Following the disclosure of a string of assassination operations during the Cold War, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905, prohibiting government personnel from engaging in political assassinations. The order was reaffirmed by President Reagan in Executive Order 12333 and has generally been considered US policy ever since.

However, the United States has continued to engage in military operations that have often blurred the lines between assassination and targeted warfare. For example, President Reagan directly targeted Moammar Gadhafi’s home in 1986 with air strikes. For his part, President Clinton used cruise missiles to attack insurgent camps in Afghanistan in 1998. Furthermore, both presidents Bush and Obama have made drone strikes against Al-Qaeda leaders and militants a major component of the War of Terror.

Recently, mounting evidence has been uncovered suggesting that Iran has waged its own campaign of targeted assassination. However, unlike US actions, which have targeted military or paramilitary personnel and installations, the Iranians seem to be targeting unarmed diplomats. This Persian assassination campaign has been directed primarily against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia and has involved operations across at least seven countries including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, the United States, and Turkey. One foiled plot involved a plan to kill the Saudi Arabian envoy to the United States. The killer was to place a bomb in a restaurant that the Saudi envoy was known to frequent. However, the plot was uncovered because the Iranians chose to partner with a Mexican drug cartel that already been infiltrated by US drug informants.

In another attack, a magnetic bomb was attached to an Israeli embassy vehicle in New Delhi, seriously injuring the wife of one Israeli diplomat. The same day, a similar device was found in Georgia. In Thailand, an Iranian citizen was implicated in a series of bomb blasts that shook Bangkok in February. Like the New Delhi and Georgian attacks, these bombs had magnets attached to them and were believed to have been intended for Israeli diplomats or other Jewish residents living in the country. These incidents all occurred within a 48-hour period, suggesting a high degree of coordination among the attackers.

These assassination operations are most likely in retaliation for recent American and/or Israeli covert actions. Such actions have included the Stuxnet virus and assassination of four Iranian nuclear scientists. There have also been other violent attacks across Iran over the years, which some analysts have attributed to external powers. Many believe that the US and Israel are choosing to rely on covert means of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program because they fear that other methods such as sanctions and negotiations will prove ineffective. Moreover, striking these facilities from the air may precipitate a war that neither party is prepared to fight right now.

Yet, there are some indications that there has been a recent pause in the Iranian assassination campaign. Many have attributed this to Iran’s reengagement in negotiations with the West over its controversial nuclear program. It is likely that all sides are curbing their use of covert action in order to give space for diplomatic talks to progress. Hopefully, these negotiations will prove successful and tensions over the Persian Gulf will ease. However, if negotiations fail, the covert tit-for-tat that has been waged between Iran and its adversaries will likely continue. If this occurs, the diplomats, military leaders, and prominent citizens of Iran’s opponents could again become targets of the Persian assassins. As such, security managers and planners with at risk clients should start reviewing their policies and taking appropriate steps to mitigate the hazards posed by this potential threat.