiar sense of symmetry. Let me give several examples. The day after the January 2, 2020, strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave his Supreme National Security Council a written order to “strike America directly and in exact proportion to the attack,” two sources told the New York Times. Other Iranian military leaders made similar statements. In May 2018, when the United States started a “maximum pressure” campaign to reduce Iran’s oil exports, which Iran considered economic warfare, Iran showed it could reduce US allies’ ability to export oil, first in May and June with attacks on tankers and a Saudi pipeline, then with the September 14, 2019, Abqaiq attack that halved Saudi oil exports.

Iran’s sense of symmetry is more pronounced in cyberspace. After the Stuxnet malware that targeted Iran’s Siemens industrial control systems came to light in June 2010, Iran developed its own cyberattack capability that it used in 2013, three years later, to target US infrastructure. On July 30, 2012, new US sanctions targeted Iranian banksTwo months later, Iran ramped up denial of service attacks, whose main targets were—US banks. In August 2012, Iran’s surprise Shamoon attack deleted 35,000 hard drives at Saudi Aramco, described as “the biggest hack in history.” What got less publicity is that in early 2012, “Wiper” malware deleted data on Iranian Oil Ministry and National Iranian Oil Company computers.

The symmetry can be positive and negative: When the Iran nuclear deal was in force, Iranian cyberattacks appeared to decrease. When the Trump administration began its 2018 maximum pressure campaign, Iranian cyberattacks increased within twenty-four hours. On June 20, 2018, after Iranian attacks on civilian tankers, President Trump retaliated by cyberattack. Private US businesses noticed a further increase in Iranian cyberattacks.

And while the United States supports the cause of human rights and freedom in Iran, we cannot be surprised when the Iranian regime thinks this gives it a license to try to interfere in democratic processes here in the United States. There is, of course, absolutely no moral equivalency in the two situations—none. But the Iranian regime does not think this way, so we need to be prepared. We should not be deterred from pursuing what is right. One essential part of the response to Iran’s peculiar sense of symmetry is that we must raise our defenses to the level where the Iranian regime’s efforts to target our security, and especially our democratic processes, all fail.

This list could go on. But while Iran and its proxies are capable of tactical surprise, as Hamas achieved on October 7, it is possible for the United States and our allies to put in place defensive measures to protect the American people, and to help our allies, from the threats that Iran poses. Later I will discuss several specific steps Congress can take to help this.

The Iranian regime’s threats to the United States homeland

Let me briefly categorize the most significant threats from the Iranian regime toward the US homeland.

1.   Targeted assassinations and terrorist attacks in the United States homeland, and plots to kill or kidnap Americans here or overseas. The Iranian regime is responsible for plots to kill or kidnap American citizens who are critics of the regime, and against former American officials. There is every reason to expect such plots to continue. Disrupting these plots will require continued vigilance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which has the lead in disrupting such plots. Other parts of the US intelligence and law enforcement communities also play vital roles.

      Cooperation among US law enforcement agencies has proven extraordinarily effective in disrupting these plots. For example, in 2011, an extremely small number of IRGC Quds Force (IRGC-QF) officers tried to use Mansour Arbabsiar to assassinate Saudi Arabian ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir in a Washington restaurant. The plot was uncovered by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The advance passenger information systems by which Arbabsiar’s travel was tracked were developed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection. Arbabsiar was arrested by the FBI when his flight between Mexico City and Amsterdam landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. Arbabsiar pled guilty and cooperated with authorities in helping obtain evidence against other IRGC officers involved in the plot. He is now serving a twenty-five-year sentence in federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Cooperation among our law enforcement and homeland security agencies has proved successful at uncovering plots by Iran and its proxies.

      In a more recent example, a US citizen in California, four Iranian regime operatives, and an Eastern European criminal syndicate were charged with attempts to kidnap and kill an American citizen who was publicly critical of the regime’s human rights abuses. This resulted in a guilty plea on material support charges for the one accused who was here in the United States and the arrest of three members of the Eastern European crime syndicate. Others are still wanted for their role in these plots.

      Iran’s proxies Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah are also trying to build up a presence here in the United States. Here, again, cooperation among US, state, and local law enforcement has proved effective in uncovering and disrupting such plots. Continued vigilance will be essential.

2.   Cyber-threats from Iran are certain, and ongoing. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in its 2023 threat assessment that “Iran’s growing expertise and willingness to conduct aggressive cyber operations make it a major threat to the security of US and allied networks and data. Iran’s opportunistic approach to cyber attacks makes critical infrastructure owners in the United States susceptible to being targeted….” This is an area where Iran could pull off a strategic surprise. Of particular concern is Iran’s willingness to target U.S. private sector entities. Today, most government systems are better defended, as are the major firms that form the backbone of America’s digital economy. But the companies that are the “fingers” and “toes” are not as well protected. The March 2023 National Cybersecurity Strategy will help when it is fully implemented. However, since so much of the nation’s critical cyber infrastructure is in the hands of the private sector, we need, as a nation, to ask if we are adequately invested in cybersecurity.

