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Iran’s alleged Washington plot re-examined

Oct 19, 2011 | Tzvi Fleischer

Iran’s alleged Washington plot re-examined
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As noted in the last Update, the recently exposed alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US at a Washington restaurant – and commit a number of the other terror attacks in the US – is a big story which has provoked much commentary and analysis. (A very useful timeline on the planning for the attack and how it was discovered is here.)

Some of that analysis, such as by former CIA agent Robert Baer on ABC-TV’s “Lateline” has cast doubt on the story, arguing the alleged plot, as outlined, appears too amateurish and slapdash to be the work of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post, a columnist with very good contacts inside the White House, notes that the White House was also initially sceptical that the plot uncovered could really be a Teheran-sponsored operation. But he notes that they obtained intelligence information from within Iran that confirmed it was:

When White House officials first heard an informant’s report last spring of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, they found it implausible. They asked the same question we all have been puzzling over since the indictment Tuesday of the alleged plotters:
If the Iranians planned such a sensitive operation, why would they delegate the job to Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian American former used-car dealer, and a hit team drawn from a Mexican drug cartel?…

But over months, officials at the White House and the Justice Department became convinced the plan was real. One big reason is that the CIA and other intelligence agencies gathered information corroborating the informant’s juicy allegations – and showing that the plot had support from the top leadership of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the covert-action arm of the Iranian government.

It was this intelligence collected in Iran – not tips from someone inside the Mexican drug mafia – that led the Treasury Department to impose sanctions Tuesday on four senior members of the Quds Force who allegedly were “connected” to a plot to murder the Saudi ambassador. The alleged conspirators included Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, and three deputies who allegedly “coordinated” the scheme.

Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out something else which may explain the apparent tactical “sloppiness” of this plot compared to past IRGC efforts – he points out that there was “an important change that the IRGC made in its military command-and-control structure in 2005”

According to these changes (authored by the IRGC’s then-chief strategist, Gen. Mohammad Jafari, who is now the organization’s commander), individual IRGC commands were given greater freedom to act without seeking authorization. This change in doctrine was reinforced in practice. For example, the IRGC naval commander who took 15 British sailors hostage in 2007, apparently on his own initiative, was not punished by the regime but rather awarded a medal. This emphasis on distributed command, combined with the IRGC’s reliance on asymmetric warfare in the face of America’s vastly superior military power, makes seemingly odd terrorist plots such as the one recently revealed far more plausible. It also renders moot the frequently-asked question of whether such plots are approved “at the top” in Iran; as it is regime policy to devolve operational responsibility to lower levels, they should be held accountable rather than excused for the fruits of that policy.

Further, noted Iran analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht debunks the notion that this could have been a “rogue operation” done without the knowledge of senior figures in Teheran. He notes:

Many in Washington and Europe would like to believe that the assassination plot in Washington came from a “faction” within the Iranian government-that is, that Khamenei didn’t order the killing and Washington should therefore be cautious in its response. But neither this analysis nor the policy recommendation is compelling.

Lord help Qasim Soleimani-the man who likely has control over the Revolutionary Guards’ elite dark-arts Qods Force, which apparently orchestrated this assassination scheme-if he didn’t clear the operation with Khamenei. He will lose his job and perhaps his life. For 20 years, Khamenei has been constructing a political system that is now more submissive to him than revolutionary Iran was to Khomeini.

A brief overview and history of organisation allegedly responsible for the terrorist plans – the Al-Quds Corp of the Revolutionary Guards – is here.

Some more comment on the history of Iranian efforts against the US comes from Washington Insitute Counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt, and author and pundit Lee Smith.

Australian-born Middle East analyst and former senior US official Martin Indyk says that there may be a connection between the planned attack and the Shalit deal between Hamas and Israel – namely both are signs that Iran is feeling under pressure and losing regional influence. He writes:

What can we conclude from the byzantine connections between Tuesday’s two events? Contrary to the confident predictions that Iran would be the beneficiary of the Arab Spring, its efforts to spread its influence into the Arab heartland are now in trouble. It is losing its Hamas proxy to Egypt. Its Syrian ally is reeling. Turkey has turned against it. When the Iranian regime finds itself in a corner, it typically lashes out. Perhaps that explains why Arbabsiar’s Iranian handlers told him to “just do it quickly. It’s late….”

American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead has some interesting thoughts on how the terrorism plot will affect two key Middle Eastern relationships – the already intense and confrontational Iran-Saudi rivalry, and the long-standing US-Saudi alliance:

The apparent discovery of an Iranian plot on US soil doesn’t so much change US policy toward Iran as remove obstacles on a road already chosen.  The US will use the new plot to tighten sanctions, step up pressure and urge others to do so…
The same thing could be said about Saudi-Iranian relations.  The two governments hate and fear one another and they are deadly rivals from every point of view…

That the Iranians would seek to kill a skilled Saudi diplomat who is close to the king is not surprising; that the Saudis would respond with bitter threats is also routine.  The plot (again, assuming that the allegations are in fact largely correct) was unusually brazen and unusually baroque, but it again represents an intensification of dynamics already present rather than some startling new twist.

The plot is one more sign that the Iran-Saudi rivalry is getting hotter as sectarian tension in the Middle East flares.  The Saudis see the Syrian rising as a holy war: a rising up of oppressed orthodox Muslims against apostates and heretics backed by the Persian, Shi’a enemy.  The murderous violence of the Syrian government’s response to the protests enrages the Saudis – and perhaps especially has drawn the king, who has deep personal ties to Syria, into a more anti-Iranian mood…

The fight over the future of Syria is the biggest show in the region right now, and there is no doubt that it is bringing the Saudis and the Iranians to daggers drawn.

 
Finally, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens call attention to the fact that alleged Iranian cooperation with Mexican drug cartels in this attack should be understood in the context of a larger process of Iranian infiltration of Latin America.

Tzvi Fleischer

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