My Iranian friends take great pride in the enormous global influence of their cultural heritage. From the Taj Mahal in India to American greeting cards with quotations from Rumi, the markers of Persian civilization are ancient and modern, sublime and ridiculous – but above all, ubiquitous.

The Revolutionary Guard will use the attempted murder of author Salman Rushdie to enhance its image – among its own ranks, its proxies and potential recruits – as an international player, inviting comparisons with America’s CIA and Israel’s Mossad. Herbert Neubauer/APA/AFP/Getty Images/TNS

For the most part, this spread occurred organically: No state-sponsored ad campaign was required to convince gourmands everywhere that fasenjan, a stew of duck or chicken in walnut paste and pomegranate molasses, tastes divine. But some cultural elements – the Shia faith, most of all – have for centuries been promoted by Iran’s rulers.

The current theocratic dispensation in Tehran regards much of Persian culture with undisguised disgust, proscribing as impure any expression of Iran’s pre-Islamic history and condemning as sinful anything that doesn’t conform to the regime’s dour worldview. Instead, it has patronized murder and mayhem as its instruments of influence, at home and abroad.

The attempted murder of Salman Rushdie, 33 years after Iran’s then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a religious edict calling for his death, is only the latest manifestation of the Islamic Republic’s debased soft power.

Khomeini himself once aimed higher: He had a grand plan to internationalize the Shia revolution that brought him to power in 1979. When that failed – the ayatollah was admired by many in the Sunni-majority Arab states, but he never won their fealty – his successors settled for exporting sectarian discord by financing and arming a network of Shiite militias and terrorist groups across the Middle East.

The task of setting up this matrix of menace was assigned to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which evolved over the decades from Khomeini’s personal militia to the Iranian state’s most powerful security arm. And no Revolutionary Guard commander did more to expand its influence than Qassem Soleimani, who came to be designated a terrorist by the U.S. and sanctioned by the European Union and the United Nations.


Under his supervision, the Revolutionary Guard and its proxies seeded chaos in Arab nations, from Syria and Lebanon to Iran and Yemen. By 2020, when he was taken out by an American drone strike, Soleimani had his sights farther afield, with an assassination campaign against dissidents and detractors – and especially Israelis – in Europe and Asia.

Taking a leaf out of the post-9/11 al-Qaida playbook, the Revolutionary Guard also began to recruit sympathizers living in the West to target high-profile figures like the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Since Soleimani’s death, it has grown more ambitious and reckless, targeting top American officials like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton, as well as prominent anti-regime activists based in the U.S., like Masih Alinejad.

So it is no surprise to learn, from Vice News, that Rushdie’s attacker, Hadi Matar, a New Jersey resident of Lebanese ancestry and a Khomeini admirer, had been in direct contact on social media with members of the Revolutionary Guard.

The attack on Rushdie is unlikely to be the last. As an instrument of a regime that defines itself by what it opposes – America, Israel and the West, generally in that order — the Revolutionary Guard has a great deal to gain from such assaults, whether they are directly controlled or merely inspired and encouraged. The triumphant coverage of the attempt on Rushdie in the Iranian media, much of it controlled by the Revolutionary Guard or its acolytes, has drowned out the foreign ministry’s denial of any involvement.

In the days ahead, expect Revolutionary Guard commanders to heap praise on Rushdie’s assailant. The message is that the Revolutionary Guard has both a long memory and a long reach. Even though his attacker failed – Rushdie is, thankfully, alive – the signal from Tehran is that enemies of the regime can be attacked anywhere, even in the U.S., and at any time, even decades after the regime first put a target on their backs.

The Revolutionary Guard will count on this to enhance its image – among its own ranks, its proxies and potential recruits – as an international player, inviting comparisons with America’s CIA and Israel’s Mossad. That is the soft power that matters to Tehran.

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