Allegations by the United States government that the Qods force, the expeditionary branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was planning to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, by means of explosives marks a dramatic escalation of tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States.
While Iran has vociferously denied any involvement and the details of the alleged plot have raised eyebrows among experts and commentators, Asia Times Online recently warned that specifically in connection with the assassination of Iranian scientists by Israel, there were strong pressures on Iran to strike back. (See Israel wages war on Iranian scientists August 27.)
Saudi Arabia is viewed by Iran as being actively involved in the Western and Israeli intelligence effort to sabotage Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. For example, Saudi Arabia is believed to have played a key role in the defection of Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri to the US in 2009. Amiri returned to Iran a year later.
Assuming there is more than a grain of truth to the US allegations, this apparently bold Iranian action could be viewed as both a reaction to intolerable provocation as well as an attempt to take the strategic initiative by raising the stakes as part of a calculated policy of deterrence.
Viewed from this perspective, those who conceived the alleged plot may have intended it to fail, the idea being to send a strong message of deterrence, that the Islamic Republic would not hesitate to open fronts around the world (including in the US homeland) should its vital interests in the Middle East come under serious threat.
At a strategic level, the details of the alleged plot are largely irrelevant. What is important is that both the US and Iran have decided to raise the stakes dramatically, taking a significant step toward direct confrontation. Absent transparent de-escalatory measures, it would take only one or two further incidents of this kind to spark military confrontation in the Persian Gulf.
A Hollywood plot
By using Attorney General Eric Holder to read out the charge sheet, the US government was clearly making a statement of intent. The trouble for the US government is that the alleged plot is in part overly-dramatic and some if not much of it may unravel as the investigation proceeds and the main defendant in custody, Mansour Arabsiar, is brought to trial.
Experts and pundits have rushed to highlight the flaws in the case. Arguably the most intelligent comments came from Robert Baer, a former US Central Intelligence Agency clandestine operations officer in the Middle East. Quoted by the Washington Post, Baer is reported to have said: “[The] Qods Force has never been this sloppy, using untested proxies, contracting with Mexican drug cartels, sending money through New York bank accounts, and putting its agents on US soil where they risk being caught … The Qods Force is simply better than this.”
But Iranian intelligence in general can be this sloppy. While the Iranian intelligence services dominate the intelligence scene in the Middle East and generally play a good game, their track record in the West is poor. Even relatively minor operations – such as penetrating exiled groups – eventually come to the attention of Western counter-intelligence, which almost invariably disrupts these operations, even if they have no direct bearing on Western countries‘ national security.
The boldness of the alleged plot and its potential repercussions are a major surprise. The Iranian intelligence services have not been implicated in alleged attacks against non-Iranian targets outside the Middle East for over 17 years. As for Iranian targets, specifically senior members of exiled groups, the last known assassinations in Western Europe took place in the mid-1990s.
Those assassinations were less motivated by eliminating opposition figures (who were seen as minor irritants at worst) than by the desire to achieve strategic parity with Western intelligence services, by demonstrating both the will and the ability to stage operations on their home soil.
More to the point, official Iranian security organs have never staged a known violent operation in the continental United States. The only possible exception being the assassination of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former official in the shah’s regime, in Washington DC in July 1980; but that operation was likely planned and executed by zealous revolutionaries acting in an unofficial capacity.
The Hollywood-style details of the alleged plot – centering on Mexican gangsters, an incompetent field agent and a handler in a faraway country – is likely to fuel speculation that this alleged operation was of a roguish nature. Indeed, this is an established mode of analysis when it comes to apparently irrational or reckless actions undertaken by alleged agents of the Iranian government.
But the truth is, there are no rogue elements in the Iranian security and intelligence establishment. Descriptions of roguish behavior are driven by a misunderstanding of the precise relationship and the balance of power between the political elites and the security establishment.
