Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, a key advisor to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, came as a surprise to many in the U.S. and the international community. The plot itself seems like something out of a movie, full of espionage, secretive forces, money transfers, and a terrorist attack foiled. Yet, the assassination attempt presents a new level of tension between the Tehran and Washington. Iran, which has traditionally conducted its terrorist attacks through its proxies stationed throughout the Middle East, has now extended its militant reach into the United States. What is especially troubling is the accusation that the plot had the approval of high level Iranian governmental officials. This comes at a time when Iran has called for Iranian naval warships to be sent out into the waters of the U.S. East Coast and continues to pursue a nuclear program, which many believe will be used to create a nuclear weapon. Although, the Obama administration has made it clear that the plot was a serious step towards escalation by the Iranian government, foreign policy analysts have raised several questions inferring that the plot doesn’t seem to follow how Iran usually conducts its terrorist attacks. It is therefore necessary to analyze the plot, the discrepancies between the plot and Iran‘s traditional use of terrorism, and the U.S.’s policy options for penalizing the Iranian regime.
The Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador and the events that led to its ultimate downfall are intriguing. Iran’s Quds Force, an elite wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is said to be the main operators of the assassination plot. The Quds Force is know for conducting Iran’s international military operations and has been essential in training and equipping Iran’s terrorist proxies, Hamas, Hezbollah, Shiite insurgents in Iraq, and some elements of the Taliban. The two men conducting the operation are Massar Arbabsir and Gholam Shakuri. Arbabsir is a naturalized U.S. citizen with dual U.S.-Iranian passports, while Shakuri is a member of the Quds Force. On May 24, 2011, Arbabsir makes contact with what he believes is a member of a violent Mexican drug cartel. In reality, the person he is talking to is an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The proposed called for the Iranian government to pay $1.5 million to the drug cartel for carrying out the assassination of the Saudi ambassador on American soil. The cartel was to detonate explosives at Jubeir’s favorite restaurant in Washington D.C., while the Saudi Arabian and Israeli embassies were also to be targeted. Arbabsir, with the approval of Shakuri, wired $100,000 to a U.S. bank in the southern district of New York as a down payment for the assassination. Arbabsir’s arrest was made on September 29th, but President Barack Obama was informed of the plot as early as June of this year. Since then, Arbabsir has implicated several Iranian officials in planning and implementing the plot, while Shakuri has yet to be captured. Both men are charged with conspiracy to murder a foreign official, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, and conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism, among other charges. If convicted, Arbabsir and Shakuri could face life in prison.
The out of the ordinary nature of this plot has many foreign policy analysts questioning the actual involvement of the Iranian government. One of the main discrepancies involves the use of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out an Iranian terrorist attack. Iran has never used surrogates that they are unfamiliar with, especially a non-Muslim proxy. Usually, Iran will use terrorist organizations that are well trusted and integrated into Iran’s strategic operations, such as Hezbollah. Using Mexican drug cartels carries the dangerous risk of having the plot exposed, which would eventually inform U.S. officials. Also, Iran almost always uses active Quds Force members. They rarely if ever use retired members or relatives of Quds Force operatives to carry out operations. This relates to Arbabsir, a Texas used car salesman of Iranian decent, whose cousin is believed to be a high ranking General in the Quds Force. Another serious point to consider is the plot involved detonating explosives in a D.C. based restaurant, which would have led to mass U.S. civilian causalities. This would have undoubtedly led to calls for military action against Iran, something the Iranian leadership would not want considering the persistent internal and external threats to the regime. Iran’s military capability does not compare to the U.S. and although they are on the path to creating a significant nuclear deterrent, they are not there yet. Also, since the plot was done with relatively simple means and had obvious flaws, many speculate on the actual depth of influence from the Iranian regime. It is clear that Arbabsir was in contact with members of the Quds Force, but whether the plan was devised or sanctioned by Ayatollah Khameini, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, or other high ranking Iranian officials is questionable. Either way, President Obama has made it clear that the Iranian regime must be held accountable for their actions, whether it was sanctioned by the Iranian leadership or individuals in the military. In addition, to carry out such a devious plot in the U.S. or other western nation is not something Iran is known for attempting. In 1980, Iran did assassinate the former press attaché’ to the Iranian embassy in Washington under the Shah, but this was shortly after the Iranian revolution when the regime was at its zenith in domestic popularity. Could all of this be a sign that divisions within the Iranian regime are spreading? Are the Ayatollahs loosing power and control of the more extremist divisions within the Iranian military? The awkwardness of the plot has raised several questions that have yet to be fully explained.
