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On Salman Rushdie's attacker and the creeping soft narrative
The attack on Salman Rushdie is already being memory holed in favor of reaching an agreement on the latest iteration of the Iran deal. Here's what we know and why you shouldn't forget it happened.
The attack of Salman Rushdie on Friday, August 12th occurred amidst the backdrop of ongoing talks about the re-implementation of the Iran deal. Those talks appear to be leading towards a new deal with terms similar and perhaps even nearly identical to the original deal made in 2015 and torn up by Donald Trump in 2018. That action—which resulted in a return to pre-Iran deal sanctions and restrictions on business dealings with the regime—was costly to certain companies who spent those two years making deals and developing relations with the Iranian regime without fear of being sanctioned and cut off from Western financial markets. The attack on Rushdie, therefore, came at a most inconvenient time for some, and as such, what we like to call the “Soft Narrative” or “Doubt Narrative” has started to come into play in Western media articles. In one instance, Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, said it was possible the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was involved in the plot against Rushdie, but he said it was "more likely" a Mossad agent posing as a member of the IRGC "lured" Matar into attacking Salman Rushdie. Hashemi uses as evidence the Israeli state’s strong opposition to a deal with Iran, but he neglects to mention his own longstanding support for an Iran deal. Of course, this all follows an interview Hashemi gave on the day Rushdie was attacked wherein he expressed “complete surprise” at the attack given that, “Iran certainly doesn’t benefit in any way from staging this attack.” Perhaps the Iranian state won’t materially benefit from this action, but they do know they can get away with it. Neither President Biden nor his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan mentioned Iran in their statements after Rushdie's attack. Doing so would’ve disrupted ongoing negotiations with the Iranian regime.
What we know so far about Rushdie’s would-be assassin
The facts as we know them are fairly straightforward. Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey resident who holds dual U.S. and Lebanese citizenship, traveled to Lebanon in 2018 to see his father. His parents were divorced some time earlier. Matar, his siblings and his mother lived in New Jersey. His father moved back to Lebanon for an unspecified reason. The town of Yaroun in southern Lebanon where Matar’s father lives is under the control of the terrorist organization known as Hezbollah, which is a group dependent upon Iranian and particularly IRGC support. After visiting his father in 2018, Matar’s mother says that something changed in the then-twenty-year-old. She says she hoped he would get a job and find more purpose in his life. Instead, he started staying up all night locked away in his room on his computer and sleeping away most of the day. Presumably this continued for the next four years, but there is some indication he had a part-time retail job at one point recently. Nevertheless, Matar was active online and posted pro-Iranian content (one might even say fawning praise) on his Facebook account.
Vice News has reported that, according to a Middle East intelligence officer, Matar was “in contact” with members of the IRGC through social media, but as of yet, there is no evidence the IRGC “directed” Matar to carry out this act. But let’s think this through. The IRGC didn’t need to write down an order to assassinate Rushdie. It would’ve been fairly formulaic to take a directionless young man inundated with Iranian government propaganda and offer him praise, money and eternal paradise with only one thing standing in the way of realizing all those things—a man named Salman Rushdie. If Matar was unfamiliar with the fatwa by Khomeini calling for Rushdie’s assassination, a link to the text could have been provided, as could information about the $3 million bounty available to the would-be killer. Then it would be as simple as looking at Rushdie’s schedule and suggesting a venue to catch his speech.
It’s possible the IRGC could have been more explicit with Matar, but it’s unlikely such specifics were necessary. There is the possibility of using encrypted communications to plot the details of the attack, and if those were picked up by Western intelligence agencies, it’s again unlikely we’ll hear about that anytime soon, if ever. Such is the way of these things. Nevertheless, the name given on the fake driver’s license Matar was carrying at the time of his arrest is informative. The name given is Hassan Mughniyah which appears to be an amalgamation of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and his former deputy Imad Mughniyeh. Nasrallah and Mughniyeh were reportedly Hezbollah hardliners responsible for exporting terrorism abroad. In that position, Mughniyeh is said to have reported to Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force leader killed by a U.S. strike in Iraq in 2020. Mughniyeh and Soleimani heaped praise on one another and appear to have worked closely together, and the Iranian regime is still reeling from his death carried out by edict from the Trump administration. Days before Matar attacked Rushdie, the Justice Department indicted IRGC officials for their involvement in plots to assassinate Iran hardliners in the Trump administration—former NSA John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the aftermath of Rushdie’s attack, Iranian state-owned television has linked the attack to Soleimani directly and issued a threat to all those involved in his death. The message is clear—these attacks will continue; and they’re payback for Soleimani’s death.
