For many Iran observers, Washington’s latest accusations against Iran — implicating members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States — come off as surreal, if not wholly bizarre.
At this juncture, it may be too early to pass a credible judgment on the substance and validity of the allegations, but there are just too many reasons to dismiss them as another cynical attempt to further isolate Iran. In the greater scheme of things, such accusations might be part of America’s strategy to push its “regime change” agenda in Iran. Although only a trial in an impartial, credible, and civilian court could shed light on the truthfulness of the U.S. claims, we have every reason to take Washington’s allegations with a grain of salt.
In geo-strategic terms, these allegations might pave the way for a new stage of “cold war” between Iran on one hand, and the United States and its [Persian] Gulf allies, such as Saudi Arabia, on the other. As U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq and popular revolutions engulf much of the Middle East, the last thing Washington needs is to extinguish the prospect of a negotiated solution to Tehran’s nuclear program. Instead, Washington should accommodate Iran’s increasing interest in restarting nuclear negotiations and improving ties with its neighbors and the great powers. This is our best chance at avoiding another major clash in the region, embroiling America in an even more destructive conflict.
Cold War in the Persian Gulf
It is not a secret that there is no love lost between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two regional powers have a history fraught with strategic rivalry and geo-political conflict. Since 2003, the fall of Saddam Hussein – Iran’s traditional balancer – has transformed the two nations, Iran and the Kingdom, into the main indigenous pillars of power in the Persian Gulf region.
Despite Iran’s continuous efforts to normalize ties with its southern Arab neighbors, some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have continued to harbor suspicions against Iran’s growing influence in post-Saddam Iraq and the greater region. In 2010, when Yemen experienced a renewed round of sectarian conflict, Saudi troops intervened on behalf of the Sunni government. This prompted Iran to condemn what it deemed a clear violation of Yemen’s sovereignty. More crucially, Iran protested Saudi Arabia’s targeting of Shia communities in Yemen. This created a new realm of friction between the two countries.
Meanwhile, with nuclear negotiations in limbo, Iran has continued to expanding its nuclear program and enriching uranium at higher levels. Consequently, a rattled Saudi Arabia has been among the most vociferous critics of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and growing influence in the region. Not only has the Kingdom been engaged in a massive arms race with Tehran, but also it has reportedly provided implicit support for further sanctions, and probably even for military incursions, against Iran’s nuclear program. This has definitively undermined efforts at stabilizing bilateral relations.
2011 has been especially challenging. Early in the year, bilateral tensions took a nosedive when Iran criticized the Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain. Iran’s condemnation of the GCC intervention, an effort to abet the Sunni Bahraini government’s suppression of mostly Shia protesters, has apparently strengthened Arab hawks, who have called for a more “decisive” approach towards Iran. Host to restive and oppressed Shia communities, Saudi Arabia in particular has been very anxious about the possibility of an Iranian-inspired “Arab Spring” in the greater GCC.
In light of recent protests in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-majority eastern regions, the Kingdom has every reason to demonize Iran and solicit Washington’s support for further isolation of Tehran. However, there is little evidence that Iran has been involved in the Shia-led protests in the Persian Gulf. In many ways, the protests, ongoing and impending, are a reflection and rejection of the deeply flawed and repressive systems that dominate the Persian Gulf region.
On the other hand, recognizing the necessity of mending ties and reversing its growing isolation within the region, Tehran has been aggressively courting its southern neighbors in recent months. In fact, Iran’s top officials, from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, have proactively engaged Arab leaders across the Persian Gulf. Iran also underscored its commitment to resolving "misunderstandings" with the Kingdom by emphasizing their mutual interest in improving ties.
In light of growing sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranian leadership is also contemplating a return to the diplomatic track to improve ties with major powers. This was evident in Iran’s recent release of American prisoners to set the tone for upcoming negotiations. Domestically, the Iranian leadership is pre-occupied with consolidating its power structure and instituting unprecedented economic reforms.
Therefore, assassinating a top Saudi official on American soil not only jeopardizes Iran’s national interests, but it also runs counter to Iran’s apparent strategic calculations. Facing challenges on both domestic and international fronts, Iran is in no position to provoke Saudi Arabia and the United States. If Iran really wanted to hurt the Kingdom, it could do so through proxies in Middle East. To conduct such an operation on American soil would brazenly provoke a conflict that Iran has tried to avoid for decades. Moreover, aware of the NATO-led regime change in Libya, Iran is in no mood to invite aggression from Western powers. This explains why Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said, “We are ready to patiently investigate any issue, even if it is fabricated,” and indicated his country’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. by stating, “We also asked America to give us the information related to this scenario.”
