Is Iran a Terror Threat in the U.S.?

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Charles Eckert / Polaris

Video frame grabs of Russell Defreitas, in a traditional Muslim outfit and skullcap, caught on the surveillance tape of the Lindenwood Diner with an FBI informant, face pixelated, Monday, June 4, 2007. Defreitas is one of four men arrested in the JFK Airport terror plot.

In another week or so no one is going to remember the "JFK plot." It never got off the ground. The plotters had neither explosives nor financing to fulfill their plan to blow up fuel tanks and a fuel pipeline at the New York City airport. The plot was betrayed almost from the beginning. It will sink without a ripple — unless, that is, there proves to be an Iranian connection.

So far evidence of any such link, first raised as a possibility in local Trinidad newspapers, is wafer thin. One of the suspects, Abdul Kadir, was on his way to Iran to attend an Islamic conference when he was arrested in Trinidad. A former Guyanese legislator, Kadir is a Shi'a Muslim, and two of his children are studying in Iran. Another suspect arrested is a Shi'a imam in Trinidad, who reportedly has ties to Shi'a groups in Iraq and Iran. At least one unnamed FBI official has dismissed any possible such ties, telling the blog Talking Points Memo that while the plotters "may have been looking for help... they were not associated with anyone else."

On the other hand, it is not inconceivable Iran would be looking at terrorist targets in the United States these days. Iranian hard-liners believe a war with the United States is inevitable. They read the American press and have convinced themselves that while Condoleezza Rice might settle for diplomacy, Dick Cheney sooner or later will find an excuse to bomb them. The hard-liners are also convinced that we are inciting Iran's ethnic minorities to attack the regime. Trying to blow up JFK Airport is the least we could expect from them if Cheney does get his war.

Evidence of Iranian sleeper cells in the U.S. is as thin as that of an Iranian hand in the JFK plot. In the mid-'80s there was a suspicion that Lebanese Hizballah, on Iranian orders, was trying to establish cells in the U.S., particularly in the Detroit area. But no cell was found. Some terrorist analysts still believe that Iran tried to kill William Rogers, the commander of the U.S.S. Vincennes, when a pipe bomb went off under his minivan in 1989. The Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Gulf in 1988, and the attack on Rogers was presumably in retaliation. The FBI officially dismisses the Iranian hypotheses. A Hizballah-associated group in North Carolina cheating on cigarette taxes was tried and convicted. Otherwise that's it.

Iran's role in Iraq is a different story. Some Iraqi and American officials are certain that Iran knows something about the kidnapping of the five British contractors on May 31. The sophistication of the attack — the kidnappers arrived at the Shi'a-run Ministry of Finance in 40 police vehicles — suggests the Iranians may even have been in on the planning. Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, the group that most likely executed the kidnapping, answers to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The theory is that the kidnapping was in retaliation for the British killing of a Sadr commander in Basra on May 25 and an American attack on the Mahdi Army in Sadr city the following day.

An Administration official told me he doesn't see us coming up with a smoking gun on Iran's role in Iraq. (He had nothing to say about JFK.) What worries him instead is an accidental confrontation, like a hothead in the IRGC firing a missile at one of our carriers in the Gulf. If that were to happen, a war could follow, and we'd find out soon enough if the Iranians really do have sleeper cells in the U.S.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.