WASHINGTON – The U.S. government is worried that Iran will consider a terror attack on American soil, but it has no specific or credible threat about such a plot. Police from Los Angeles to New York City said they were anxious about the risks, even as a senior U.S. intelligence official reassured Congress that it was unlikely Iran would attack.
Law enforcement officials are keeping an eye out for potential Iranian operatives or anyone with links to the country's proxy terrorist group, Hezbollah, as tensions escalate amid bombings overseas and tough talk from Iran's government about its nuclear energy program.
Los Angeles, which has one of the largest Iranian communities outside Iran, has moved potential Iranian threats to the top of its intelligence briefings over the past few weeks. The New York Police Department said it assumes Iran would attack the city, with its especially large Jewish population.
"The attacks overseas raises everybody's anxiety level a little bit," said Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's counterterrorism and special operations bureau. In recent weeks, Iran has been blamed for bombings in India, Georgia and Thailand. "It's been at the forefront," Downing said.
Iran has accused Israel, its longtime adversary, of killing some of its nuclear scientists, while Israel has warned of a military strike against Iran's nuclear energy program over concerns it could lead to development of a nuclear bomb.
Amid the tensions, Los Angeles increased its outreach to Iranian and Jewish communities, assuring them there is no reason to be paranoid or overly anxious, Downing said in an interview.
The chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, Republican Rep. Peter King said Hezbollah and Iran are capable of attacking inside the U.S. King said he received two intelligence briefs on the Iranian threat in the past two weeks.
"We know they're here, mainly facilitators and fundraisers, that type of thing," King said. "How quickly they could be activated, what others there are here, that's the unknown."
An unclassified U.S. government intelligence bulletin circulated last week and obtained by The Associated Press warned, "We remain concerned Iran would consider attacks in the United States," and predicted that domestic violent extremists "will continue to threaten and conduct isolated acts of violence against Jewish organizations."
But it acknowledged, "We have no specific information that Iran or its surrogates are targeting Jewish organizations, facilities or personnel in the United States."
The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, told Congress on Thursday that his agency believes Iran is "unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict," although he acknowledged that Iran could attempt to deploy terrorist agents around the world.
Republican Sen. John McCain similarly warned, "The rulers in Iran clearly pose a more direct threat to us than many would have assumed just a year ago."
In New York, the director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department, Mitchell D. Silber, called the threat there "neither an idle nor a new threat."
"Iran's next target could well be on American soil," Silber wrote in an opinion piece this week in The Wall Street Journal. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano conducted a conference call last week with 250 members of the U.S Jewish community to discuss the potential threat from Iran and urged them to remain on the lookout for anything suspicious, said Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, an organization that oversees safety for Jewish groups around the country.
"At this juncture, we're being very careful. This community is not operating in panic," Goldenberg said. "I would not stop for a moment to go to synagogue on Saturday or to visit a Jewish federation on Sunday, and that is our message at this time." Iran was previously accused in a disrupted plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. here last year, a plan interpreted in the U.S. intelligence community as a clear message that Iran is not afraid to carry out an attack inside this country.
U.S. officials long have worried that Iran would use its proxy, Hezbollah, to carry attacks into the United States. After a decade of investigations, the FBI has identified Hezbollah sympathizers and financiers, but current and former counterterrorism officials said there has been no clear evidence of an operational Hezbollah cell on U.S. soil. The U.S. considers Lebanon-based Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
"Their potential threat is greater than any other group out there," said Andrew Arena, the FBI's special agent in charge in Detroit. Hezbollah isn't just a terrorism group, he said. "You've got to look at them militarily. You've got to look at them as an intelligence threat. They're more sophisticated because they've been doing it a lot longer."
Arena said conventional wisdom has been that Hezbollah does too well raising money in the U.S. and therefore attacking the U.S. would not be wise. But, Arena said, the question is what's Hezbollah's line in the sand, what would cause the terror group or Iran to unleash them to attack the U.S.
Terror financing and criminal enterprise cases with Hezbollah links have occurred in North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Michigan and California. Federal officials have said Hezbollah is operating in Central America and in recent years has become a player in the global cocaine trade. Worries of the militant group infiltrating Mexico have long persisted.
In Los Angeles, law enforcement has always been concerned about people with Hezbollah ties involved in selling counterfeit goods, Downing said. And while the Hezbollah operatives have yet to turn their focus toward attacking the U.S., "given the right set of circumstances, it wouldn't take too much for them to go operational," he said.
"There are a lot of people who are concerned, of course, because tensions are high," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian Council. "Some people have really bad memories of what happened in the U.S. during the hostage crisis" three decades ago when Iranians took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Between 1979 and 1981, then-President Jimmy Carter ordered that Iranian students who were not living in the U.S. in compliance with their student visas be deported. And eventually the U.S. expelled more than 200 Iranian diplomats.
The president of the American Iranian Council, Hooshang Amirahmadi, said members of his New Jersey-based organization have neither been contacted by anyone in the federal government nor are they concerned about how relations between the two countries could affect their community.
"U.S.-Iran relations have been in trouble for 30 years," Amirahmadi said.
Parsi said no one from the FBI or other federal agency has contacted his organization.