3.   Iranian disinformation operations pose an increasing challenge. This is an area where Iran could pull off a strategic surprise. Early Iranian disinformation efforts were clumsy, but their attempt to exploit racial polarization in Florida in the 2020 election showed a significantly greater sophistication than before. I am not as concerned about actual Iranian threats to voting infrastructure, but Iranian disinformation efforts in the runup to the 2024 election are worth our attention in order to ensure that they get exposed and disrupted.

Seven steps the United States Congress can take

Let me close with seven ways in which Congress can help strengthen America’s defenses against today’s multidimensional threat from Iran.

1.   Work toward a bipartisan consensus to address the Iranian threat both at home and abroad.

2.   Focus on the most significant urgent threats, starting with increasing cybersecurity in the private sector. The governmental security partner for most private sector firms in the United States is the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). In 2021, John Katko, then the ranking Republican on this committee, said the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency should play quarterback for cybersecurity, and should be funded like one. He called for CISA to become a five billion dollar agency in five years. CISA is now funded at half that level. While we focus, rightly, on specific cyber threats like ransomware and the potential for nation states like China and Iran to carry out cyberattacks against critical infrastructure, we are not engaging in the debate as to whether we as a country are devoting the right level of resources to cybersecurity, both the levels of private sector and govern­mental spending. Governmental spending on cybersecurity may be the purview of the appropriations committees, but encouraging the private sector to do more to protect computer systems from Iranian and other hostile attacks is something that this committee should continue to urge as an urgent matter.

3.   Renew the authorization of DHS’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office. This office does vital work in coordinating training and the procurement of equipment to prevent low-probability, high-impact attacks using weapons of mass destruction. I do not need to remind this committee that Iran is one of the few countries in the world that has actually used chemical weapons, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are well past the level of technology required to build dirty bombs—conventional explosives with radiation enhancements. DHS needs the CWMD office re-authorized, and it also needs an authorized Office of Health Security. I know this committee has done its job and the bill is now held up in the Senate, I believe by a single senator. I urge this committee to engage to break the logjam and send a bipartisan reauthorization bill to the president right away.

4.   Renew Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act section 702 with changes. As my former government colleague Jon Darby, former director of operations at the National Security Agency, and I wrote in The Hill in September, “We can unequivocally state that Section 702 is the most timely, impactful, and cost-effective authority to obtain foreign intelligence on terrorists, spies, weapons proliferators, cyber attackers and nation-states that pose threats to the United States and our allies. History will judge us harshly if we unilaterally give up an important intelligence advantage against those who are trying to harm us.” I understand some in Congress have concerns, particularly over past FBI practices, and these do need to be addressed, but without requiring a judge to be sitting at the elbow of every government analyst working on national security cases. Given the threats we face from Iran and elsewhere, we cannot let the vital authority of section 702 lapse at the end of this year. This is the wrong time for Congress to be sending the message said in 1929, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

5.   Enact the House language in the Intelligence Authorization Act on the collection authority of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A). Section 435 of H.R. 3932 calls for an assessment by the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community on the collection authority of DHS I&A. It is particularly concerning that the comparable Senate language prohibits DHS I&A from doing any collection whatsoever. It is true that DHS I&A needs to be particularly conscious about respecting boundaries so that its actions do not infringe on Americans’ constitutional rights to free speech and the right to counsel, and I believe that Under Secretary Ken Wainstein agrees with this principle. But to deny I&A any ability to collect information relevant to border smuggling and trafficking, for example, goes farther than it should. When this language comes to conference between the House and the Senate, the House should stand firm on this particular issue.

6.   Extend authorities to counter unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Congress needs to ensure that federal counter-UAS authorities, which were extended in the continuing resolution, do not lapse at the end of this year. Drones were precisely one of the technologies that Hamas used to deadly effect against the Israeli Iron Wall in Gaza. This committee should be concerned about what Iranian operatives or Iranian proxies might try to do with unmanned aerial systems here in the United States. It is vital for the security of the homeland that Congress and the administration resolve the competing versions of this bill before counter-UAS authorities lapse at the end of the year.

7.   Renew the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program, which expired on July 28, 2023. This important program gives DHS the authority to enforce security standards for the nation’s chemical plants, to make it harder for terrorists to get access to those facilities. Here again, the House has done its work in passing a bipartisan bill, and there is a bipartisan bill in the Senate that is being held up, I believe by a single senator. I urge this committee to engage to break the logjam and send a bipartisan reauthorization bill to the president right away.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you and the committee for your time and look forward to answering your questions.

Nathan A. Sales is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and Middle East Programs, focusing on counterterrorism, security, democracy and the rule of law, and human rights.

Thomas S. Warrick is the director of the Future of DHS project at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice and a nonresident senior fellow and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Further reading

Related Experts: Thomas S. Warrick and Nathan Sales

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