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What Is Iran Up To, If They’re Up To Anything?

The near universal reaction among analysts who study Iran for a living to the news that broke yesterday of an apparent terrorist plot inside the United States seems to be a combination of deep concern and utter confusion. As more than one of the analysts I’ve watched speak about this over the past 24 hours has said, there’s nothing more dangerous than the idea that an element of the Iranian government was plotting what could only be described as an act of war against the U.S., and there’s nothing more puzzling then trying to figure out the answer to the question why would they take such a risky, dangerous step?

As Max Fisher noted at The Atlantic yesterday, this plot, if true, would be inconsistent with the way the Islamic Republic has acted in the recent past:

The Iranian leadership, for all their twisted human rights abuses and policies that often serve the regime at the cost of actual Iranians, are not idiots. Though they use terrorism as a foreign policy tool, the attacks in Iraq and Lebanon and elsewhere have clearly been driven by just that — a cool-headed pragmatic desire to further Iranian foreign policy interests. Unifying the U.S. and Saudi Arabia at a time when they are drifting apart with a plot that would galvanize American publics and policymakers to support Saudi Arabia, and all without actually doing much strategic damage to either country, would be monumentally stupid. They’ve made serious, ideology-driven mistakes before — as government often do — but this plot comes so far out of left field that it should raise more questions than accusations.

If they would go through all the trouble to organize a bombing attack on U.S. soil — no easy thing to do — why target someone so low-level? For that matter, why launch an attack on U.S. soil at all, something Iran has never done in the tumultuous decade since September 11? Why now, as opposed to, for example, during the height of the Iraq war? Why incur the wrath of the U.S. now, so soon after releasing the U.S. hikers detained in Tehran? (Their release was a modest and long overdue concession, but one that suggests the path of Iranian diplomacy.)

And why get involved with Mexican drug cartels? Is that really someplace where Iran has good contacts these days? As Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress asked, “Wiring money into US? Talking about plot on phone? Does that sound like an intel service to you?”

All that said, it really is possible that this is exactly what Holder says it is. Stranger things have happened, and Iran may have simply made an enormous, if out-of-character and obviously self-hurting, blunder. It’s also possible that the two Iranian men really were planning to bomb the ambassador, but are either rogue members of the Revolutionary Guards or not really members at all. Clearly, there is much more information in this story that has not yet been made public. Maybe that information, if it ever comes out, will back up the official U.S. version — which the White House already says it will use to escalate sanctions — and maybe it will tell a different story. But the plot as we now know it doesn’t seem like something that Iran’s leaders would think was a good idea.

That last point is an important one to keep in mind. So far, the only evidence we have to support the idea that the Iranian government, or some element of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, are the allegations in the Criminal Complaint and the statements made by various U.S. officials. Just based on this alone, there are some elements who seem to be ready to start beating the drums of war, or at least calling for retaliation in the form of enhanced sanctions or some kind of military action. It may turn out that this is exactly what is necessary. In fact, despite being generally reluctant to back foreign intervention, I’d have to say that if we have clear and definitive proof that Iran or one of the elements inside it was plotting to commit a terrorist attack inside the United States, we’re under an obligation to retaliate in some form. But, it’s worth noting that the publicly available information doesn’t put us there yet, and if we’re going to go down that road we need to make sure our public officials justify their actions.

As for Fisher’s basic point, he does make a good point. It’s hard to see what rational basis there would be for Iran to escalate tensions with the United States to this level, and to potentially unite the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel against them. Unlike many on the right, I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Islamic Republic is inherently irrational and willing to act in a manner that would be suicidal. They may have goals that are what some of us would call insane, but it’s still possible for them to pursue those goals in a rational manner. Furthermore, engaging in a strategy that puts the survival of your nation at stake would seem to be inconsistent with previous Iranian policy.

Steve Clemons offers a quick theory as to why Iran might do something like this, though:

Iran sees the US stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan and still to some degree, tied down by Iraq — whose temperature is more controlled by Tehran than Washington.  The US financial crisis, a frustrated American population that wants to deal with issues at home rather than abroad, and diminishing returns to the US from playing global cop have factored in to Iran’s probably incorrect assessment that the US is weak and could be hit hard now.

Bottom line is that Iran is feeling its oats and could see some value in striking right into the heart of the US-Saudi relationship on US soil as a sign of its strength.  From their viewpoint, the Iranians may feel that Saudis may be more angry at the US for having failed to prevent the assassination rather than becoming best friends again.  The US options for responding to Iran would be as constrained after the assassination as before.

