If Iran’s alleged plan to launch a suicide boat attack on Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., sounds nuts, that’s because it is.
The National Security Agency intercepted communications from members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps discussing “USS Cole-style attacks” against the Army installation in January, Associated Press Reporter James LaPorta first revealed.
The Iranian plan also reportedly involved targeting Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph M. Martin, who lived on Fort McNair, according to the AP, which cited two unnamed senior intelligence officials.
In part due to these threats, the Army wants to push boat traffic further away from Fort McNair, according to the Associated Press. Army spokeswoman Col. Cathy Wilkinson declined to discuss the reported threat for this story.
“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on security for senior officials,” Wilkinson said.
But the alleged Iranian suicide boat scheme raises several troubling questions: Why would Iran attack a military installation that most Americans cannot find on a map, and why of all people would Iran try to kill the Army vice chief of staff?
Fort McNair is located in Southwest Washington, D.C., near where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers meet. The post includes houses for senior officers that are near the shore of the Washington Channel, a public waterway.
On April 16, 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers submitted a revised request to restrict boating in the Washington Channel between roughly 75 and 150 meters from Fort McNair to “fulfill the current security needs” of the post, according to the plan, which was announced in the Federal Register.
While boats could still pass through the restricted zone, they would not be able to anchor or loiter there without permission from Joint Base Myer Henderson Hall/Fort McNair, the plan says.
The Army initially wanted to restrict most boats from the area, but residents of Washington, D.C., complained it would make the channel dangerous because small recreational boats would have less room to maneuver around larger water taxis and river cruise ships.
Yet Iran’s reported plans for an attack on Fort McNair come more than a year after the United States launched an airstrike in Baghdad that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq that has attacked U.S. service members.
Iran subsequently launched ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases that host U.S. troops. Those bases have also come under rocket attacks by Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq, prompting President Joe Biden to order recent airstrikes in Syria.
While an Iranian attack on Washington, D.C., would be an unprecedented escalation of tensions with the United States and surely result in massive retaliation, it cannot be entirely ruled out.
In May 2013, Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for taking part in a plot to kill then-Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir.
Federal prosecutors accused Arbabsiar of meeting with an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent several times in Mexico during 2011. Arbabsiar told the agent, who was posing as a drug trafficker, that he wanted to attack the Saudi embassy and kill the ambassador.
The plan allegedly involved using detonating a bomb in a restaurant that Al-Jubeir frequented. Arbabsiar, who claimed that his cousin was a senior member of Quds Force, allegedly told the DEA agent that he was not concerned about killing bystanders, adding that if 100 people were killed along with the ambassador, “f–k them.”
Prosecutors also said that when the DEA agent warned Arbabsiar that U.S. senators who frequently ate the restaurant could also die in the attack, he allegedly said that would be “no big deal.”
But even in this plot, the intended target was the Saudi ambassador, said Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American author, journalist and commentator.
While the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps could try to carry out an attack on Fort McNair, Majd said he doesn’t think they would want to do so.
“Whenever they’ve wanted to strike at American interests, they’ve usually done it in Iraq. It’s the easiest place for them to do it,” Majd said. “I don’t see why they would want to bring the battle to American soil. I think that’s something they’ve been very careful to avoid.”
Any attack on Fort McNair would have to be approved at the highest level in Iran, said Majd, who doubted that such a move would be authorized.
“It’s absolutely possible that a couple of Revolutionary Guards on a phone call or an encrypted message said: ‘Hey, we should go do this; we should go do that,’” Majd said. “It doesn’t really reflect, necessarily, what the policy of the Iranian government would be.”
“In the same way that chatter is chatter,” he continued. “A couple of GIs could say, ‘Let’s go nuke Iran.’ That doesn’t mean that Iranians should think that – if a couple of soldiers said, ‘Let’s nuke them’ – that would be the policy of the United States.”
It is possible that the Iranians leaked information about the alleged plot to manipulate the United States and countries in the Middle East, said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.
Such a move would be a useful form of information warfare because it would indicate that Iran has the ability to strike the United States while giving Iranian regime officials plausible deniability, Cordesman said.
“Looking at what is sometimes called grey area warfare, people tend to react as if the motives would be actually executing something like this – as distinguished from, basically, simply providing the threat,” Cordesman said.
It’s possible Iran’s reported threat against Fort McNair is intended to send a message to its allies and enemies in the Persian Gulf region that Iran deserves to be taken seriously because it is applying pressure on the United States, he said.
Another issue is whether a suicide boat attack on Fort McNair to kill the Army vice chief of staff is plausible. Cordesman said that such a scenario would be difficult to carry out.
“Timing it so you can kill a specific officer with an attack from a speed boat going by his house – and they are all labeled on the front – is maybe not the most practical attack in the world,” Cordesman said.
“It could possibly work, but it’s not the kind of thing you would announce if you intended to do it – unless you were willing to give up a reasonable amount of surprise and probability of success.”
Featured image: In this Friday March 19, 2021, photo a District of Columbia Fire Boat checks buoys in the waterway next to Fort McNair, seen in background in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)