No one can deny that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is capable of plotting and funding an assassination on foreign soil.
For experimental purposes, assume that the FBI version of Manssor Arbabsiar’s story is true. Recruited by his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai, a “senior” member of the Quds force, and his deputy Ali Gholam Shakuri, the resident Texan began plotting to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir in early spring. Becoming active in late May after initial wire-transfers were made “at the direction of the Iranian government,” Arbabsiar met twice with a DEA informant believed to be a member of the Zetas cartel, negotiating a $49,960 down payment on a $1.5 million contract. Two wire transfers totaling $100,000 were sent from a non-Iranian foreign bank to a bank in the United States.
Arbabsiar was refused entry into Mexico City on September 29th and arrested at New York’s JFK airport. He and Shakuri were charged with “conspiracy to kill a foreign official and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.” Hoping for immediate punishment, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal quickly announced, "The burden of proof and the amount of evidence in the case is overwhelming and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this.”
If the plot is true and reaches into Tehran’s highest levels, such an attack could be perceived as an act of war on American soil. Overreaction is never wise, but international punishment directed at the Iranian’s government would be understandably harsh.
Reality doesn’t appear to be so simple though, and the U.S. and Saudi governments are the only ones seeing “overwhelming” evidence of “official” Iranian responsibility. Evidence reportedly rests on Arbabsiar's alleged confession that he had acted for men he thought were senior Quds officials, an odd statement to make for a pair of cousins. Could these Qud officials be double agents, or else working towards their own ends? A rogue plot could explain why there are so many holes, many of them assessed by Steve Clemons of the Washington Note.
“Attorney General Eric Holder's action against alleged agents of Iran may prove to be true - but the story's weird points - like the recklessness of wiring funds cross border into a US bank, talking about the plot on cell phones, and working through a Mexican drug cartel raise red flags about the solvency of the Justice Department's case. It's just hard for some to believe that Iranian agents would operate so unprofessionally or trigger events that could seriously harm Iran's regional and global position rather than enhance it.”
The informant in question also reportedly approached Arbabsiar about the use of explosives, and offered a factious restaurant as the target site. Former CIA agent Robert Baer and TIME analyst was less diplomatic than most skeptics, telling The Guardian that, “this stinks to holy hell. The Quds Force are very good. They don't sit down with people they don't know and make a plot. They use proxies and they are professional about it."
Tehran, like any government, is capable of miscalculating its geopolitical situation, but a wider gulf separates an irrational actor. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Holocaust rhetoric muffles the fact that nuclear ambitions, or support Hezbollah and Hamas, serve political and military purposes, even if they weaken Iran in other areas. When fully weighed, a plot to kill Al-Jubeir benefits Washington and Riyadh more than Tehran. The most its hardliners could hope for is fanning anti-American sentiment amongst a relatively friendly populace; Iran’s government could now find itself increasingly squeezed in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Iraq, compromising a relatively stable position.
In particular, Washington has justified a residual combat presence in Iraq by leveraging fears over Iran’s sphere of influence. The Pentagon’s recent missile package to Bahrain, which is facing a Congressional motion to block it, was also advertised as anti-Iranian.
"The United States would not blame the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) without substantial evidence," STRATFOR cautioned. "However, this plot seems far-fetched considering the Iranian intelligence services' usual methods of operation and the fact that its ramifications would involved substantial political risk.”
Traces of Iran’s denial can be found outside a rambling letter to the UN Secretary-General, which accused the U.S and Israel of, “a well-thought evil plot in line with their anti-Iranian policy to divert attention from the current economic and social problems at home and the popular revolutions and protests against United States long supported dictatorial regimes abroad." However no other part of the letter rings truer, as an “Iranian plot” flooded Western and Gulf media while unleashing a barrage of political threats.
"It is an outrageous act that the Iranians are going to have to be held accountable," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told ABC News' "Good Morning America.” "This is really over the top."
Although senior Obama administration officials told ABC News “there was no information that Iran's top leaders were aware or had any role,” U.S. officials are speaking as though this is exactly the case. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that “clearly, senior levels of the Quds Force were engaged in the plotting.” Military action is unlikely, but new sanctions only form the basis of an international response. Western and Gulf states will now attempt to isolate Tehran across the region’s chessboard, hoping to peel away China and Russia in the process.
"The first thing we do is make sure the entire world and all of the capitals in the world understand what the Iranians had in mind," Biden similarly told CBS’s “The Early Show,” statements echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "It's critically important that we unite the world in the isolation of and dealing with the Iranians. That's the surest way to be able to get results."
This plan is also the surest way to agitate a regional schism between Saudi Arabia and Iran, at a time when Riyadh’s hegemony is facing its own external threat from the Arab revolutions.
A main obstacle in tracing the truth is the equal unlikelihood of an internal plot; that Washington and Riyadh would hatch such an elaborate psychological attack seems implausible. Placing a blast in a restaurant attempts to deflect suspicion away from U.S. involvement - but what if the plot was never going to reach the end stage? Both governments, in the end, are also equally capable of orchestrating the plot. The most likely case, for the moment, appears to be a set of rogue actors.
If international retaliation is taken, these parties must avoid targeting the Iranian people at the cost of reduced punishment. They cannot be held collectively accountable for the actions of an unpopular government or a rogue cell - and they don’t need to hear the Obama administration ganging up on “the Iranians.”
It would be especially short-sighted to trigger the trap that Iran’s hardline mullahs are accused of setting.