The Iranian government is weighing an assassination attempt against the American ambassador to South Africa, a US government official familiar with the issue and another official who has seen intelligence reports told Politico on Sunday.
News of the plot comes as Iran continues to seek ways to retaliate for the US elimination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani earlier this year, the officials said. If carried out, it could dramatically ratchet up already serious tensions between the US and Iran and create enormous pressure on Trump to strike back, possibly in the middle of an election season.
US officials have been aware of a general threat against the ambassador, Lana Marks, since the spring, the officials said. But the intelligence about the threat to the ambassador has become more specific in recent weeks. The Iranian embassy in Pretoria is involved in the plot, the US government official said.
Iran retaliated for the killing of Soleimani by launching a barrage of missiles on two Iraqi military bases hosting American troops. 34 service members were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury as a result of the attack.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, said in June that the elimination of Soleimani had “significant effect” in deterring the Iranian threat.
Attacking Marks is one of several options US officials believe Iran’s regime is considering for retaliation for the elimination of Soleimani.
An intelligence community directive known as “Duty to Warn” requires US spy agencies to notify a potential victim if intelligence indicates their life could 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 intelligence also has been included in the CIA World Intelligence Review, known as the WIRe, a classified product that is accessible to senior policy and security officials across the US government, as well as certain lawmakers and their staff.
The intelligence community is not exactly sure why Iranians would target Marks, who has few, if any, known links to Iran. It’s possible the Iranians took her long friendship with Trump into consideration, the US government official said.
The Iranian government also operates clandestine networks in South Africa, the officials noted, and has had a foothold there for decades. In 2015, Al Jazeera and The Guardian reported on leaked intelligence documents that detailed an extensive secret network of Iranian operatives in South Africa.
Marks may also be an easier target than US diplomats in other parts of the world, such as Western Europe, where the US has stronger relationships with local law enforcement and intelligence services.