There’s plenty of reason to be sceptical, until more evidence is revealed, about the true nature of the terrorism scheme allegedly cooked up by Iran to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States. But one thing is certain: Had a bomb exploded in a downtown Washington DC restaurant killing the ambassador and a hundred or more other people including members of Congress, and that event were traced back to Iran, the United States would already be launching a massive aerial attack against Iran’s top military installations and its nuclear research programme.
And that’s just one more reason why analysts are reluctant to accept the idea that Tehran would take such a gigantic gamble for little or no conceivable gain. Killing Jubeir – a non-royal Saudi who’s little more than a go-between for King Abdullah – at the risk of provoking war between Iran and the United States ranges from highly unlikely to out of the question for either Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And, according to Washington analysts, it’s wildly out of character for Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the coolly calculating leader of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Spy-watchers and intelligence analysts have almost universally pointed out that the ‘tradecraft,’ or spy know-how involved in the US account of the affair is laughably incompetent. Speaking in almost unguarded language over open phone lines between the United States and Iran, wiring very large, easily traced sums of cash into an unvetted (FBI-controlled) bank account, and hiring a notoriously volatile Mexican drug-trafficking mafia to do the deed are like loud sirens calling attention to the plot.
And the conspiracy’s alleged mastermind turns out to be a bungling, inept failed Iranian-American businessman in a Texas backwater. Twice married, and under a protection order against him filed by his first wife, Manssor Arbabsiar is a pot smoking, heavy drinker with a criminal record, a used car dealer who flunked out of college in Texas and who’s been described by acquaintances as ‘hopelessly unreliable.’ A former business partner calls him ‘goofy,’ adding: ‘Let me put it this way: He’s no mastermind.’
Yet US officials, outlining a plot in which Arbabsiar claimed to have been working with a cousin who held a senior post in the Quds Force and another official, who wired nearly $100,000 to Arbabsiar’s phony drug gangster, asserted point blank, in background briefings with reporters: ‘It would be our assessment that this kind of operation would have been discussed at the highest levels of the regime,’ meaning Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.
You can draw your own conclusions by reading the full text of the complaint, in which the clumsy ineptitude of the plot is revealed in all its glory. Or, most of its glory, since there’s much that isn’t specified: How did the United States assure itself that Arbabsiar’s contact, Gholam Shakuri, was, in fact, an officer in the highly secretive Quds Force? Why were they convinced that Arbabsiar’s cousin was, in fact, a ‘top general’ in that force? Who initiated contact between Arbabsiar and the supposed Mexican Mafioso who turned out to be an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration? Was it Arbabsiar or the DEA informant who initially proposed details of the alleged plot, which US officials say involved not only the Saudi ambassador, but the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington and Buenos Aires?
Many other questions loom in the wake of these charges, too. Why would Iran choose to work with a Mexican drug cartel, when its intelligence services either keep operations in house or rely on close allies such as Hizbollah, Syria, and various Iraqi Shiite groups that they’ve created and trained, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Brigade?
Some analysts have suggested, without any evidence whatsoever, that the Obama administration is fabricating a plot in order to justify war with Iran, citing the George W. Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence about Iraq in 2002. That seems outlandish, since President Barack Obama seems determined to avoid war with Iran, while Bush was actively seeking to promote war with Iraq. Others have suggested that a third power, perhaps Israel, might have had a hidden role in trying to provoke enmity between Iran and the United States, but that too seems absurd: Were it made known, it would be catastrophic for US-Israel relations for decades to come.
Far more likely is that Arbabsiar, and his Iranian counterparts, were engaged in an off-the-books plot that probably didn’t go very high in Iranian official ranks and probably wasn’t known to any of Iran’s top officials, including General Suleimani. David Ignatius, a very well-informed reporter for the Washington Post, suggests that the fractured political situation inside Iran is ‘tailor-made for risk takers, score-settlers, and freelancers.’ In a separate editorial, the hawkish Washington Post adds that the plot ‘may reflect a splintering of the Iranian regime that allows radical factions to act more autonomously.’ If so, it’s unlikely that those factions would include senior decision makers.
It’s true that Iran is engaged in a bitter Cold War with Saudi Arabia, and that the principal target of the assassination scheme, Ambassador Jubeir, was shrill in demanding that the United States go to war to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged, to a greater or lesser degree, in proxy civil wars in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. And given the apparent Saudi gains in many of those conflicts, especially its invasion of Bahrain last spring, it’s not impossible that Iran might turn to terrorism, just as Pakistan has long made use of terrorist groups in its proxy wars against India in Kashmir and Afghanistan. But if so, it’s likely to look like the truck bombings that destroyed the US and French embassies in Lebanon in 1983 or the truck bomb that levelled Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996: coldly efficient, highly lethal, and close to home.
At the very least, the affair will be devastating to the possibility of US-Iran talks about the nuclear programme until 2013, at the earliest. The fact that Obama was informed about the plot in late spring suggests that its existence is at least one reason why the United States didn’t pursue reopened talks with Iran in recent months, despite recent olive branches from Iranian officials. Not only that, but it’s almost certain to draw the United States into closer alignment with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council in a regional anti-Iran bloc. Iran, for its part, might intensify its activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in search of its own reliably anti-Saudi bloc.