WASHINGTON - A top Iranian cleric has warned the U.S. and specifically the city of Washington to prepare for retaliation in response to a terror attack in western Pakistan that killed 103 people.
Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a senior Iranian religious leader, claims the Jan. 10 massacre of Shiite Muslims in Quetta, Pakistan, was financed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
According to Iran's state-run Fars News Agency, Shirazi said on Jan. 16, "Today this crime was committed in Quetta, Pakistan, and tomorrow it will be Washington's, London's, Egypt's and even Saudi Arabia's turn."
Experts say it is not clear if the threat is real or empty, but it should be taken seriously considering the long-standing hostile relations between the U.S. and Iran.
Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes there is a shadow war going on between the U.S. and Iran over Iran's nuclear program.
"The U.S. has acknowledged sending drones over Iranian territory, and there's very credible reason to think that the U.S. is responsible for computer viruses. The U.S. has acknowledged sabotaging some of Iran's nuclear equipment. No one is quite sure who's responsible for what," he said.
There are examples of Iranian aggression as well, including "the gentleman who pleaded guilty, for instance, to an Iranian-organized plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, here in Washington, D.C., and there's also credible reason to think that Iran has been behind cyberattacks on U.S. banks in recent months," Clawson said.
On Sept. 29, 2011, Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen living in Texas and holding both Iranian and U.S. passports, was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and charged with plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador at a popular Georgetown restaurant.
U.S. investigators also determined that the Iranian plot involved a plan to blow up the Israeli Embassy.
In the past, the Iranian government has been known to cultivate and associate with organizations capable of devastating operations such as the 1983 Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. Suicide bombers detonated truck bombs that killed 241 American servicemen including 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. Sixty Americans were injured.
Hezbollah, according to U.S. intelligence experts, which carried out that attack, has long been one of Iran's key proxies for covert activity. But Clawson says Iran's covert skills are slipping.
"Hezbollah in Lebanon was once called the A-team of terrorists. Their skills seem to have significantly atrophied in recent years," he said.
But even if Iran's capacity to retaliate against attacks on its nuclear program facilities or other interests is in decline, there are motivations for them to lash out.
"People have been sabotaging the Iranian nuclear program for years, at least four Iranian scientists have been assassinated on the streets of Tehran and it's widely believed that those assassinations were orchestrated by Israel. There have been cyber-attacks against the Iranian nuclear program by the U.S. and Israel," says George Perkovich, vice president for studies and director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"I don't think it's a threat (from Shirazi) that needs to be taken that seriously," Perkovich says, adding that he can understand why Iranians may blame the U.S. because of the growth of attacks in Quetta against Shiites and the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.
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