The Paucity of the Plot Narrative
Most interestingly, the nature of the plot itself invites immense skepticism. First of all, Iran is known for its extremely sophisticated and complex intelligence-security bureaucracy. Iran, after all, has not only withstood three decades of external pressure, it has even risen as a major regional powerhouse. Its elite security and intelligence agencies are well-funded, experienced, and extremely astute. The “plot” is not only uncharacteristic of Iran’s elite security-intelligence elements, but it would be tremendously sloppy and amateurish for any major country. Comically, it would be preposterous for Iran to approach a “Mexican drug cartel” to recruit assassins for an alleged plot in America. Not only are the cartels hard to trust, but they are also filled with moles and constantly under the surveillance of U.S. authorities like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Second, of all potential “assassins,” it’s interesting how Iran’s agents came across a mole for the DEA. This seems to be a very unlikely coincidence. Surely, a deep, systematic, and effective background check is embedded in the security apparatus of any major country. In addition, the claim that “Iranian elements” wired a substantial down payment through legitimate financial intermediaries is also suspect. After all, the “standard” practice in these enterprises is to use third parties for recruitment and planning, shunning any direct transaction that could be traced to its source.
Lastly, the only person in custody, Mansour Arbabsiar, is not only a lousy “agent,” but his very credibility is questionable. He has been arrested for drug-related crimes in the past, and his friends and acquaintances have confidently dismissed him as someone highly apolitical and undisciplined. Surely no serious organization would consider him for a sensitive and crucial operation, especially the assassination of a top Saudi figure in Washington. Looking at the body of reports, one could say that even Hollywood movies provide a more sophisticated and palatable “plot.” This explains why American authorities have reservations about pointing their fingers directly at Iran’s top leadership, known for its strategic sagacity and rational posturing. The narrative is simply too untenable.
America’s Strategic Gaffe
Perhaps a more convincing way to interpret this entire affair is to consider the broader geo-political picture. In light of Iran’s growing nuclear capability and deepening regional influence, Washington has been escalating its efforts to confront and isolate the country. Israeli hardliners are already setting the mood for a potential clash with Iran, while the Saudis are considering plans to also develop their own nuclear capabilities.
Given the depth of America’s domestic economic woes and President Obama’s growing unpopularity, the administration could be more interested in highlighting its foreign policy priorities. Probably, in the administration’s view, demonizing Iran is not only a good diversionary tool, but it might also serve as a platform around which new constituencies could be built and consolidated. Appeasing the pro-Israeli lobby is also crucial if Obama seeks to be re-elected.
The United States has already dispatched representatives across Europe to convince its partners to consider a new round of even more severe sanctions against Iran. Alarmingly, the United States is even considering sanctions against Iran’s central bank, something that could disrupt Iran’s entire economy. This would make it extremely difficult for Iran to process dollar-denominated oil transactions, a main source of the country’s export revenues. If the United States pushes forward with this, it will be virtually declaring war, not only against the Iranian leadership but the entire Iranian population. This is a clear betrayal of Obama’s promise to reach out to the Iranian nation.
Alternatively, in light of growing protests across America and growing dissatisfaction with Obama’s economic performance, this could be also a tactical move for purely domestic political consumption. The truth may lie somewhere in between. What’s clear is that there are just too many reasons to doubt the veracity of such dreamlike allegations.
With America’s withdrawal from Iraq in sight, such actions would simply encourage greater conflict between Iran and United States. After all, Iran wields tremendous influence in Iraq. In the Persian Gulf, there are already fears of growing frictions between U.S. and Iranian naval forces, prompting top U.S. officials to call for the establishment of regularized channels of communication to prevent unwanted crises. Obama’s recent actions are not only undermining his efforts to reach out to the Iranian people, but he is also jeopardizing the prospect of a stable and reasonable relationship between Iran and America in a highly volatile region undergoing tremendous shifts. Further alienating the Iranian people and provoking the Iranian regime could be the biggest strategic mistake of Obama’s administration.
For a starter, the Obama administration should focus on rekindling nuclear negotiations with Tehran, while accommodating Iran’s openness to cooperate on any investigation concerning the alleged plot. This is the best way to avoid turning a comic plot into a real international tragedy.