What are the options for U.S. policy makers seeking to address this brazen attempt to forgo international law and commit heinous acts of murder in the United States? The Obama administration has been clear that the route they plan to pursue is imposing immediate unilateral sanctions, while gaining international support for implementing multilateral sanctions that will further isolate the Iranian regime and have a severe impact on the Iranian economy. Sanctions have recently been placed on Mahan Air, the Iranian commercial airline that secretly ferries Quds Force operatives around the Middle East, as well as transporting weapons and funds to the Quds Force. The airline’s assets in the U.S. have been frozen and U.S. firms are barred from doing business with Mahan Air. Also, both the U.S. Treasury and the United Kingdom have frozen the assets of five Iranian’s associated with the plot. The U.S. intends to gain the support of the international community to impose multilateral sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, Bank Markazi, and Iran’s oil industry, two entities the Iranian regime is highly dependent on for revenue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated that she intends to take the U.S.’s case to the United Nations Security Council. Shortly after the plot was made public, the State Department sent out cables to its embassies and consulates around the world in order to encourage the host governments to support the implementation of new sanctions on the Iranian economy. The diplomatic route is partially aimed at getting the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council to support increasingly strong sanctions, something that they have been hesitant to do in the past. The Obama administration needs to get the support of Russia and China in order to sanction Iran’s oil industry, which is a monumental task considering that they are important trading partners to the Iranian regime. Iran is the second largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and has the forth largest proven oil reserve. The Iranian regime is largely supported by their domestic oil industry and if that source of revenue is taken away, the regime would be faced with unprecedented economic turmoil. Both China and Russia have previously stated that they believe sanctioning key sectors of the Iranian economy will only further deplete Iran’s willingness to negotiate on security issues, such as Iran‘s nuclear program. Yet, this recent assassination attempt may be enough to change the two countries line of thinking, making it clear that strong actions need to be taken against the Iranian regime for violating international law. In order to soften the negative economic consequences arising from taking away a major oil source and trading partner to China and Russia, Saudi Arabia could boost its crude oil production, which would decrease global oil prices, giving the two nations a better alternative to supporting the Iranian oil industry. The use of sanctions has been criticized for having little to no effect in changing Iran’s provocative actions in the past, but if the international community accepts the U.S.’s initiative to sanction Iran’s central bank and oil industry, the Iranian economy would be severely impacted.
Another option would be to pursue military action. A complete military response is highly unlikely and not advisable. With the turmoil in the Middle East, tensions rising between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the unpredictable fate of several key U.S. allies in the region, pursuing a military attack would only stoke further unrest. Also, the U.S. is increasingly stretched by the continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention our military presence in Libya and Uganda. Opening up a new front would further stretch resources and personnel at a time when the U.S. is trying to decrease its military presence in order to deal with the fiscal realities of the U.S. economy. On the other hand, there are limited military actions that could be conducted. One option is to re-orient our naval fleets in the region as a symbolic gesture, showing Iran that these types of actions will not be tolerated and if a plot like this actually succeeds, there will be real consequences. The problem with this option is there is always the potential for Iran to attack one of our naval carriers, thus provoking an unwanted war. Another option would be to pursue clandestine activities, directly attacking the Quds Force in Iran or in locations based throughout the Middle East. Yet, as with all military operations, this carries the risk of retaliation, which is a great concern considering Iran’s use of terrorist proxies. If the plot had actually succeeded, a strong military response would have been warranted, but because of its failure, using diplomatic means to impose sanctions on key economic sectors of the Iranian economy is the best option for the United States.
The plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. renewed the conversation about what the international community should do about an increasingly dangerous Iran. If the plot had succeeded, it would have been an act of war against the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, warranting a military retaliation. Although, the intent is truly disturbing, the way it was conducted has raised many questions about how involved top Iranian officials were in devising and implementing the plot. What is clear is the Quds Force was involved, therefore the Iranian government must be held accountable. Therefore, it is the duty of the Obama administration and the international community to take direct and aggressive action against the Iranian regime, showing that this type of conduct carries a high price and will not be tolerated.