Features | Security | Central Asia

Did Iran Really Plan a US Hit Job?

The US has accused Iran of planning to detonate an explosive device to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador. The Diplomat asks Iran analyst Michael Rubin for his take.

The US Justice Department today accused Iran of backing a plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States using explosives. Are you surprised about these claims, specifically that Iranian secret agents might try to detonate a bomb on US soil?

This isn’t the first time that the Islamic Republic has conducted terrorism on US soil. In 1980, an Iranian gunman assassinated Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former Iranian diplomat , in Bethesda, Maryland, where he lived in exile. Nor is the fact that Iranian officials targeted Americans a surprise: The evidence is persuasive that Iranian officials are complicit in the murder of Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East. 

Still, it’s difficult not to be surprised that Iran’s Qods Force would be so bold as to strike at the heart of ‘The Great Satan.’ For years, a theme of Iranian rhetoric has been that the United States is a paper tiger. Alas, it seems they actually believe it. To signal to the Iranian leadership that there are certain red lines they may not cross is therefore more important now than it ever has been before.

Presumably, a decision like this would extend to the very top of the Iranian leadership?

Iran is a dictatorship, but not in the style of Kim Jong-il’s North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Supreme Leader is the ultimate authority, and his word is gold, but he doesn’t simply give his minions orders and expect them to be carried out. Rather, according to experts’ estimates, he presides over an office that includes several hundred, or perhaps a couple of thousand, commissars who are inserted at every level of every bureaucracy, and they stove pipe information back to him. Whenever he disapproves of a debate or a proposed action, he will shut it down. Whatever rises to the surface, however, he implicitly endorses. Because he rules by veto power, however, Western intelligence agencies will never find a smoking gun. This will, in turn, lead to a policy debate about whether the perpetrators of the plot were simply rogue actors.

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How do you expect the US to respond?

The United States will certainly debate the issue about whether the plot can be blamed on the Iranian government as a whole, or whether it can simply be dismissed as the desperate act of rogue elements among Iran’s competing power centres.  A few years ago, I tried to address the issue of how to determine rogue behavior in Iran in an article, and have since lectured on the subject for the US military and intelligence communities. Long story short, what diplomats often dismiss as rogue operations are celebrated by the Iranian government, with the perpetrators and hit men even getting promotions. When there are true rogue operations in the Iran, the perpetrators, however, often face the firing squad, no matter how politically connected they are.

I would certainly expect the US government to respond with a whole host of greater sanctions, perhaps even sanctioning Iran’s central bank. If the White House or the State Department resists such a move, I’d expect Congress to demand more robust actions. There’s a possibility that there could be a small military confrontation. The United States always has one or two aircraft carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf. During the Reagan administration, the United States used our navy to target Iranian oil platforms. This time, the Pentagon could choose other targets, including elements of Iran’s nuclear programme.

So, will these claims have any bearing on discussions over Iran's nuclear programme?

Too often in the international community, questions about Iran’s nuclear programme are theoretical. Diplomats discuss the programme as if it was simply a national programme when, in reality, command and control would be far more precise. If the Qods Force is willing to act so ideologically and provocatively as to target Washington DC, then it would be fair for policymakers to ask who would have custody, command, and control over any theoretical Iranian nuclear bomb.  

If the answer to that was the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Qods Force, then I would expect those who over the past few years have advocated diplomacy to resolve the nuclear question to begin to consider a more robust menu of options.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the co-author of 'Eternal Iran' (Palgrave, 2005) and 'Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran' (2001).