What is often overlooked is the fact that Iranian security and intelligence organizations are tightly controlled by the official clerical establishment and are ultimately answerable to them, as opposed to the executive branch of government. There hasn’t been a single significant operation undertaken by the Iranian intelligence services in the past three decades that hasn’t been commissioned, sanctioned or controlled by a highly placed figure in the official clerical establishment.
However, this peculiarity only causes problems when there is major discord between the official clerical establishment and the executive, in so far as diverging foreign policy views and priorities produce apparently contradictory and irrational actions.
Assuming there is an element of truth to the US allegations, two questions immediately arise; namely, what motivated the alleged assassination plan and how and to what extent the foiling of the alleged operation is likely to impact the complex strategic maneuverings in the Middle East.
The first question is relatively easy to answer. Saudi-Iranian relations have been steadily deteriorating since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that empowered that country’s Shi’ite majority, thus tilting the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor. The Arab Spring led to a dramatic escalation of tensions, especially since the early victims, notably former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, were widely seen as strategic US assets and thus hostile to Iran.
The Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain in March, which strangled the tiny kingdom’s revolution, was in part driven by anxiety to check Iran’s regional advance in the midst of the Arab Spring, as well as by more immediate fears of Shi’ite empowerment in Bahrain.
In recent months, the tide has begun to turn as the pro-Iranian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has proven incapable of crushing what appears to be a mix of popular rebellion and armed insurrection. The outcome of the struggle in Syria is likely to have a profound impact on Lebanon, where pro-Iranian parties, exemplified foremost by Hezbollah, presently dominate the political scene.
Lebanon is important to Iran, not for its rich and volatile politics, but because of Hezbollah’s military, political and ideological conflict with Israel.
A dramatic loss of political influence in Lebanon would inflict a serious blow to the Islamic Republic’s prestige and diminish Iran’s ability to determine the strategic and political course of the region.
Saudi-Iranian tensions have played out against a backdrop of intense covert lobbying of key US decision-makers by Saudi leaders, diplomats and other representatives, who have called on their American counterparts to launch a military attack on Iran. According to the diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia allegedly called on the US to “cut off the head of the snake” in apparent reference to Iran.
On the face of it, Iran has ample grievances against Saudi Arabia, enough some might argue to launch a covert violent campaign against Saudi interests. But what is not clear is the calculation behind the choice of the target and what exactly Iran hoped to achieve by executing the operation.
At this early stage the most plausible speculative answer revolves around deterrence and the display of both capability and intent. From a purely speculative standpoint, it is possible that the Iranian intelligence community had obtained information pointing to short- to mid-term escalation of hostile Saudi actions, possibly in the Levant theater, and the operation was designed to either discourage those acts or warn of the consequences of prolonged hostile actions.
In regard to the strategic impact of the alleged plot, the protagonists are Iran and the United States. This affair has already developed into a diplomatic and political confrontation between the two countries.
If indeed the alleged operation was planned and directed by the Qods force, it is possible that the US government was the intended recipient of the strategic message. The content of the message is open to speculation, but doubtless Iran is anxious to deter the US from undertaking what the Saudis appear to desire, namely, a direct Iranian-US military confrontation in the Persian Gulf.
But if deterrence was the essential motivating factor, then the planners of the alleged plot have likely miscalculated. In scenarios where two or more states are locked in complex and wide-ranging strategic and ideological rivalry (as Iran and the US are), deterrence in the form of limited aggressive actions only work when sufficient safeguards, in the form of well-established de-escalatory mechanisms, are in place.
Such mechanisms are almost totally absent from the Iranian-US regional struggle for influence, underscored foremost by the absence of formal diplomatic relations.
While Iran and the United States both command highly complex decision-making processes, and hawkish domestic constituencies notwithstanding, both powers appear to dislike direct military confrontation, nonetheless the scope for misunderstanding is considerable and the potential for kinetic conflict is very real.
The burden is now on the United States government to act in a measured way and if possible to decrease tensions. A hawkish stance – such as the one immediately adopted by senior US officials – runs the risk of being misread and over-interpreted in Tehran. This could trigger further escalation and before long a shooting war may break out in the Persian Gulf.