“It is not just a dangerous escalation. This is part of a pattern of dangerous and reckless behavior by the Iranian government”, said President Barack Obama recently. Visibly angry and frustrated, Obama pledged that his Administration would take steps to ensure that Iran “pays a price.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton branded the most recent Iranian criminal scheme a “threat to international peace and security.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters: “We consider an effort to assassinate a diplomat in the United States to be a flagrant violation of international law. We are committed to holding the Iranians accountable.” Several Congressmen characterized the development as “an act of war” by Iran upon the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia.As is now widely known around the globe, on October 11, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice charged an Iranian-American dual citizen named Manssor (also Mansour) Arbabsiar with planning to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Washington. The plot apparently also included blowing up Saudi and Israeli embassies there and elsewhere. Some foreign affairs analysts and Middle East experts expressed skepticism about the plot’s details—such as the purported hiring of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the hit. However, the President of the United States, who is privy to classified intelligence that may never be made public, as well as to legal evidence that will come forth at trial, accused the Iranian government of masterminding a terror attempt on American soil. The latest allegation against the Islamic Republic of Iran can serve as a valuable measure of when and how the United States and its international partner countries should take action against Iran. Due to opacity of the Iranian regime’s inner workings, we may never know how high up the political and military chains of command approval for this plot went. So balancing American reactions against Iranian threats, especially ones that have been forestalled, may be the best course of action. After all, the reactions by Americans and others are not merely about the assassination plot; they come from years of pent-up frustrations, primarily over Iran’s intransigence on nuclear issues and transnational terrorism. The United States should have dealt with both sets of transgressions at their inceptions. Not having done so, the United States is now faced with exponentially graver problems that elude simple solutions. Same PerpetratorThe criminal at the center of the thwarted assassination/bombing attempts also stands charged with working on behalf of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force. The Iranian American charged in the plot supposedly had been recruited, while visiting Iran, by his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai, who is a senior member of the Quds Force. Shahlai’s deputy in command, Ali Gholam Shakuri, served as the plot coordinator. Arbabsiar was enlisted in early spring and began arranging the terror plot in late May using funds wired from an Iranian account linked to the IRGC-Quds, prosecutors revealed. Shakuri was also charged in absentia in the FBI’s criminal complaint, filed in the Federal Court of the Southern District of New York. Iran’s government, not surprisingly, denied all involvement. (Iranian news agencies also gleefully reproduced the Western skepticism about the charges.) The IRGC’s officers are well versed in political intrigue and international terrorism. The IRGC was founded after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. It complements, supplements and often eclipses Iran’s regular military forces in resources, manpower, tactics and operations.1 The IRGC’s current overall commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who was appointed by and is loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once threatened “military action against all others who disavow the Islamic Revolution”—coup d’état-like comments that even Iranian politicians loyal to the Islamic Republic found repugnant. Another IRGC officer, Brigadier General Rostam Ghasemi, who, like Jafari, is subject to international sanctions but still heads the influential economic wing of the IRGC (in control of approximately 50 percent of Iran’s economy), is also Iran’s Minister of Petroleum and so serves as president ex-officio of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The IRGC’s Quds Force is a special unit utilized for enforcing militant fundamentalism at home, ensuring the mullahs stay in power, exporting the Islamic revolution to other nations, supporting Iran’s political cronies abroad and conducting terrorist attacks against foreign targets. It was established within the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War. The Quds Force now reports directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei, who appointed its present commander Brigadier General Qasem Soleimani—yet another Iranian official listed as a terrorist by the U.S. government. Soleimani is suspected by the U.S. government of masterminding this latest thwarted assassination attempt. The IRGC as a whole and its Quds Force specifically have been implicated in several pervious terrorist attacks on Americans, Israelis and others. Argentina traced the July 1994 bombing that killed 85 persons at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires back to the IRGC, a conclusion that was even noted in the congressional record. The 