“They are warriors who have no borders… They are warriors who show their presence wherever needed.” That’s how Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the Qods Force, the special operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during a Friday Prayer sermon in Tehran in January. Despite its name meaning Jerusalem in Arabic, the “Qods” (Quds) Force (and Iran’s security services more broadly), have not limited the scope of their networks and operations to the Arab world or the Middle East.
As Washington thinks through escalation scenarios between the U.S. and Iran for the rest of 2020, Khamenei’s reference to the borderless nature of the Qods Force cannot be ignored.
It’s rare for Khamenei to address Iranians from the Friday Prayer pulpit; his previous sermon having taken place eight years ago in February 2012. Following a string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and escalating Western sanctions, Khamenei then claimed that Iran would respond to such threats with “our own threats… that when needed, God willing, will be applied.” Days later came attempted bombings of Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India, which Israel blamed on Iran and in Thailand, as well as attacks in Bulgaria by Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah that killed six people.
It’s likely that in the aftermath of the killing of Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani, Iran will revert to this tried and true terror playbook.
Already, IRGC officials in Iran, as well as a constellation of Shiite militias in Iraq, promised to exact vengeance for their slain commander. But these sympathies are not limited to the Middle East and can be found even in places where Iran lacks significant sectarian affinity, like in the Balkans, for instance.
This January in Kosovo, a women was briefly jailed for inciting violence online after the killing of Soleimani. Such individuals could hypothetically provide Iranian agents, who have shown a willingness over the past four decades to work with the diverse likes of Sunni terrorists, Mexican drug cartels, and even disaffected Americans, a vector to achieve their aims against the West.
In fact, Tehran’s preference for local actors in jurisdictions of weak central authority is consistent with its policy of using proxies, which in turn offers the regime a veneer of plausible deniability. To support this, Iran has marshaled its embassies as well as a series of cultural and religious institutions as fronts to finance and organize terror operations abroad as well as to carry favor with the local population. This is true for geographies like the Balkans and Latin America.
While Kosovo may seem like a stretch for Iran, the revolutionary regime is no stranger to the Balkans. A recent hardliner Iranian news outlet cited Bosnia as the first post-Iran-Iraq War theater where Qods Force operations took place. For several years during the early phases of the Yugoslav Wars, the Qods Force helped funnel weapons and advisors to Bosniaks. One retired IRGC general recently bragged that when in Bosnia, he trained fighters while clad in the uniform of an aid worker – specifically that of the Iranian Red Crescent.
Moreover, several figures who went on to occupy key political and military positions in the Islamic Republic were present in Bosnia during the conflict in the early 1990s. These include the likes of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati who functioned as the Supreme Leader’s representative to Bosnia, and Commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who reportedly served as one of two Qods Force Field-Commanders in the country. Today Jannati leads two important Iranian political bodies, the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, whereas Naqdi is now a Deputy Coordinator for the IRGC after serving for almost a decade at the helm of the Basij, Iran’s all volunteer paramilitary force.
According to a U.S. State Department Factsheet on the IRGC, Bosnia is listed among several other countries where Quds Force plots have been detected and/or thwarted. Iran’s embassy in Bosnia has predictably denied this allegation. But what is undeniable is Iran’s reversion to terrorism, and in particular assassination of dissidents, on the European continent. To date, the European Union has sanctioned Iran in response to these attacks, but Iran does not appear to have been deterred.
Reports as late as October of last year indicate that an “Iranian paramilitary network” was planning to attack an Iranian opposition group in Albania, once again bringing the Balkans into the spotlight. Albania has increasingly faced Iran’s ire for taking-in the group, and has had to expel a steady string of diplomats for reportedly transgressing their diplomatic immunity. In 2018, Iran’s Ambassador to Tirana was expelled from the country. This January, Khamenei called Albania, “a small and very treacherous European country.”
An astute observer of Iran-backed terror operations will note that be it the plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, or to bomb an opposition rally in Paris, Iran failed in its objectives, and operational sloppiness aided local law enforcement and intelligence. That may be true, and for some that might dampen the lethality of the Islamic Republic’s terror apparatus. But the fact that the Islamic Republic persists in these operations signals the regime’s intent to continue to make good on its threats. Iran can therefore be expected to poke and prod at allied defenses over time, hoping to exploit them with minimal cost while aiming for a maximum amount of damage.
Whether future terror attacks will be against U.S. persons, assets, interests, or allies and partners remains unknown. But what Washington can make clear is that it will spare no cost in detecting, deterring, and disrupting any potential attack, as well as responding to them. After all, it’s entirely likely that Iran’s next significant move will not take place in the heartland of the Middle East, but on its periphery.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington D.C., where he covers Iranian political and security issues.