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Iran is accused of attempting to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States on American soil. It is the stuff of spy thrillers. If proved true, then both Saudi Arabia and the United States are well within their rights to declare war on Iran. Why would Iran embark on such an irrational action at a time of great internal and external vulnerability?
By David Roberts, Deputy Director, RUSI Qatar
According to local news reports, a loud, indiscreet, rude individual, known for chronic absentmindedness, who has a small-time criminal record and who used to engage in drink, drugs and prostitution is allegedly the key mastermind in what was planned to be the second largest terrorist attack on American soil in history: to assassinate the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia in a Washington DC restaurant.
If the Iranian establishment was behind this plot and was looking for the most unlikely of spies to throw authorities off the scent, then they have clearly succeeded. Yet it is not just the personality of the alleged principal agent that is unconvincing, but the plot as a whole. Worse still, the manner in which the US government has dealt with this alleged plot arguably shows a chronic misunderstanding of not only the Iranian security apparatus but the Iranian threat as a whole
The simple background
Iran has a long and illustrious history in fermenting terrorism abroad. And the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is the key international element charged with covertly pushing Iran's agenda outwith its borders. In recent years, it is believed to have been highly active in Iraq, Afghanistan as well as in Syria and Azerbaijan more recently. Some also claim that it has been involved in stoking troubles in Bahrain, though there is no conclusive evidence of this. It is reasonable to assume that the Quds Force specifically, via its support of specific Taliban elements and of militias in Iraq, is likely to have cost the lives of numerous Americans. Though, again, solid evidence is difficult to come by, it is believed to have been a prime supplier, for example, of advanced roadside explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Abiding and fundamental differences are also manifestly present between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These two entities represent polar opposites in basic religious and political clashes that have been ongoing for over fifteen hundred years and their antithesis is as potent today as it has ever been.
In short, at a basic level, there is scope for believing that 'Iran' as a cohesive entity may well engage in just such an act. But such a view eschews all nuance and even a rudimentary understanding of Iran casts serious doubt on the contention that the elite in Iran are somehow behind such a plan.
To date, there is scarcely an example of Iran or the Quds Force ever contracting a non-Muslim group with whom they have previously had no dealings whatsoever to carry out an assassination. Considering that this plot would represent the most risky, most difficult and potentially dangerous plot that the Quds Force has ever undertaken, it stretches credulity to suppose that it would have been entrusted to a Mexican drug gang. With no trusted contacts whatsoever in this world, which is reputedly riddled with American agents, it would have been a catastrophic risk to take. While one may argue that the Quds Force were playing on this fact for added deniability, again, the stratospherically high chance of failure and its consequences would surely put paid to any such notions.
Whatever one thinks of the Quds Force, one cannot doubt their unfortunate effectiveness and grim professionalism over the years. Therefore, given what is widely understood about America's prowess in telecommunication intercepts, it seems irrational, for example, that an otherwise meticulous and professional force would risk discussing their most secretive and audacious mission in history over an open telephone line.
Moreover, what would Iran gain from killing the Saudi Arabian Ambassador? Iran's use of terror tactics in the past has been governed by clear strategic direction. For example, the exporting of IEDs to kill Americans was directly aimed at weakening America in Iraq to hasten their eventual withdrawal. Yet no such objectives can be divined from this proposed attack. While a cursory pastiche of Iran's objectives may countenance such an assassination, it simply does not translate into reality.
Some commentators may well argue that the allegations are consistent with Iran's role as an irrational actor, with its pursuit of asymmetric means, its supposed basis in Shia messianism and its offensive references to Israel: but this is simply not the case. It is a coldly rational state. To offer one simple example: during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, at the very height of Ayatollah's Khomeini's rhetorical pomp in the aftermath of the Revolution, Iran merrily traded oil for aircraft spare parts with Israel: rhetoric is one thing, realpolitik is another.
Consider what Iran had to lose. The plan was to kill the Ambassador in a restaurant. Given the types of restaurants that he is likely to frequent, there would surely have been a sizable chance that other high-powered officials (congressmen, senators etc) would have been killed as collateral damage (a chronically important corollary that Arbabsiar - clearly not much of a strategic thinker - summarily dismissed). Such an act would be little less than an act of war. And for all of Iran's bluster, it is wholly and supremely aware that in a war with America it could have its army, navy, air force and nuclear facilities, as well as its oil and gas terminals obliterated.
