An Escalation by Iran?

Tensions Between the Islamic Republic and U.S. Rise Over Foiled Assassination Plot

Matthew Duss examines the ramifications of charges that Iran is behind a recent assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

SOURCE: AP/Williamson County Jail via Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Manssor Arbabsiar, a U.S. citizen charged with conspiring to kill Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

The allegations that Iran’s government approved an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C., if true, mark a significant escalation in the decades-long tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic.

The facts of the case, according to a criminal complaint released by the Justice Department, are that an Iranian American named Manssor Arbabsiar, working on behalf of an Iran-based member of Iran’s Quds Force (an elite division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) named Gholam Shakuri attempted to hire a member of a Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubei. The cartel member, however, turned out to be an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, who tipped off U.S. officials and helped them build the case against Arbabsiar, who was arrested on September 29 in New York.

In a press conference yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the plot was “directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds Force.” He added that “High-up officials in those agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot.” These charges come several months after U.S. Treasury officials alleged that the Iranian regime was facilitating support for Al Qaeda, and they represent yet another upping of the rhetorical ante against Iran.

That said, serious questions remain about the allegations. The use of wire transfers of large amounts of money into the United States, the discussion of the plot via phone call, and the use of random Mexican mobsters as assets are odd moves for the Quds Force, who have experience using terrorism as statecraft. The plot described by the Justice Department seems like a bad novelist’s rendition of how the Quds Force might operate. As veteran CIA Iran analyst Robert Baer recently told a journalist, “The Quds Force is simply better than this.”

Further, while it’s unlikely that the Quds Force would undertake an operation like this without the nod of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, something as bold and aggressive (and traceable) as an assassination in the U.S. capital would be out of character for him. On the other hand, so was Khamenei’s intervention into Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential election. So there’s a first time for everything.

Which brings us to the question of what Iran would hope to gain from something like this. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in intense competition for influence in the Middle East since the 1979 Iranian revolution, a competition that saw postwar Iraq and, more recently, Syria as battlegrounds. While the Iranian regime is significantly more isolated as a result of the Obama administration’s two-track policy of engagement and sanctions over its nuclear program, and significantly sidelined by the Arab Awakening, it most likely has enjoyed the recent tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia over what the latter saw as the United States’s failure to prop up Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

The assassination of the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil would almost certainly cause the United States and Saudi Arabia to put those differences aside, if only for the moment, to focus on Iran. It’s hard to imagine Iran desiring this outcome.

While this situation should not be used as an excuse for precipitous action, a plot of this sort requires a response. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated yesterday that the administration intends to leverage this to further isolate Iran by strengthening the already formidable international sanctions regime. But in devising a response, it’s also extremely important to remember who the stronger party is. Iran uses asymmetric methods precisely because it is weak.

And, as former National Security Council official Gary Sick writes, “If Iran is really as stupid and as incompetent as this case implies, then perhaps they are their own worst enemy and not the clever and determined adversary that they are made out to be.”

The United States, on the other hand, has considerable diplomatic tools at its disposal, and this plot will undoubtedly create greater international support to use them.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress.

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Matthew Duss

Policy Analyst