Iran’s Plot to Assassinate the Saudi Ambassador: Rhetoric or Reality?

by Artin Afkhami

On October 11, the U.S. Department of Justice formally accused Iran’s highest leadership of plotting to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir. In this bizarre plot, Iranian-American Mansour Arbabsiar, 56, is accused of colluding with an Iranian Qods Force commander, Ali Gholam Shakuri, to hire a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador at a Washington D.C. diner. Public claims about the plot appear to be part of a new Obama administration campaign to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Yet Iran analysts remain divided about the veracity of the Administration’s claims. Those who believe the story say Iran had many potential motives and point to evidence from the case provided by the U.S. government. Skeptics find the plot implausible – too risky, and inconsistent with Iranian foreign policy practices.

Information from a formal U.S. Department of Justice complaint, combined with a basic assumption that Iran wants to retaliate against the U.S., can make a case for the accusations.

The DOJ complaint suggests that Iran’s top leadership may have been aware of the plot. The document includes numerous correspondences between Arbabsiar and his Iranian interlocutor, an alleged Qods Force general. According to the document, Arbabsiar mentioned to the Mexican cartel member – who was actually a U.S. DEA informant — that his cousin works for Iran’s Qods Force. The DEA informant later gave Arbabsiar a U.S. bank account number to wire money to, and Arbabsiar arranged two wire transfers of approximately $49,960 each from Iran as down payment for the assassination. Further, at the time of his arrest, a one-way ticket from Mexico to Iran was found on Arbabsiar’s person, alongside his Iranian passport, suggesting he would return to live in Iran. Finally, the DOJ report mentions that Arbabsiar admitted to the U.S. that the Qods Force recruited, funded and directed him.

Another logic supporting the accusation is about Iran’s desire for retaliation. In recent years, Iranian leaders have increasingly viewed the world through the lens of “soft war,” the idea that Western intelligence operatives are attempting to overthrow the Iranian regime through an insidious, gradual cultural revolution. Iranian officials viewed the 2009 Green Movement through this lens, accusing the West of orchestrating “sedition” against the regime. Many in Iran believe that the U.S. or Israel is behind the assassinations of at least 4 Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007. Finally, Iran has accused the U.S. and Israel of engineering the Stuxnet computer virus in June 2010, which rendered inoperable a significant portion of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Under these premises, Tehran has ample reason to strike back at the United States.

Skeptics of the assassination plot, on the other hand, are incredulous that the Qods Force, an elite military unit with a reputation for sophistication and efficacy, would engage in such a risky endeavor with so many potentially unreliable interlocutors. As former CIA Middle East operative Robert Baer put it to the Washington Post, “If the [Qods Force] wanted to come after you, you’d be dead already.” Intelligence experts consider Qassem Suleimani, the Qods commander, one of the best spymasters in the world.

The alleged plot defies the fundamentals of intelligence tradecraft and espionage. First, the plot involved the use of open (and wiretapped) lines of communication between Iran and Mexico. Further, the drug cartel chosen for the plot, Los Zetas, is reputed to be infiltrated with Mexican and American intelligence agents. A modicum of research would have tipped off the Qods Force to this fact. In addition, Arbabsiar seems an unlikely conduit; a used car salesman, he was universally regarded by his peers as an incompetent and bumbling person.

Moreover, Iran reportedly abandoned terrorism as a tool of foreign policy following the 1997 election of President Khatami. There seemed to be a consensus among Iran’s foreign policy elites that terrorist attacks in foreign countries did not achieve Iran’s foreign policy goals. Even if that were not the case, Iran’s terrorism against Western targets prior to 1997 generally utilized local proxies, which was only loosely emulated in the alleged Saudi assassination plot. (Examples include Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad claiming responsibility for the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the MNF Barracks, as well as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.) Iranian assassination attempts during this era, which never occurred on U.S. soil, almost exclusively targeted regime opponents – dissidents, reformers and ethnic leaders.

The Saudi Ambassador assassination case “departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures,” wrote Gary Sick, former Persian Gulf aide at the National Security Council during the Iranian Revolution.

Regardless of whether the Obama administration reveals more evidence, the U.S.-Iran relationship is evolving in unpredictable directions. There has been a shift from President Obama’s offer of engagement at the beginning of his presidency. He is now promising to deliver the “toughest sanctions” yet, while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu maintains that “all options are on the table” regarding Iran. With the recent IAEA revelations about Iran’s nuclear progress, tensions have escalated. The future of U.S.-Iran relations continues to be shrouded in mystique.

About the Author

Artin Afkhami serves as the Iran Researcher at The New York Times and Princeton University. He also studies International Security at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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