9/11 Commission report expressed a belief that the June 1996 truck bomb that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, was assembled at an IRGC facility and then provided to its partner in crime, Hizballah, which carried out the attack.2 The IRGC is also suspected of carrying out a successful assassination on an Iranian dissident living the United States in July 1980. So there seems to be a substantial track record of politically motivated killings and bombings by IRGC units (notwithstanding suggestions to the contrary). Additionally, IRGC and Quds members have trained and armed not only the Lebanese Hizballah but also Palestinian Hamas, Shiite militants in Iraq and even Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. It shared tactics and weapons with Bashar al-Assad’s troops against protestors in Syria’s populist uprising. Many of the IRGC’s international activities, thus, are aimed at weakening the United States and preventing American attempts to stabilize the Middle East and South Asia. Iran’s Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, a hardline Shiite mullah or clergyman, whom Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attempted unsuccessfully to fire earlier, works closely with Supreme Leader Khamenei in supervising the IRGC’s draconian activities. He too is under international sanctions for aiding terrorism and abusing human rights. One major objection to the American government’s allegations has been that the assassination plot seems poorly planned, subcontracted and indiscriminate in the number of deaths it might have caused. However, both the IRGC and the Quds force specifically have subcontracted attacks to others before, including the other terrorist plots just mentioned. They have also never been especially concerned about collateral damage or civilian casualties, and in recent years they have felt the fiscal strain of international sanctions. All of these are conditions that would explain its willingness to resort to such methods. It is reasonable to assume that Quds and IRGC will continue to target individuals and nations that they regard as threats to themselves, their militant, fundamentalist ideology, and their country. Furthermore, they may do so either via orders from the very top or as a result of initiatives taken by rogue operatives. Thus determining what level of the Iranian government ordered an attack may not be possible even under ideal circumstances. Conflicting ReactionsAs is well known, the international protagonists involved in the three-decade-long tussle have borne few good feelings toward one another since the Iranian Revolution. Thus each skirmish fits within much broader geopolitical and religious contexts. The United States has spearheaded decades of sanctions against Iran for its nuclear quest and its support of international terrorism. America’s designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and a member of the “axis of evil” has been especially irksome to Tehran. The United States, perhaps working in tandem with Israel, is also believed to have been the source of the Stuxnet computer worm, which disabled centrifuges in Iran’s atomic program. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at loggerheads for many years since the mullahs took over in Tehran. The Saudis suspect Iran of stirring up the militant tensions that led to the takeover of the Grand Mosque at Mecca, Islam’s holiest place of worship, in November 1979. Saudi authorities believe they pre-empted yet another attack there in August 1987. Riyadh has vehemently opposed Iran’s nuclear ambitions, especially through its Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir, who appears to have been targeted by the Iranians in part for that activism. Most recently tensions between the two governments have focused on the Arab Spring and its impact on politically restless Shiites in Bahrain, the eastern Arabian provinces and Yemen. Essentially the Saudi regime claims that Iran’s mullahs and politicians have been inciting Shiites in the Persian Gulf nations to violently overthrow Sunni Kings and Presidents there. In retaliation, the Saudi monarchy, its own totalitarianism notwithstanding, has pushed for regime change in Tehran and worked for an end to Iran’s Syrian crony Bashar al-Assad. Despite Iran’s track record of sponsoring terrorism, some American and European foreign policy commentators are still skeptical about the recent American accusations. Nonetheless, prominent American officials have with one voice laid the blame at Tehran’s doorstep. Indeed given the mounting nuclear power-related tensions between Iran, the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, even amateurish retaliatory attacks by Tehran are plausible. Unfortunately, rather than deal credibly with the assassination allegations, Iranian officials chose to reply with a range of counter-allegations. It took one week after the assassination charges were made before Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi indicated that “Iran is ready to study the case” which he then denounced as an attempt “at creating discord among regional states” and “misleading world public opinion.” Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazaei wrote to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to express “outrage” at “American warmongering.” The Chairman of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaoddin Boroujerdi, came up with a more farfetched explanation: “This is a new American-Zionist plot to divert the public’s opinion from the popular uprising known as the Wall Street protests.” Even the usually level-headed Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani could not restrain himself: “The West seeks to make a new crisis in the region to cover its own problems,” adding that the American allegations were merely “a childish game” intended to be both “mischievous” and “evil.” It would serve Iran well on the world stage to take charges of terrorism seriously, especially when the Obama Administration makes “direct contact” to resolve such matters. Yes, Iran’s Foreign Minister eventually offered to launch an internal inquiry, but his government and he have already prejudged the case as a mere ploy by the U.S. So Tehran’s administration is not genuinely working toward lowering international tensions.. By blustering rather than addressing the facts, Iran’s leaders tend to miss important opportunities to portray their theocracy in anything besides a lurid light. Indeed, a June 2011 study by the Arab American Institute indicates Iran’s standing among other Muslims in the Middle East has been falling precipitously for the past few years. Less than 40 percent of Arabs now have favorable opinions of the Islamic Republic and its domestic and foreign policies, and Iran’s global standing will continue to plummet unless it reacts appropriately and behaves responsibly in international settings. Even prior to the October 2011 incident, American officials had come to believe the IRGC was resuming foreign attacks after a hiatus of several years. Now we can expect the United States to move more vigorously either overtly or covertly to stop such activities. Attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have claimed many foreign and Iraqi lives, often bear traces of Iranian logistical and tactical support. Not surprisingly, then, when the plot to kill a Saudi official on U.S. soil came to light, American authorities sought to determine who in Iran gave the go-ahead. As with previous attacks directed at American interests and persons, the U.S. government needs to know if the attack was conceived and executed by rogue officers in the IRGC or if the orders came from the Supreme Leader’s office. Saudi sources contend that both Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad customarily give the go ahead, but American investigators know the Arabian monarchy has its own axe to grind against the full spectrum of Iranian politicians. When it comes to actions by the IRGC and its Quds Force, the general consensus among American officials and Iran experts (and we concur with this consensus) is that President Ahmadinejad and his appointees probably are not kept well informed. Indeed, even two days after the United States made the assassination case public, Ahmadinejad had not commented publicly; nor had his official website made mention or refutation of the charges against the IRGC and Quds Force. When Ahmadinejad finally responded, it was to say that “terrorism is the job of uncultured people,” overlooking his government’s deep involvement in it. No surprise there, for Iran’s chief executive and his appointees have been seeking a nuclear deal with the West for years—attempts that have been routinely sabotaged by xenophobic hardliners within the government’s other branches. Ultimately, Ahmadinejad’s silence fits the pattern of his interactions with the highest levels of the IRGC and Quds Force, both of which have distanced themselves from the President and allied themselves with the mullahs. That separation from the executive branch reflects not only Ahmadinejad’s outreach to the West but also his influence among the rank and file of both militant organizations, a sway that the commanders find threatening to their own authority. Likewise, even several days after the October 11 allegations, and despite the IRGC’s and Quds Force’s reporting to him, Khamenei’s website made no direct reference to the U.S. charges. Instead the Supreme Leader focused on lauding the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. Finally, as international pressure mounted, he remarked at a public gathering: They tried to find a pretext to mount a propaganda campaign to present the Islamic Republic of Iran as the supporter of terrorism through leveling a nonsensical and meaningless accusation against several Iranians. But their plot fell flat and like their other actions will be futile and ineffective, and contrary to their expectations will lead to their further isolation.So it is possible that Khamenei, too, is sometimes unaware of IRGC plans, either because Quds officers sometimes act independently or because he is not briefed in order to provide the Office of the Supreme Leader with legal deniability. Nevertheless, owing to the convoluted nature of Iranian politics, the United States must examine all possibilities in determining who bears ultimate responsibility for particular Iranian provocations. Regardless of where the blame actually lies, senior commanders in the IRGC are appointed by, report to and display loyalty for Khamenei. Not surprisingly—and unlike the IRGC’s rank-and-file and even mid-level officers—many of its generals, including those in the Quds Force, are hostile to the President’s attempts to reorient Iran’s internal and foreign policies. In that context, we should conclude that the aim of IRGC activities like the recent assassination plot, the attacks on the Khobar Towers and Jewish community center is to impede the opening of Iranian society to the West. How Should America Respond?Unlike the Obama Administration, authorities in Jerusalem and Riyadh may not be as forbearing as America in response to Tehran’s obfuscations. Those governments are known to be considering military action. The Saudi government, like the American one, regards October’s assassination plot as a flagrant violation of global conventions. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned, “We hold them [Iran] accountable for any action they take against us.” Other Saudi officials have made it clear that “somebody [in authority] in Iran will have to pay the price.” Through its Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, Israel declared that the plot was “definitely an escalation” in Iran’s hostile behaviors. Moreover, Ambassador Oren has warned Tehran, “We [Israel] are always fighting against Iranian terror at our borders and beyond our borders.” Nonetheless, the House of Saud is unlikely to undertake armed retaliation without assurances of protection from U.S. forces in the region. The same holds for the Israeli cabinet, although it has been known to act independently of the United States when its safety is at stake. Indeed, to date, and despite Iran’s steady progress on the far more threatening nuclear front, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia have resorted to military forays. While the Saudis direct rhetoric toward Tehran for involvement in the Arab revolts, they have not taken any overt actions against Tehran outside the diplomatic sphere. Israel, meanwhile, tired of being constantly harangued by Iranian politicians’ anti-Semitic threats of annihilation, may have taken the step of assassinating Iranian scientists. The United States may be tempted to eventually teach the Quds Force a lesson by targeting its facilities in Iran for drone missile strikes. The White House has said, “We take no options off the table.” Yet for now the Obama Administration is focusing on “working through economic measures, sanctions to isolate Iran.” But economic sanctions have not stopped Iran from diverting available resources, meager and dwindling though they may be, into a confrontational foreign policy. It remains to be seen whether further broad-based sanctions will work this time. Targeting the assets of Iranians involved in illicit activities has been successful in slowing down Tehran’s hostile activities, as we suggested in 2009 that it would be, and U.S. allies like Britain have done so too.3 The U.S. government is also considering additional diplomatic action against Iran, such as leveling more terrorism charges at the U.N. Security Council. Indeed, October’s plot violated the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, which Iran signed in 1978. But the Islamic Republic had already flouted this convention and shown its regard for global rules by holding 53 Americans hostage in Tehran for 444 days between November 1979 and January 1981. It also has a track record of testing international patience through a number of other hostage situations—including, most recently, the three American hikers who were imprisoned for two years. Economic considerations will hinder U.S. military responses. Throughout the West, from America to Greece, nations are grappling with major budget shortfalls, high unemployment and deteriorating standards of living. War-weary American and European publics are reluctant to take on the costs in blood and treasure of yet another overseas mission—and one which may prove to be an even greater political and military quagmire than Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are well aware that the economic uncertainty caused by threats from Iran, as well as by potential U.S. military responses, spur increases in crude oil prices. These cost increases impact every sector of the global economy. Iran, however, would stand to benefit from those price increases; the additional revenue would help offset losses created by international sanctions and provide new funds for the IRGC and Quds Force. The Downside of Military Action Approximately 17 percent of crude oil entering the global economy every day flows through the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world. Military confrontations there between the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, on one side, and Iran, on the other, could devastate vital oil fields, pipelines and tanker ports and leave enormous naval wrecks to block crucial waterways. While the Persian Gulf could be made navigable again quickly, restoring the petroleum industry’s infrastructure would take years. The resulting gasoline shortages would plunge the world into an even deeper economic downturn. Iranian politicians know this eventuality well, and they use it as protective cover for their machinations abroad. There are those who suggest that the United States should cut the energy noose that all the Persian Gulf nations, not just Iran, have over the world by developing indigenous resources like natural gas. Even though countries like Saudi Arabia claim to be American allies, they often seem to be mere partners of convenience, enjoying U.S. security guarantees even as they imbue their citizens with a hatred of the West.4 America, so the argument goes, should leave the Arab and Persian Middle East to its own battles. There is another side to this argument we should consider: Once the U.S. uses up all the Middle East’s energy resources, America will still have its own left over. The question is whether the future payoff is worth the present pain. Bombing