The hawkish rhetoric from the Obama administration, Congress, and the news media ominously echo previous marches to war
Skeptical backlash from Iran experts on the US government’s official narrative of the plot has led Obama to justify punishing Iran, even if the doubters are right and the Iranian government had no knowledge of it. ”Even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity,” he said.
Obama said that, in terms of a response to the alleged plot, “we don’t take any options off the table,” which is a government euphemism for considerations of military attack.
The Obama administration has vowed to “unite the world” against Iran in the wake of the implausible assassination plot, sending a secret cable to all American embassies and consulates around the world ordering them to alert their host governments of the Iranian plot.
Vice President Joe Biden insisted it was “critically important” to convince the rest of the world of the importance of “dealing with the Iranians,” while several members of Congress and many in the mediacalled the plot “an act of war,” which demands a response.
The goal is “making sure that they pay a price,” Obama said.
Meanwhile, evidence of the Iranian leadership’s complicity is lacking and many officials have admitted there are gaps in their understanding of the plot. There is no solid information about “exactly how high it goes,” as one official put it.
At best, all signs point to a rogue element in the Iranian Quds Force, given the information the government has so far made available. US officials admit it was very out of character for the Quds Force, known for their caution and finesse. “The Iranian modus operandi is only to trust sensitive plots to their own employees, or to trusted proxies,” wrote Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service on Gulf2000 on Wednesday.
The accused perpetrator, Manssor Arbabsiar, and a Mexican drug gang don’t fit that protocol. “Are we to believe that this Texas car seller was a Qods sleeper agent for many years resident in the US? Ridiculous,” said Mr. Katzman. “They never ever use such has-beens or loosely connected people for sensitive plots such as this.”
Former CIA agent Robert Baer said the culpability of the Iranian leadership is not believable. “I don’t think it’s credible, not the central government, there may be a rogue element behind it,” Baer said in an interview. “They wouldn’t be sending money through an American bank, they wouldn’t be going to the cartels in Mexico to do this. It’s just not the way they work.”
Additionally, the plot was developed for the most part by the FBI and the undercover DEA agent, not by Arbabsiar or his Iranian contacts. Arbabsiar had originally planned to kidnap the Saudi ambassador, andonly after meeting with the undercover agent did kidnapping turn into assassinating, and it was the undercover agent who first suggested using explosives, the two key factors that have raised the plot to the level of a terrorist attack.
Still, the Obama administration – facing no perceivable threat from Iran and no evidence of Iranian involvement – is choosing the most aggressive posture at their disposal, imposing additional economic sanctions and issuing vague warnings of impending retribution.
Candidate Obama criticized the Bush administration for engaging in a “war of choice” in Iraq, but war as a first resort instead of a last resort seems to have since gained his favor – at least rhetorically at this point. He and his administration have insisted that all options are on the table.
This kind of diplomatic and rhetorical escalation of tensions in response to a fanciful threat from a much weaker power follows closely the narrative in the lead up to the Iraq war in 2003. The administration has insisted, contradicting expert opinion, that there is “no dispute” that Iran was involved, echoing Colin Powell’s bold proclamations of certainty about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations. “These are not assertions,” he insisted, “these are facts.”
Obama on Iran: No Options Off the Table
The president made his comments, his first since the plot was disclosed Tuesday, during a joint press conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the White House. The two leaders also praised the U.S.-Korean free-trade agreement approved by Congress on Wednesday, and vowed to maintain a tough stance toward North Korea. Obama also used the occasion to keep pressure on Republicans in Congress to give him key parts of his jobs bill.
It was the Iranian plot, though, that dominated the questioning, with the U.S. president brushing aside Iranian denials and standing by the accusations leveled by his government against Tehran. He said there is no doubt either of the complicity of Mansour J. Arbabsiar, the 56-year-old man in custody in New York, or of the role of Iran in the plot to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington.
“We would not be bringing forward a case unless we knew exactly how to support all of the allegations that are contained in the indictment,” said Obama, who said Arbabsiar “had direct links, was paid by and directed by individuals in the Iranian government.” Despite the official Iranian denials, the president said the facts are clear and “we believe that after people have analyzed them, there will not be a dispute that this is in fact what happened.”
Obama insisted the plot was not an aberration for the Tehran regime. “This is a not just a dangerous escalation; this is part of a pattern of dangerous and reckless behavior by the Iranian government,” he said, adding, “This is just one example of a series of steps that they’ve taken to create violence and to behave in a way that you don’t see other countries doing.”
Obama said he will continue “to apply the toughest sanctions and continue to mobilize the international community” to ensure that Iran is held accountable. He did not get more specific, though he stressed that “we don’t take any options off the table in terms of how we operate with Iran.” He added, “But what you can expect is that we will continue to apply the sorts of pressure that will have a direct impact on the Iranian government, until it makes a better choice in terms of how it’s going to interact with the rest of the international community.”
He also predicted that other countries in the Middle East will adopt tougher approaches to Iran as well. “This is a pattern of behavior that, I think, increasingly the international community is going to consider out of bounds and is going to continue to punish Iran for,” Obama said. He was asked if he considered Iran guilty of an act of war. The president didn’t directly answer the question, but he stressed that “there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity.”
On his jobs bill, the president continued to pressure Republicans, demanding that they give him key pieces of the legislation that failed earlier this week in the Senate. “What we’re going to do is we’re going to break each of these bills apart and say let’s have a vote on putting teachers back in the classroom and vote on rebuilding infrastructure and making sure that we are keeping taxes low for small businesses and businesses that are willing to hire veterans, provide tax breaks for further investment that can create jobs,” he said. “And each time we’re going to ask Republicans to support the bill. If they don’t want to support the bill, they’ve got to answer not just to us but the American people as to why they wouldn’t.”
Both presidents hailed the long-stalled free-trade agreement that was liberated just in time for Lee’s visit. Lee called it a “win-win” for both countries and predicted it would be ratified by his country’s national assembly “in the near future.” Obama said the legislation proves that he is willing to work with Republicans. But he did not commit himself to a meeting with Republicans on his jobs bill, saying, “We’re not going to create a lot of theater that then results in them engaging in the usual political talking points but don’t result in action.”
Obama said the trade deal, staunchly opposed by many in his own party, is “a win for both of our countries, for our farmers and ranchers here in the United States and will increase exports of agricultural products.” He added that it “will increase American manufacturing exports, including those produced by our small businesses. It will open Korea’s lucrative services market and I’m pleased it will help level the playing field for American automakers.” He told Lee, “I hope South Koreans will buy more Fords and Chryslers and Chevys.”
Perhaps to rebut the criticisms from his fellow Democrats, he said the pact “will boost American exports by up to $11 billion and support some 70,000 American jobs.” Obama added that it has “ground-breaking protections for labor rights, the environment, and intellectual property. So the trade is free and fair.”
Both Lee and Obama pledged continued solidarity in dealing with a hostile North Korea, which remains a threat on the peninsula and in the region. Obama said the North “continues to pose a direct threat to the security of both of our nations. On this, President Lee and I are entirely united.” He warned Pyongyang that “its provocations will be met not with rewards but with even stronger sanctions and isolation.”
Obama went on to say, “The choice is clear for North Korea – if they continue to ignore the international obligation, it will invite more pressure and isolation. If the North abandons its quest for nuclear weapons and moves towards denuclearization, it will enjoy greater security for its people.” That, he said firmly, is “the choice that North Korea faces.”