Features | Security | Central Asia

The Death of Obama’s Iran Outreach

The alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador sounds uncertain and amateurish. One thing is clear though, Obama will likely be abandoning his overtures to Tehran.

By Gala Riani & James Brazier IHS for

On his inauguration in 2009, US President Barack Obama declared to hostile Islamic regimes that the United States would ‘extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’ His message was intended for Iran. A few months later in Cairo, Obama suggested that there had been fault on both sides of the relationship. It was time to move forward, he said. Today, however, Obama’s hand has been snatched away, as Iran stands accused of trying to murder the Saudi ambassador on US soil.

Last week, the United States publicly accused Iran's Qods Force intelligence agency of trying to hire a Mexican drugs gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington. If true, the allegations against Manssor Arbabsiar, who was tasked with finding a cartel to carry out the bombing, and senior members of the Qods Force, mark the only known Iranian attempt to attack targets in North America.

Iran has promoted terrorism abroad for years. Yet the plot, as recounted by the FBI, appears self-defeating – Iran’s nuclear activities and its regional intelligence schemes had slipped down the agenda in Washington, amid the regional uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the financial crisis in Europe and tensions with Pakistan.

This conspiracy puts Tehran back in the spotlight, to no obvious benefit to the Iranian regime. Everything about the plot appears amateurish: how Iran could possibly believe a Mexican drug cartel with multi-billion dollar revenues would be willing to imperil its business to stage a terrorist attack in Washington, for a mere $1.5 million; why Iran would think such drug-traffickers to be skilled in plastic explosives, when they usually prefer to attack with guns and hand grenades; why a failed used car salesman like Arbabsiar would be considered a trustworthy go-between.

As noted by a number of analysts, the plot also departs from the Quds Force’s typically covert method of operation—using carefully managed, usually long-term proxies, for the most part, usually with minimum risk to its own operatives. Even US officials have cast doubt on whether the Qods Force could be so incompetent, but they are adamant that wiretap and bank records show the connection to senior Qods echelons. 

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Regardless, less controvertible is the effect the plot will have on Obama's olive branch to Iran, one of his signature breaks with the foreign policy of his predecessor George W. Bush. The plot marks the failure of, and probably end to, Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran. The president’s rhetoric has become Bush-like; speaking at the White House, Obama said the way Iran operated was very similar to another member of Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil,’ North Korea, and that ‘all options were on the table.’ Henceforth, the administration is likely to pursue a policy of aggressive containment, economic isolation and even threats of military action.

Lack of diplomatic progress over Iran's nuclear programme is another reason for Obama’s change of tack. In some ways, Obama’s strategy has been successful—sanctions are biting and Iran is finding it hard to operate in the international economy—but several rounds of talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 states (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and the United States) have failed. The US and its allies are tired of futile discussions with the Iranians and their obstructive tactics. Without a fresh round of nuclear talks in sight that could result in renewed international efforts to engage or isolate Iran (depending on their outcome), the Qods Force plot gives Obama an opportunity to tighten the noose around Iran.

The United States is now trying to drum up support for even tougher sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council. The key member that the US needs to convince is China, a veto-wielding member. US attempts to isolate Iran have been undermined by Chinese economic outreach to the regime. China is Iran’s principal trading partner and its main crude oil customer; Iran is China’s third largest source of crude, providing more than 10 percent of the People’s Republic's demand. The Sino-Iranian Chamber of Commerce puts bilateral trade at an annual $29 billion, or $38 billion if indirect trade through third countries is counted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, China’s public reaction to the alleged plot, China’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Min, would say only: ‘They're still investigating, right?’

There’s no doubt that US, EU and UN sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy. David Cohen, the US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said on October 13 that Iran faces a ‘projected loss of $14 billion a year in oil revenues through 2016,’ as a result of sanctions. China and India have both struggled to find means of paying Iran for imports of its crude. After months of not receiving payments from India, an agreement was finally reached in July whereby Iran gets through a Turkish route using a government-owned bank. The involvement of a Turkish bank has raised speculation among analysts that the United States has been turning a blind eye to some degree of sanctions flouting by its allies. It will be interesting to see whether, as part of its toughened stance against Iran, the Obama administration will be less willing to overlook transgressions.

James Brazier is an analyst for IHS Global Insight covering South Asia and specialises in the political, business and security climate of the region. Gala Riani is a country analyst for IHS, covering the Middle East and North Africa and is responsible for covering the political, security and business environment of several countries in that region.