Terrorist expert Fran Townsend is an authority on global threats — a skill needed now more than ever. A worldwide pandemic that, regardless of what people want to believe, is still very much a massive public health threat. Out-of-control inflation, an international economic downturn, and Russian military aggression. Political discord within major democracies (see: United States, United Kingdom), the rise of authoritarianism in mainstream government.
There’s plenty to be worried about in the world, no doubt. And sometimes, the more novel happenings, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, can’t help but take people’s eyes in a specific direction for a time. But not Fran Townsend. The former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush remains vigilant and laser-focused on vital issues that may have been pushed aside due to more obvious peril.
“Today, my resolve to raise awareness about alternative actions to successfully blunt the terrorist regime is only stronger,” Townsend wrote in an op-ed in The Hill in May. “I have joined as co-chair the Iran Threat Commission on Hostage Taking and Targeting of Civilians, a bipartisan group motivated to end the Islamic Republic’s hostage diplomacy.”
Just because newer or more acute issues arise doesn’t mean the problems of the past go away. Iran, for example, is still moving toward becoming a viable nuclear power. The regime still negotiates in bad faith with other governments. It still supports political parties and organizations that are classified as terrorists. It still creates dissonance between allied countries, like the United States and Israel, regarding how to deal with the threat they pose — which is, interestingly, part of the threat they pose.
While many governments have — perhaps rightly so — chosen to focus on the seemingly more immediate issues listed above, the threat Iran poses to democracies everywhere is still very much in play, according to terrorist authorities like Council of Foreign Relations board member Frances Townsend.
And while the general public may be directing its attention elsewhere, Iran continues to move pieces around the board and create complex issues for the U.S. and its allies.
The level of difficulty in dealing with these issues was on full display last week when President Joe Biden, on a diplomatic tour of the Middle East, met with Israel’s new prime minister, Yair Lapid, in Jerusalem.
The Biden administration has continued to push for a reinstatement of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, something that last year seemed to be a real possibility. But that was last summer, before hard-line conservative Ebrahim Raisi took office as the president of Iran and the country retreated to its position of nuclear weapons development.
How to handle that development has become a thorny issue. Biden, as expected, has continued to push for a diplomatic solution with a controlled burn regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
But, as Fran Townsend has noted, Iran is not known for keeping its word or playing above the table regarding negotiations.
“Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium and state-sponsored terrorism pose an immediate existential threat to humanity and must be addressed swiftly and resolutely,” Townsend noted in The Hill op-ed.
Townsend believes, much as Lapid articulated to Biden during his visit, that while diplomacy has its place, dealing with Iran can sometimes require a heavier hand.
“If they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force,” Lapid said at the opening of a news conference in Jerusalem after the two leaders met as part of Biden’s four-day visit to the Middle East.
Townsend, in her op-ed, wrote that while the “United States has cemented its place in the geopolitical landscape as the dominant global power by advocating for democratic values and rule of law,” its credibility is also based on “action.”
And without that action or the plausible threat of it, Iran will continue to work against democracy in the Middle East. On July 16, Iran announced that it had sanctioned 61 high-profile American officials, including Fran Townsend, claiming the officials are supporting the Mujahedin, an organization the Iranian ministry deems a “terrorist group” that has claimed the lives of 17,000 innocent civilians.
In remarks to the Free Iran World Summit in 2021, Townsend said that since signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, the Iranian regime “took the millions of dollars released to them and stepped up its terror activities within the region and around the world, launching cyberattacks against Saudi Arabia, providing military funds and support to the Houthis in Yemen, and of course, targeting their opponents both inside and outside of Iran.” Townsend added that, to date, the Iran-aligned Houthi group has fired over 900 missiles into Saudi Arabia.
Israel has taken an approach that mirrors Townsend’s plan of attack more than Biden’s.
The country has conducted a series of “covert sabotage and assassination operations” in Iran over the past two years, with a series of high-profile efforts carried out over a period of months in late 2020 and early 2021 that included the assassinations of an Iranian nuclear scientist and an al-Qaida commander who was given refuge in Tehran, Iran. The Israelis are also believed to be behind dual explosions that shook an Iranian nuclear facility.
While Townsend has stopped short of suggesting covert military action on behalf of the United States against Iran, she has continued to advocate for economic sanctions against the regime, which she says “continue to be a motivating factor pushing the regime back to the negotiating table” over its nuclear capabilities.
Townsend believes, as do others, that an authoritarian and nuclear-capable Iran is not a foregone conclusion.
“The United States, along with the rest of the world, does not have to yield to Iran becoming a nuclear state, and should not respond to the use of terrorism as a political tool,” she said during her speech at the Free Iran World Summit.
For Townsend, the endgame most desired is one where nuclear nonproliferation “is a must.” But allowing Iran to continue to operate in bad faith outside of nuclear negotiations to further said negotiations is not the way to get there.
“Iran will continue to manipulate American diplomacy until the U.S. government holds it accountable, specifically on issues beyond Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” Townsend said in her piece for The Hill. “Our government must stand by its sanctions on Iran, or risk greater collateral damage than any foreign policy expert could even predict.”
It’s a tough spot to be in. The United States’ global credibility is based on its military capability as well as the concept that this capability is only used in proportion to the threat posed.
Iran continues to take actions, such as funding terrorist groups or detaining foreign nationals for dubious reasons, that on their own don’t necessarily warrant a military response but enhance its position on nuclear negotiations.
As Townsend has said, allowing these actions to take place eats away not just at the United States’ bargaining power in those negotiations, but also at the credibility that the U.S. will, when pushed, take proportionate action in retaliation for those efforts.
The U.S., she says, will need to find a way to get Iran to the negotiating table one way or the other. But to try and have those negotiations while Iran “has a gun in their lap” is both bad for perception and getting the desired outcome the U.S. wants.
“If the successful deweaponization of Iran is a priority for our current government leaders,” Townsend wrote, “they would be wise to ask themselves whether an agreement made at gunpoint is one on which the world can rely.”