The announcement by the United States Department of Justice on October 11 that two men had been charged in connection with an Iranian Qods force plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, has touched off a flurry of speculative reporting and analysis.
While the contents of the criminal complaint issued by the US government have raised many eyebrows, the story is already firmly entrenched in the narratives of opposing policy camps in the US.
To the neo-conservatives and the broader hawkish community in the US, the charges are clear proof of a new round of aggressive behavior by Iran, which they argue must be met with a military
response by America. Meanwhile, more dovish elements have cast serious doubt on the veracity of the story, arguing that the charges are either fabricated or manipulated to justify a more belligerent approach toward Iran.
There has been a dearth of balanced analysis of what may have motivated some elements in Iran to undertake this operation, assuming that there is more than a grain of truth to the criminal complaint released by the US Justice Department.
This article sets out a plausible scenario, but one that is purely speculative and unsupported by strong information. If as the US government charges, the Qods force is implicated in this plot, then the operation may have been a symptom of the profound discord between the ruling clerical establishment and the independent-minded government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Moreover, in so far as the strategic dimensions of the operation are concerned, the plot may have been more defensive in nature, essentially designed to fail, with a view to sending unmistakable signals foremost to Washington. v A strange plot
There is more than enough in the US Justice Department’s criminal complaint to cast profound doubt on the veracity of the charges. Widespread skepticism has been reinforced by the energetic and hawkish response to the charges by US leaders and senior officials, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who have called for repercussions, namely to further punish – by way of additional sanctions in the first instance – an already isolated and embattled Iran.
The hawkish posture of US leaders is in stark contrast to their far more relaxed attitude to arguably more serious charges concerning direct Pakistani involvement in attacks against US targets in Afghanistan.
Only last month, the former US joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, alleged in his final congressional testimony that the Haqqani network was a „veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence, and that the same nexus had conducted terrorist operations against the US Embassy in Kabul, as well as organizing at least one recent attack on US forces that wounded 77 GIs.
It appears that US leaders had prepared for the announcement of the charges well in advance and that they are more than determined to exploit them for maximum gain in their intricate strategic rivalry with Iran in the Middle East, as well as broader efforts to further isolate Iran internationally on account of the latter’s controversial nuclear program.
But beyond the posturing of US leaders, the charges themselves, as well as the choice and location of the target, raise serious doubts about the narrative which the American administration wants the world to believe.
The most troubling aspect is the Mexican dimension. The Iranian intelligence community may lack the inter-cultural competence, connections and the diplomatic muscle to operate effectively in the West, but they have enough sense to avoid contact with serious organized criminals.
All the components of the Iranian intelligence community maintain solid links to the social science departments of the country’s major universities, as well as to the country’s think-tanks and research institutes. This is in addition to the intelligence services’ in-house open source research departments.
The study of Western societies is a key priority for the Iranian intelligence services and they regularly commission work – either directly or through third parties – to outside research centers.
All the major components of the Iranian intelligence services would know that serious organized criminals, such as the Mexican drug cartels, who are involved in a billion-dollar business, are highly unlikely to sign up to a politically motivated crime for a mere US$1.5 million, which to the cartels is tantamount to loose change.
The Iranian intelligence services are aware that Mexican drug cartels would ordinarily stay well away from such a risky operation for fear of provoking the wrath of a vengeful US government.
The inability of the Iranian intelligence services to operate effectively in the West is not due to lack of academic or empirical understanding of Western societies but to the dearth of competent people who can assist these services in carrying out successful operations in the West.
The most ideal community for recruitment is the large and prosperous Iranian diaspora in the West, but members of this community – even elements who are sympathetic to the Islamic Republic – stay well away from the Iranian secret services for fear of inviting disproportionate retribution by Western security and judicial organizations.
On that point, the profile of the field agent, the 56-year-old Mansour Arabsiar, contrary to lazy analysis by a wide range of pundits, actually lends credence to the Justice Department’s complaint, for it is precisely these desperate and frustrated elements who are willing to accept the appalling risks of cooperating with Iranian intelligence on West European or American soil.
Another questionable feature of the Mexican cartels connection is the manner in which the field agent (Arabsiar) had come to trust the purported representative of the cartels, who was in actual fact a Drugs Enforcement Administration informant.
Again, the Iranian intelligence services would be well aware that since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, internal US security agencies, in particular the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), have escalated the use of informants and agents to lay traps for unsuspecting would-be terrorists, who for the most part are dreamy young men susceptible to manipulation by FBI agents trained and encouraged to plant grandiose plots in their minds in order to develop the case.
There are more questionable features of the Mexican connection, for example the wiring of two sets of funds (on each occasion just short of $50,000) to the field agent so that he could pay the cartel. While it can be argued that the Qods force was trying to bolster the credibility of their field agent with the cartel (by showing that he had access to money), it is worth noting that every intelligence service in the world knows that wiring $10,000 or more at any one time is a bad idea as that immediately attracts the attention of US anti-money laundering monitors.