An assassination of an official like Adel Al-Jubeir who was both Ambassador and close confident of King Abdullah would be calculated so as not to kill a royal — but rather someone who mattered more than any other to the King’s strategic gamble at the moment.

A combination of perceived American weakness combined with wanting to knock the Saudis off balance might have been enough to justify this strike, which I agree is highly unusual.  The Iranians do not believe that they have a track forward with the US.  They believe that China and Russia will not automatically line up with the US and Saudis even if they were able to align their actions after the assassination might have taken place.

This plot, if true and not just a badly executed plan by rogues or a fabrication by others, could have a logic in what it did to destabilize an anchor relationship at a key economic inflection point for the US and the world.

If that’s what the Iranians are thinking, it strikes me as a massive miscalculation along the same lines of the one that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban made ten years ago. It’s fairly clear that bin Laden did not believe that the United States would retalitate as massively as it did for the September 11th attacks, based in part on the piecemeal retaliations of the past. Why the Iranians would think that we would act differently in this case, especially given the long and bitter history between us, is somewhat baffling.

Finally, James Kittfield offers another theory, and it’s one that may make the most sense of all:

One possible explanation is an increasingly tense power struggle inside Tehran between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Given that he is losing that battle, a desperate Ahmadinejad could conceivably believe that provoking an attack by the United States could allow him to consolidate power as the defender of Iran against “the Great Satan.” But even given Ahmadinejad’s history as a firebrand and ideologue, the plot to launch multiple bombings in Washington at this time seems uncharacteristically reckless.

There have been plenty of stories about tension between Ahamdinejad and Khameni in the past (which has always made me raise an eyebrow at the “Ahmadinejad is the next Hitler” arguments), so this wouldn’t be entirely surprising. And if it were rouge elements of the Revolutionary Guard assisting him, then it might explain why this plot reads like something that the scriptwriters for 24 would have rejected as too implausible.

There is another theory, of course. It’s entirely possible that this wasn’t an Iranian government operation at all, or at least not an officially sanctioned one. Given the Austin Powers -esque nature of the plot here, that would almost seem to be the most plausible theory even. Furthermore, the fact that so much of the “operation” was conducted under the auspices of an FBI sting operation leads one to wonder if these were actual foreign agents were talking about, or just a couple guys who thought they were hatching a plot. A crime is committed in either case, of course, but it’s only in the first case that this goes from being a crime to an international incident.

Where this will lead can’t be known at this point, but the allegations are certainly serious enough to raise concerns. If they’re true, then we may be headed down a road of confrontation. If that’s the case, then one hopes the American people won’t let themselves get fooled a second time around.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. george says:

    Been quietly waiting for more info to come out on what actually happened – isn’t it too early to speculate about motives before we even know if there’s been a crime? Right now it seems just as likely that it was a sting operation against a small time car salesman desperate for a bit of cash. That could change, but right now its just the prosecution airing its claims before going to court, so its hard to read much into it.

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  2. PD Shaw says:

    An evergreen dispute is the extent to which the Quds Force acts independently of the regime centered in Tehran:

    “This has been a topic of debate among Iran experts inside and outside the government for 25 years,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “There are people who believe the Quds Force does not move a muscle without getting explicit orders from [supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei; there are other people who believe they are rogues. The weight of evidence is somewhere in the middle.”

    The Quds force is a select group picked for revolutionary zeal and adherence to the mission of exporting Iran’s version of Islamic government. If they are behind this, their motivations may not be entirely the same as a rational state’s.

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  3. Jay Tea says:

    One theory that interests me ties it in to Iran’s nuclear program — pulling off something like a major bombing or two in DC, of all places, would demonstrate that they could deliver such a weapon once they built one.

    J.

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  4. @Jay Tea:

    Engaging in an act that is likely to lead to pretty extensive aerial military retaliation if it had been successful doesn’t strike me as a rational way to do that. Then again, neither does putting together the kind of haphazard plot involved here.

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  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Kittfield’s theory is the same one I advanced yesterday

    @James Joyner: The Mullahs are theoretically in charge of Iran but I don’t think they knew about this. Ahmadinejad and the Quds Forces do act autonomously from time to time. Ahmadinejad is on the outs with the Mullahs and I have to wonder if this was an attempt to get the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia to react and strengthen Ahmadinejad’s position. .

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  6. Lit3Bolt says:

    The main red flag is that the hit money is too small. 1.5 million? No one is impressed by that anymore. The Zetas are 40 billion dollar drug cartel.