Why carry a fake ID with the name ‘Hassan Mughniyah’ if you’re not trying to send a message to the world? It’s the type of indirect admission that’s almost immediately obvious but also won’t hold up in a U.S. court. It has a certain “look what we did, good luck proving it” vibe. It’s the sort of trolling we usually see coming out of Russia. Here, the Iranians appear to have followed the same playbook.
Chipping away at the IRGC’s culpability
We’ve seen other ways the narrative is being slowly chipped away. I came across another article published in Bloomberg and the Washington Post that grabbed my attention. It’s titled ‘Rushdie Attack’s Roots Lie in India, Not Iran’. The op-ed not only glosses over the facts known to the public about Rushdie’s attacker—chiefly his contact with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps online—but it meanders through discussions of domestic squabbles in Pakistan and India before concluding, “What the Rushdie attack really illustrates is something both India and Pakistan are increasingly suffering from — the high cost of prizing religious identity over the defense of liberty.” There is no discussion about how any of this suffering led a young American citizen to rush on stag and stab Rushdie ten times, nearly killing him. The argument doesn’t have to make sense, but it does add an element of doubt and a degree of separation between the attacker and the Iranian government.
Opinion pieces often have agendas at play, but the flimsiness of this argument made me take a quick look at the author. It didn’t take long to spot a possible motivation for writing this one. As it turns out, the author, Mihir Sharma, is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Dehli. Some reports stated that, as of 2009, 95% of ORF’s budget was provided by Reliance Industries (later reportedly down to 65%). Reliance owns the world’s largest oil refinery and imported millions of barrels of Iranian oil starting in April 2016 until halting all Iranian oil imports in October 2018, just before the Trump administration reinstituted sanctions against the regime in Tehran. Reliance couldn’t afford to be cut off from Western financial markets. The cost was too high, but soon, a new Iran deal may yet remove those roadblocks for Reliance once again. So, let’s not blame Iran for something they want credit for while simultaneously denying involvement with, alright? There’s too much money at stake.
Is this a repeat of 2015?
In 2017, writing for Politico, Josh Meyer published an extensive investigation of the Obama administration’s decision to ignore Hezbollah’s criminal activity so that they could secure passage of the original Iran deal in 2015. This meant derailing a multi-year investigation into a billion-dollar international criminal enterprise that directly funded IRGC operations—including terrorist activities—abroad. The story sparked quite a bit of outrage which included furious denunciations from Iran Deal architect Ben Rhodes on Twitter. Rhodes, ever the idealist liberal arts kid, seemed rather annoyed that anyone in the mainstream media took a slight detour from the ever-present anti-Trump coverage and chose to shine a light on the mistakes of the last administration. Rhodes and his allies never really denied the veracity of the claims made in the Politico piece—the sourcing was impeccable and essentially beyond repute—but still managed to find time to call the piece the result of too much time living in a “perpetual right wing echo chamber of non-fact based anti Iran Deal propaganda”, and yes, that is how an idealist liberal arts kid yells “fake news”.
