Wrapping My Head Around Iran

Yesterday’s announcement by the U.S. that elements of the Iranian National Guard were planning an assassination of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C. caught me severely off-guard. Some elements of the story made sense: Iran is a bold and unpredictable player in the international system, Iran and Saudi Arabia are in a struggle for influence in the Middle East and that’s been exacerbated by events in Syria, and Iran is constantly engaged in a propaganda and messaging war with the U.S.

It is widely accepted that Iran has sponsored attacks on foreign soil before, but there was sincere doubt in my mind that it would be so wonton and reckless as to plan an attack in the U.S. capitol, apparently without regard for collateral damage. The matter of the wire transfer was also peculiar. Anyone working in the intelligence community ought to be aware that the United States monitors all large-sum transfers to watch for drug cartel laundering. Given that the money would be going to Mexico would’ve certainly raised those alarms.

As the day has developed, so have a few arguments either supporting or questioning the story as told by U.S. officials.

In an article I posted earlier today, Juan Cole laid a “something’s fishy” argument. Mr. Cole shares my doubt that the Iranian government would officially sanction such an attack, and instead proposed a connection between rouge elements in the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guard who have a connection in the heroin and opium trade. They’d be targeting Saudi Arabia for its efforts in stemming the drug trade out of Afghanistan, which Iranian cartels have a major hand in.

A serious of explanations for the “this is possible” side of the story comes from Kenneth Pollack writing for The Daily Beast. He proposes three possible explanations for an Iranian state-sponsored attack on U.S. soil. First, it may be a retaliation for the Stuxnet virus which hit Iranian nuclear facilities earlier this year, which many believe originated from the U.S. or possibly from Israel. Second, the Iranian government may actually be determined to strike the U.S. on its own soil. Third, Iran may no longer include direct military retaliation in its risk calculation for such an attack, betting instead that the U.S. would be incapable of maintaining a third war in the Middle East, given how unpopular and economically draining the previous two have become.

I find myself much more willing to believe the Rouge Actor theory. While the assassination of a top-level Saudi official on U.S. soil would be a major victory for the Iranian propaganda machine, I find it highly doubtful that the retaliation would be worth the small initial victory.

First, The U.S. and the Saudis would be within their right to pursue some form of military action, which would have the potential to escalate to a regional crisis. All the small proxy wars being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia would run the risk of coming to a head, and should the U.S. and Israel get involved on the side of the Saudis, the outcome would not look good for Tehran. Even if the U.S. military is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Saudis and the Israelis are not.

Second, Iran would risk losing the support of Russia and China at the Security Council, as blowing up one country’s foreign ambassador on another country’s soil is something you just don’t do.

Finally, Iran would be inviting another wave of domestic protest. This is the least worrisome for Iran, because after the demonstrations of summer 2009 they cracked down very hard on moderates and reformers, thus the leadership for those movements has been fractured. However, it should still be a concern, as the youth of Iran are still discontented and may derive inspiration for more uprisings from the Arab Spring.

Both writers and most responsible commentators have added that ultimately the facts are not yet in. Without confirmation that this plot did indeed come from high up in the Iranian government and not from rouge actors within the Revolutionary Guard, the U.S. cannot responsibly formulate a policy response to the event. Should the latter be proven true, the Iranian government should be held responsible for the actions of those individuals, but that punishment would be much less severe than the one pursued if the plot was indeed state sanctioned.

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About Alex Fitzpatrick

Alex Fitzpatrick is Homepage Editor for Time.com, also covering technology, policy and cybersecurity. He previously covered politics and policy for Mashable. Fitzpatrick has a degree in International Relations from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he also served as News Director and Station Manager for the campus radio station, 89.3 WGSU. Follow Fitzpatrick on Twitter at @AlexJamesFitz or email him at alex.fitzpatrick@timeinc.com.
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