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There are many questions remaining in the accusations that Iran planned to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Yet the consequences are real: the failed plot, regardless of its actuality, heightens Iran's conspiratorial view of the international community, while further closing hope for dialogue.
By Leyla Ferani for RUSI.org
The Terror Plot
It 'reads like the pages of a Hollywood script,' said FBI Director Robert Mueller, others argue a clumsy B-movie, but the Obama administration insists that Iran will be held to account for the failed terror plot on US soil.
On Tuesday 11 October, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency had uncovered a plot by Manssor Arbabsiar, a dual Iranian and US citizen, and Gohlam Shakuri, an alleged member of the international wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Qods force, to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in a popular capital restaurant. The plot also involved attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington D.C.
If true, the planned attack would not only be in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, a treaty Tehran signed in 1978, but a terrorist attack against the United States.
Both accusations suggest that this will be a long, drawn out process that will involve a course of tighter sanctions, acerbic rhetoric from both sides and a push for international condemnation. Undoubtedly, Obama can no longer publically offer the option of dialogue as the open hand to Iran's clenched fist.
As David Roberts has argued, despite its anti-Western rhetoric, 'attacking America, given the precariously balanced nature of Obama's administration and the potential blocking power of the republicans, would be counter-productive' for Iran. Indeed, this very point has baffled Iran experts. Why would Iran commit such a sloppy, two-birds-with-one-stone, act of terrorism against the United States and Saudi Arabia? And why would it use Arbabsiar, a used-car sales man with a criminal record as its primary agent?
It also works counter to what is known of the Qods force - tasked with exporting the Islamic Revolution through highly trained units as has been seen with Hezbollah in Lebanon and more recently in Yemen. It is the amateur nature of the whole affair that has made analysts question the US government's explanation of this terrorist plot more than any other.
Importantly, accusing the Iranian government of organising the plot is short-sighted; the composition of the regime is far more complex, especially when it comes to the military and security forces. As Frederick Kagan has outlined, external military forces comprise the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Qods Force, the conventional armed forces (the artesh), and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Internal security is handled by the Law Enforcement Forces (under the Interior Ministry), the IRGC, and the Basij, 'a group that is like a combination of a military reserve, Boy Scouts, and the Komsomol (Communist Youth) or Hitler Youth.'
This reflects the fractional makeup of the Islamic Republic, in which webs of power networks undermine each other, but never threaten the regime itself. This is at the heart of the regime's longevity. The military forces function in competition with each other in the same way the Iranian parliament (Majlis), government and the Guardian Council have sporadically sought to undercut each other's scope of power. Within this framework, the IRGC has entrenched itself in the economic and political spheres of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government; for instance, Rostam Qasemi, a Revolutionary Guards commander, heads the country's oil ministry.
However, the notion that the plot was organised by a rogue element within this intricate mosaic of vying power structures is dismissed by the US government. The Obama administration seeks to incriminate those at the apex of the regime if not the supreme leader himself. Indeed, Qassem Suleimani, who was appointed commander of the Qods force months before the US invasion of Iraq and reports directly to the Supreme Leader, is the alleged mastermind of the plot.
The US military is well acquainted with Suleimani's operations, which undermined relations with Iraq's Shia Muslims. Iraq's former national security minister even went as far as saying 'he is the most powerful man in Iraq without question, nothing gets done without him.' The US will therefore be satisfied that they have so publicly caught Suleimani in this ridiculous plot, but it does raise the question why it departs so fundamentally from his successful subversions in Afghanisation, Iraq and Syria.
The Iranian Narrative
The Iranian government's narrative is predictable and the plot feeds into the paranoid nature of the Islamic Republic, especially when it comes to the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Newspapers loyal to the Iranian government, such as Etemaad and Etelaat, claim that Arbabsiar was bribed by the FBI and is effectively their agent. In particular, the established narrative is that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States want to initiate aggression in order to increase sanctions against Iran.
More interestingly, Resalat news claims that Saudi Arabia is trying to persuade the United States to go to war against Iran. This evokes what some papers directly refer to: leaked diplomatic cables which revealed that Saudi King Abdullah urged the United States to attack Iran's nuclear programme. Incidentally, Al-Jubeir, the target of the assassination, quotes the King as saying to 'cut off the head of the snake,' during a meeting with General David Petraeus in April 2008 who would have been well versed in Suleimani's role in Iraq.
It is also telling of what Iran now thinks of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom's and Iran's historic rivalry is well-documented, but the current narrative exploits the context of the Arab Spring to accentuate Saudi's repression of protests, and treatment of Shias, on its own soil and within the region. It publicly condemns the repression of protests in Yemen and Bahrain while keeping silent on developments in Syria, a selective conscience also exercised by Saudi Arabia. Certainly, the plot further cements the Republic's well-worn view that Saudi Arabia is in-league with the US, and it can only make tensions worse.
In contrast, the Green Movement news outlets, which emerged after the 2009 protests against the re-election of President Ahmadinejad, have not reported the plot widely. It detracts from their primary goals to expose human rights abuses and domestic corruption. While the Iranian government accuses the US of using the plot to deflect attention from domestic issues, dissenters within the Republic would argue that Iran will do exactly that. What remains consistent is that in the midst of global speculation, Iranian dissidents and Wall Street occupiers want the international spotlight back on their plight.
The Obama administration's initial desire to reach out to the Iranian Regime through dialogue was seen as a sign of weakness from those who held more hawkish positions on the Regime. In their eyes, the Terror Plot has proved them right. We now see Joe Biden announcing 'nothing is off the table,' and Obama moving swiftly for tougher sanctions.
But is dialogue dead? There is a case to be made that even after terror and violence, dialogue can still be established with more effective results: After five years, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian group, Hamas, have negotiated the release of captured Israeli sergeant Gilad Shalit in exchange for prisoners. But the Iranian government has proved an unwilling partner, worried about the impact of engagement with the US upon domestic politics. For dialogue to work it must be covert and pragmatic. Ultimately, this would mean side-lining the Green Movement's aspiration for democracy, which was encouraged by Obama's viral Nowruz message in 2009.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.