    This is agent provocateur theater, but who’s playing who? I don’t think it’s Iran. I think this is the U.S. giving political cover for an Israeli strike, coming soon to televisions near you. They just need the Saudis (ie, the Arab world) to help sign off on it, which is why they were the “target.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  7. Brett says:

    I think the “power play” argument makes the most sense. The clerical regime in Iran has never hesitated to play the “anti-US nationalism” card, and stirring up hostility from the US towards Iran might generate a “rally round the regime” reaction among the Iranian population. It’s kind of like putting a press on top of a boiling pot.

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  8. mattb says:

    @Lit3Bolt:
    Actually, I suspect that this has less to do with the Isreali’s (and I’d personally be a bit surprised if there was a strike) and far more to do with the Saudi’s. In particular, this presents Iran as a direct existential threat to the Country and the House of Saud. And in doing so, that would provide the Saudi Government with a much needed spark of nationalism (and something to occupy the thoughts of their internal revolutionary class).

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  9. Dave Schuler says:

    In no particular order here are the alternatives I can come up with:

    1. A “wag the dog” operation on the part of the Iranian regime.
    2. A “wag the dog” operation on the part of the Obama Administration (that’s what the Iranians are saying).
    3. Exactly what the complaint alleges (a political assassination)
    4. A rogue operation by Quds force elements.
    5. A show of force (Jay Tea’s explanation)
    6. Overzealous DEA agents creating a plot
    7. Crazy people do crazy things.

    Any others?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. mattt says:

    …rouge elements of the Revolutionary Guard

    Now there’s an image.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. Loviatar says:

    @Lit3Bolt:

    I Agree totally.

    I think this is the U.S. giving political cover for an Israeli strike, coming soon to televisions near you.

    Within the next six months expect to see an airstrike, with the Saudi’s and the other oil rich countries convinced to stay silent based upon this “terrorist attack”.

    Finally, while its totally understandable to see a lot of the same voices who were beating the drums in the lead up to the Iraq war also beating the drums for war against Iran. Its kind of sad that they’ve again been given a platform and their words still seem to have some credibility and ability to shift our government.

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  12. ponce says:

    The near universal reaction among analysts who study Iran for a living to the news that broke yesterday of an apparent terrorist plot inside the United States seems to be a combination of deep concern and utter confusion.

    I wonder if these “analysts” feel the same way about the terrorist attacks America, Israel and Saudi Arabia constantly carry out against Iran?

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  13. Loviatar says:

    The Iranian Plot: Bank Transfers of Mass Destruction

    I’m sorry, but I’m having a really difficult time taking this latest terrorist plot seriously. Not just because the story is so neat, tying together all the enemies–the drug cartles and Iran–we’re currently supposed to hate…

    And based on those transfers, one unsuccessful attempt to enter Mexico, and a lot of talk between an informant and one of the defendants, we’ve got another terrorist plot.

    So the FBI had a Quds general directly implicated by his own cousin in a terrorist attack in the US, and another senior Quds official at least tangentially involved. But they don’t indict those two, too?

    Folks, this is just another FBI ‘terrorism plot”, the only difference, this time instead of just trying to make themselves look good, they are trying to gin up cover for an attack against Iran.

    For the war lovers out there, isn’t 2 and 1/2 wars enough? Why do you want to start another one?

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  14. anjin-san says:

    I am just not buying it. I have seen no evidence the government of Iran is not rational, and this would be a totally irrational action.

    We also need to consider that with our current wars winding down and budget cuts on the table, the “defense” industry needs to think about keeping its order pipeline full. We really should have listened to Eisenhower.

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  15. ponce says:

    Why incur the wrath of the U.S. now, so soon after releasing the U.S. hikers detained in Tehran? (Their release was a modest and long overdue concession…

    Let’s imagine the fate of three young Iranian hikers caught trying to cross into America from Canada far from any checkpoint.

    Would they have been treated as well as Iran treated the American hikers?

    Would they have been allowed to talk to anyone from the Red Cross or anyone from home?

    Would they ever have been released?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  16. Robert C. says:

    @Lit3Bolt:

    Word!

    RC

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  17. Robert C. says:

    @mattb:

    I suspect anti-Americanism in the KSA slightly trumps antagonism to other muslims.

    RC

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  18. Jay Tea says:

    @ponce: Let’s make it a bit more real — put them along the Maine/New Brunswick border. And they’d be all in their early 20′s and all know each other for years. I suspect they’d be treated quite well, be the subject of international attention if they weren’t immediately returned to Canada, and the subject of mass rallies and demonstrations across the US as well.