The Biden administration, full of Obama retreads and carrying much the same ideological beliefs, will no doubt hope the Matar story continues to slowly fade out of public consciousness. It probably will, but even if the coverage continues for a while, that little sliver of deniability means it’s not going to move the needle and stop the new deal from going through. I can’t tell you why the Biden administration seems so desperate to bring this deal back, but it’s long since been part of their ethos. There’s no going back now. Perhaps their determination to prove they’re different than Trump continues to motivate them, and there’s no bigger way to do that on the international stage right now than by bringing back the Iran deal. Yet, Soleimani is still dead, and the IRGC and its hardliner allies are still angry and still promising further revenge against the United States. There’s no reason to think the IRGC will stop their aggressive actions—whether that comes in the form of intrusive cyberattacks, election meddling or targeted assassinations. Perhaps the Biden administration’s theory that the Iran deal will eventually, one day, lead to a general opening up of Iranian society and perhaps even—eventually, one day in the distant future—lead to free and fair elections isn’t a hopeless pipedream. Perhaps it’ll happen in my lifetime. Maybe looking the other way at drug smuggling and money laundered into the accounts of a sanctioned terrorist enterprise will be “worth it” one day in a free Iran. Then again, perhaps it won’t. After all, there are plenty of powerful forces in the Iranian government who will continue to seek vengeance for Soleimani’s death.
In fact, half an hour before the attack on Rushdie was carried out, the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, tweeted out a picture of Hossein Hamadani—an IRGC commander killed by ISIS in Syria in 2015. The Foreign Minister spoke in praise of both Hamadani and Qasem Soleimani’s commitment to the Iranian government and its ideals. Was the timing of this tweet pure happenstance, or should it be viewed in the greater context of the reason for the attack on Rushdie? It’s hard to say for certain—there were news articles in the Iranian press about Hamadani and Soleimani days before the tweets—but if it was an homage to greater events, it wouldn’t be the only one the Iranian government has chosen to put out since August 12th. State broadcasters and newspapers have expressed support for the attack on Rushdie, while the government has continued to deny involvement and blame the attack on Rushdie himself (the attack springing forth as a result of Rushdie’s sins against Islam in this telling, not the Ayatollah’s fatwa calling for his death).
One Iranian paper even floated the possibility that this attack was a false flag by the U.S. government meant to drum up Islamophobia and action against Iran. You can make the argument that Iran is doing all this ex post facto. They’re saying this attack is vengeance for Soleimani and more are coming because they need to look and seem powerful enough for that possibility to exist. They want the West to fear them as much as their own people fear standing up to them, but I imagine that argument would probably hold more water if the DOJ hadn’t indicted IRGC officials for attempting to carry out assassinations against Bolton and Pompeo. The more logical conclusion here is the IRGC “guided” Matar along his path while keeping enough distance from him to avoid culpability and any real consequences. A different (read: Republican) administration would take a much dimmer view of this sequence of events, but Obama’s people looked the other way in 2015, so why wouldn’t the IRGC expect Biden’s people do the same in 2022? As ever, weakness begets weakness.
Why you should care
Iranian-backed terrorism is getting bolder. They were caught meddling in the 2020 election. They’ve been caught trying to assassinate two former U.S. government officials. Now they appear to have a barely-concealed hand in the attack on Rushdie. Nevertheless, the Iran deal is almost certainly going to get pushed through. The Biden administration will claim that, long term, pushing this through is actually a good thing. It will help lessen the Iranian hardliner’s stranglehold on power. Others will see this as mere appeasement of a brutal regime which will continue its brutal activities from now until the day it ceases to exist.
Personally, I think the Iran deal was a bad idea. I also think tearing it up in 2018 was worse than keeping it. Now, I think re-implementing it is even worse than that decision. If Ron DeSantis or Trump are our next president, there’s every chance this 2022 Iran deal is going to get torn up too. One of Iran’s conditions of this latest agreement is they want it to be binding—removing the ability of the next administration to tear it up. Biden has no legal authority to do this. The Iranians will know this may only end up being a temporary reprieve, followed by another stare down sometime after 2024, and they’ll point to Washington’s decision not to make the last deal permanent as justification for terrorist actions they’re linked to in the future. I assume such arguments will play well domestically. It won’t really matter. There’s every reason to believe the Iranian government (via the IRGC or other cut-outs) is going to keep committing violent acts against the West. Clearly, we don’t care enough to stop them.
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