Iran would also fail to stop either Iran’s nuclear program or its sponsorship of terrorism. It would certainly set them back for a while, but Iran would eventually resume them with a vengeance. Western military action would also deal the mullahs and generals a winning hand in their domestic political poker game. They would use retaliatory attacks to divert Iranians’ attention from much-needed political, social, religious and economic reforms. Indeed, those fundamentalist members of the Iranian government who have long sought to blow up any possibility for the normalization of relations between Tehran and Washington already seem to be hard at work in their attempts to realize this goal through bombings and assassinations. They use these plots to force onto the back burner issues ranging from nuclear power to the Iraqi insurrection and the Taliban counterattack in Afghanistan. Thus the West should counter this scheme in the way the mullahs fear most: by reaching out to the Iranian people. Unlike the fundamentalist clerics and hard-line politicians, most of Iran’s population detests the theocracy’s stifling ways and yearns for engagement with the West. More than 50 percent of Iranians were born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and this cohort makes up forty percent of all voters. At least 15 percent of this group is unemployed. Their graffiti in malls, subways and other public places across Iran denounce the mullahs’ power. They circumvent government censorship through the Internet. Many women minimize or even reject the hijab and the conservative dress code. Men and women sport the latest Western fashions in clothing, jewelry and hairstyles. They flock to rock, punk and rave concerts despite the threat of arrest. They embrace globalization as a central aspect of protest, especially as the state condemns it as un-Islamic. Their push for social liberalization has merged with their quest for political freedom. Making Iran’s citizenry pay for their tyrannical leaders’ actions would turn them back to the theocracy, reinvigorating rather than weakening the Islamic regime. Iran’s militant ways will come to an end only when regime change occurs there. The Islamic Republic’s downfall cannot, however, be accomplished by means of foreign missiles and Western troops. Though regime change may take time, it will eventually come from among Iran’s citizenry, just as it did elsewhere in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. When the theocracy begins to topple, the United States must be prepared to swiftly assist all Iranians who seek liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Path of JusticeFor now, the United States must bear in mind the lessons learned from other interventions of the past decade: War is not always the best solution. Ground forces and drone strikes costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives did not bring the terrorist masterminds of 9/11 to justice. It took patient intelligence and covert operations to accomplish that goal. Moreover, another ill-fated debacle like Operation Eagle Claw, the 1980 attempt to rescue American diplomats from Tehran, would bolster the mullahs. The Obama Administration and Congress together must craft a focused and effective policy against Iran rather than reacting in haphazard and uncoordinated fashion, thus inviting the mullahs’ contempt. However, this does not mean that the threat of military action should be taken away entirely. For all their blustering, Iranian leaders know that a pounding by the American military would set back not just their armed forces and economy but as also their pretensions to be serious players on the world stage. Individuals and perhaps also groups within the Iranian autocracy often act imprudently, amateurishly and maliciously. Iran’s October assassination plot certainly will not be its last. Whether Supreme Leader Khamenei gave the order or rogue members of the IRGC/Quds Force were behind it, the bigger problem is that the most zealous of Tehran’s political incumbents are constantly testing the limits of American forbearance. They seek to bring the United States down to their level of behavior, to involve Americans in violent conflict, and to thereby neutralize the world’s foremost superpower. Rather than being lured into battle by provocations, especially ones that can be pre-empted, the U.S. government should continue responding prudently, strategically and judiciously as it has in the past. This includes counseling Israel and Saudi Arabia to exercise restraint as well. Iran’s mullahs and politicians seem to have forgotten a saying by their famous 12th-century mystical poet Farid ud-Din Attar: “As you suffer, whatever pain you feel, remember there will be recompense for your trials.” Americans and their foreign partners should bear these wise words in mind. 1Frederic Wehrey, et al., The Rise of the Pasdaran (Rand, 2009), and more recently, John R. Schindler, “Tehran and Terror: Unraveling the Mystery”, The National Interest, October 14, 2011. 2The 9/11 Commission Report (U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), Chapter 2.4. 3On recent actions by London that demonstrate that British authorities believe the assassination allegation is valid, see this report. 4See for instance Nina Shea et al., Ten Years On: Saudi Arabia’s Textbooks Still Promote Religious Violence (Hudson Institute, 2011).
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Published on: October 18, 2011“A Pattern of Dangerous and Reckless Behavior”