    I’d put the chances that they’d be charged with crimes with the potential for life imprisonment as minimal, just above the odds that they’d end up in Guantanamo — which Obama still hasn’t closed, despite his fervent pledges to do so.

    If you sincerely believe that if the US found 3 Iranian young people — two men and a woman — ambling along the Maine/New Brunswick border (which is really, really, really poorly defined up in those woods, very sparsely populated and developed) would get much more than a polite pointer back north and, maybe, a stern lecture, then you don’t live in the same country the rest of us do.

    Or even the same universe.

    J.

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  19. Rob in CT says:

    It’s sad, but I remain extremely skeptical (paranoid, if you want) of the government line here. I smell *another* war.

    Hopefully not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  20. ponce says:

    ,,,would get much more than a polite pointer back north and, maybe, a stern lecture, then you don’t live in the same country the rest of us do.

    What country do you live in, Jay?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  21. Jay Tea says:

    @ponce: I live one state away from the hypothetical I just described, ponce — and in a state that also has an international border.

    What color is the sky in your universe?

    J.

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  22. Boyd says:

    @Jay Tea: ponce lives in a world where America, Israel and Saudi Arabia constantly carry out terrorist attacks against Iran, apparently.

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  23. CB says:

    If that’s the case, then one hopes the American people won’t let themselves get fooled a second time around.

    nice article doug, but come on. we are so far past the second time around. we love to fool ourselves.

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  24. Jay Tea says:

    @Boyd: And the Canadian border is fiercely defended. Don’t forget that.

    J.

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  25. ponce says:

    ponce lives in a world where America, Israel and Saudi Arabia constantly carry out terrorist attacks against Iran, apparently.

    Um, I live in a world where Israel’s foreign minister said Israel will begin supporting the terrorist group the PKK because Turkey asked Israel to apologize for mowing down a dozen of their civilians.

    http://www.worldbulletin.net/?aType=haber&ArticleID=78723

    As for the terrorist attacks America and Israel carries out against Iran, we don’t try to hide them.

    http://www.campaigniran.org/casmii/index.php?q=node/5551

    If you honestly think if America captured three young Iranians crossing into America at some remote spot on the border and then just give them a map and a warning and release them, you must be…exactly who you are.

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  26. Boyd says:

    @ponce: Sorry, I can’t comment on the support for your claim of America and Israel carrying out terrorist attacks on Iran because the site is blocked for me, since it’s designated an “advocacy group” by the web filtering process where I am right now.

    Hmm…”advocacy group.” Maybe that’s why you can’t find these “facts” anywhere that’s remotely objective on the subject.

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  27. ponce says:
  28. Boyd says:

    @ponce: If the article you linked is your proof of America, Israel or Saudi Arabia conducting constant terrorist attacks against Iran, then you definitely live in a different world than mine. Over here, what you linked isn’t even evidence, much less proof.

    I’m certainly not infallible, though, so if you can quote for me where the article’s author supports your premise, I’ll be happy to admit my error.

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  29. ponce says:

    Boyd,

    The MEK is on the State Dept.’s list of terrorist groups.

    America allowed them to operate from Iraqi territory while we occupied that country and we probably supplied them help to carry out their terrorist attacks inside Iran.

    Heck, Wikipedia has quite an informative page about American support of terrorist activities inside Iran if just want some light reading and links on the topic:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIA_activities_in_Iran

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. Boyd says:

    @ponce: And your Wikipedia link has at least as much evidence that the US does not support MEK, if not more.

    Sorry, but I have to dismiss your claim as overreaching to support your already-reached conclusion. OTOH, I’ll certainly agree with you if you claim that some Americans would be happy to support anti-Iranian terrorist groups while condemning essentially the same thing pointed at the US by Iran-based terrorists. That’s a far cry, though, from your implication that the US government is conducting terrorist attacks on Iran.

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  31. Dazedandconfused says:

    Another vote for a couple of rogue Quds guys. Too many people involved in the investigation within our government for a USG conspiracy.

    If the Iranian government wanted to run this op, using Mexican hit men, well, they have an embassy in Mexico City with diplomatic pouches to run communications and money through. They would not be using US phone lines and New York Banks.

    However far up the say-so was in there, it’s very unlikely it was the “Iranian Government”.

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  32. matt says:

    They would not be using US phone lines and New York Banks.

    Those calls would without a doubt end up being routed through the USA and intercepted.

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  33. Rob in CT says:

    Larison’s level-headed response:

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/2011/10/14/the-alleged-iranian-plot/

    And there’s a second post as well.

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