Beyond the nature and activities of the field agent, the location and choice of the target raises serious questions. The Iranian intelligence services have never before conducted a known violent operation on US soil. The risks are calculated to be far too high and in any case Iran has been careful to avoid giving any pretext to the US to initiate a direct confrontation.
The choice of the target, namely Saudi ambassador Jubeir, is also baffling. While leaked diplomatic cables and other sources portray Jubeir as holding strident anti-Iranian views, there are countless other Saudi officials with similar views, many of whom are more influential and effective than Jubeir.
If Iran wanted to eliminate an important Saudi official by way of sending a strong signal to Riyadh, there are plenty of targets in the Middle East theater of operations, an area which Iranian intelligence dominates. An operation in the Middle East would also be far less politically risky and less likely to provoke US retribution.
Another dimension worth considering is that the operation may have been an elaborate false flag operation, designed to harden US attitudes toward Iran and hasten confrontation. v The semi-official Mehr news agency reported on Tuesday that the man accused by the US Justice Department of being a senior Qods force officer, and Arabsiar’s handler in the operation, Gholam Shakuri, is in fact a member of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq organization (MeK), a militant cult that has been trying to overthrow the Iranian government for decades.
Despite the fact that Mehr attributes parts of its allegations to Interpol, the story is not supported by strong sources. There may indeed be an MeK member by the name of Gholam Shakuri, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the existence of his namesake inside the Qods force.
Moreover, it is worth noting that certain elements in Iran reflexively implicate the MeK in anti-Iranian agitation on the international stage
Clerics vs Ahmadinejad
But what if the content of the US Justice Department’s criminal complaint is essentially true? What could have possessed the Qods force, and their clerical overlords, to order such a risky and apparently reckless operation?
The background political tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are well known. From an Iranian perspective, the Saudis have breached the red lines on at least three fronts; first by trying to stifle or manage the revolution in Yemen by supporting incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh; second by intervening militarily in Bahrain to crush the Shi’ite-led revolution there; third, and most importantly, by actively assisting the Syrian opposition with a view to facilitating the downfall of Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian ally in the region.
But if the Qods force was behind the plot, then the primary target was the US, and the key motivation was likely a desire to impair Iranian-US relations even further. That desire may have been generated by fears in the ruling clerical establishment that the Ahmadinejad government is laying the grounds for serious dialogue between the two countries.
As Asia Times Online argued in Iran and US edge toward confrontation (October 14), the Iranian intelligence services are ultimately controlled by the ruling clerical establishment, and not the serving government.
The independent-minded Ahmadinejad government has tried to exert more control over the intelligence services, in particular the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), which is the only fully professional intelligence outfit in Iran and is subject to more government control than the intelligence services connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
In early April, Ahmadinejad came into direct political confrontation with the clerical establishment by sacking the intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, but was quickly ordered by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to re-instate the minister.
Aggressive posturing by the Iranian intelligence services usually play out against the backdrop of discord between the clerical establishment and the executive branch of government. A notable example is the so-called „chain murders” of several intellectuals and writers in the late 1990s which were attributed to MOIS agents.
At the time the clerical establishment was locked into a bitter power struggle with the reformist government of president Mohammad Khatami. In some ways the clerical establishment’s power struggle with the Ahmadinejad government is deeper than the one with the Khatami government, not least because Ahmadinejad is widely assumed to reside in the hardline camp of the Islamic Republic.
The foiled operation in Washington may have been ordered by the clerical establishment to embarrass Ahmadinejad further, and more specifically to sabotage any chance of dialogue between the US and Iran, and set back eventual rapprochement even further down the distant horizon.
But if that is really the case, then the operation was almost certainly designed to fail. The calculations behind the plot were likely very intricate and accurate and there would have been acute realization at every level of the planning process that a successful operation of this nature would have been considered a very serious escalation by the US and its allies and may have invited a military response.
Despite its deep dislike of the US, the ruling clerical establishment has no desire to engage in any type of direct military confrontation with the world’s sole superpower. In any case, if the Qods force really wanted to pull off a successful terrorist operation in Washington and eliminate the Saudi ambassador in the process, they could have probably done it.
Through the unscrupulous exploitation of Arabsiar, and by setting him up to fail, the Qods force and its clerical overlords, may have wanted to send unmistakable signals to Washington.
One signal may have related to a story originally published by Asia Times Online, namely that Iran is now considering retaliation for the unrelenting murder of its best scientists by Israel (seeIsrael wages war on Iranian scientists August 27).
More broadly, the Qods force and its masters may be sending a general warning about the dangers of escalation, pointing out to Washington that unlike the US’s other adversaries over the past two decades (chiefly Iraq under Saddam Hussein) Iran will not adopt a reactive posture in the face of US belligerence. In other words, Iran can take the initiative and throw US decision-making into disarray.
In the light of immediate US reaction, it could be argued that Iran’s rulers have miscalculated. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that in the past three decades the ruling clerics have proven to be masters of strategic maneuvering and have time and again outplayed and outsmarted their opponents.
What appears to be reckless and foolish in the first instance, in actual fact masks multiple layers of deception, designed to either confuse, embolden or demoralize, with a view to turning strategic threats into strategic opportunities.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.