Moreover, the timing of such a would-be attack makes no sense. In an era of ever greater scrutiny of Iran's human rights record, the pressure will be piled on this weekend when the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran will deliver his first report which is 'expected to excoriate the Iranian government for the treatment of its own citizens'. Furthermore, in early November the IAEA is expected to share information with its board members regarding Iran's research into fashioning nuclear weapons. The idea that Iran might seek to cause a distraction to detract from these events is plausible, but potentially instigating a war with America would be - to say the least - overkill.
Regionally, it is of little surprise to see Saudi Arabia leaping on the circumstantial evidence offered thus far as yet more proof of Iran's perfidy. It fits snugly into Riyadh's narrative which seeks to galvanise other Gulf States and America firmly against Iran and its ways. To be sure, Iran has engaged in all manner of terrorism-supporting activities in the past, some of which have directly affected Saudi Arabia. Yet Saudi Arabia's latest push for recognition of the Iranian threat - that of Tehran's support of ferment in Bahrain - while perfectly plausible and in keeping with Iran's strategic modus operandi and outlook, simply does not have that much evidence backing it up thus far. Instances such as this one - where Iran is lambasted by all levels of the US government as guilty before being charged - further inclines those in power to gloss over other lacunas of evidence (e.g., in Bahrain) under the rubric that Iran 'is bound' to be guilty.
As far as the leaders in Riyadh are concerned, they already have a mountain of evidence as to Iran's intrinsic desire to destroy their country and their system of alliances. This instance will simply be added - prominently - to the pile and will be trotted out as and when required.
One swallow does not a summer make
While one or two Iranians appear to have been seeking to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador - and in his wildest dreams Ahmadinejad too may longingly hope to do something of this nature - it is simply not credible that a professional and experienced organisation such as the Quds Force is behind such an attempt. Nor is it remotely likely that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would have sanctioned such a risky, illogical move. It fits neither Iran's general modus operandi nor does it boost their strategic aims.
The fact that American officials seem to so readily believe this caricature of a poor film script is both worrying and depressing. Indeed, it is not long since disastrous policies were similarly fashioned on the basis of incomplete evidence, sizable simplifications and a lack of a rigorous examination, which led to the gravest of consequences in Iraq. Thankfully in this case it is difficult to find one Iranian or Gulf expert of repute who will do anything other than question the affair as a whole and there is scarcely any appetite for war. Yet America will continue to counter Iran's many and varied threats ineffectually if it cannot grasp the basic mechanics and motivations in question.
Fundamentally, Iran is governed by an elite that sees itself being encircled by hostile forces. To all points of the compass in Afghanistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait it sees an amassing of American troops not to mention the large-scale sale of the latest US weapons technology to Saudi Arabia and other Iranian neighbours. This is not to mention severe economic domestic difficulties in an age of regional revolutions. Iran cannot hope to react symmetrically and thus puts its efforts to augmenting its asymmetric defences. These include the supporting of Hezbollah and the Quds Force to the development of asymmetric technologies and doctrines, particularly in the Gulf.
Once America's elite grasps that Iran is reacting out of fear; a genuine and deep-seated fear of change and of regional power realities, perhaps then it can appreciate that while Iran's politicians feel the need to periodically bang the nationalistic, popular drum, they are nevertheless at pains to avoid egregious provocation with no palpable, tangible rewards: exactly what this absurd plan to kill the Saudi Ambassador would have delivered.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
 Steven Kreytak, Local terror plot mastermind described as more a 'joke' than a mastermind, statesman.com http://www.statesman.com/news/local/local-terror-plot-suspect-described-as-more-a-1910853.html
 Barbara Slavin 'Alleged Iranian Assassination Plot Suspicious, Experts Say' http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=105442
 Matthew Lee 'Clinton: Plot a Dangerous Escalation by Iran' Washington Post http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/oct/12/us-aims-punish-iran-saudi-envoy-plot/