Archive for October 12th, 2011

October 12, 2011

Iran: Rational state-actor or Bond villain?

I’m slightly hesitant to add my voice to the growing din on this case, but it’s too interesting for me to ignore. For those of you who have been under a rock, yesterday Attorney-General Eric Holder gave a press conference where it was revealed that the Justice Department had broken up a terror plot against the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States. The alleged plotters are in custody, and have been charged in a civilian court in New York; the full criminal complaint can be read here. I hope for your sake that you’re sitting as you read through it. The plotter under questioning fingers several Iranians who are known to be part of the Qods Force, a section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as the power behind the plot.

This whole thing takes the meme about Iran being the real-world equivalent of a Bond villain to all new heights. The type of Bond villain is under dispute. People seem to be falling into one of two camps: either Iran is crazy but nowhere near dumb enough for this to make any kind of sense, the scheming, nefarious, white Persian cat trope; or Iran is crazy and yes, just crazy enough to think that this sort of plot is a good idea, the rob Fort Knox to drive up the price of gold style of mastermind. The latter camp is extremely sparse at the moment. The more I read about this case, the more questions I have about just what on Earth is going on, and analysts are at odds with each other across the blogosphere. The theories springing up are multiple: It was a state-sponsored move, backed by the government of Iran and with their full awareness. It was a rogue group of agents, acting on their own to attempt to strike fear into the hearts of the KSA. It was a lone actor with delusions of grandeur that the FBI stoked to new heights.

Saudi Arabia and the United States, for their part, are definitely treating this plot as The Real Thing. Noteworthy is the fact that the Attorney-General himself was the one to announce the whole mess to the public, followed up with by statements from Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has issued a statement where it “strongly denounces and condemns the outrageous and heinous attempt to assassinate its Ambassador to the United States of America”.

Now, supposing Mansour Arbabsiar really was just a guy with delusions of grandeur, the question stands, why would the US bring out the big guns? I can’t think of a reason for the US to throw so much weight and support behind this story if it wasn’t totally sure of its authenticity and it being an actual foreign-based threat. As Daveed Gerstein-Ross stated on Twitter, “Holder weighing in on the plot’s connection to Iran means the administration is deadly serious about it.” Lending that level of credence would only serve to backfire if it turns out the accusations were false or played up, so why risk it? I can’t think of a reason.

What’s more, the US is taking the whole matter to the UN Security Council. Ambassador Susan Rice has been spending the morning giving one-on-one briefings of the details of the matter to the members of the Security Council. The longtime Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, was cautious this morning, but didn’t rule out the possibility that the case was true, saying “It looks rather bizarre but I am not an expert.” Both at the UNSC and unilaterally, the US is looking to ramp up sanctions on Iran as retaliation.

Spence Ackerman, writing for Danger Room, is as confused as everyone else, but notes that if it really was the Qods Force and the mission was signed off on by the government, this is great news for everyone worried about Iran’s growing power in the region. Should it actually be the QF behind it all, then the Cobra Command force of the Middle East is actually more like the Legion of Doom of the Middle East. Neither are as threatening as they think, but the latter is much more laughable in its attempts at world domination, especially when compared to who it’s up against.

Others are using this instance to talk about the Administration’s overarching policy towards Iran, going as far as calling it a failure. James Kittfield of the National Journal wrote over at The Atlantic that the assassination plot shows that the base assumption behind our Iran strategy, that Iran acting as a rational actor, can’t be supported. Robert Haddick of Small Wars Journal states that even if Iran didn’t order this mission from the top, this still says bad things about deterrence policy, since “deterrence is not useful if those to be deterred don’t have complete control over their weapons”. Even if it is the case that the strike was ordered by the QF, I don’t think that we can say that it remotely affects the US’ stance towards Iran when it comes to its nuclear weapons; the US has kept Iran on its list of State-Sponsors of Terrorism for a reason. While supporting terrorism inside the United States would be a huge departure from previous methods used by Iran, this lone incident would not be enough of a reason to shift from a strategy of international isolation, one that has been paying dividends. Further, should this story pan out, would it not show that the Iranian government is having to reach way beyond the normal range of foreign policy tools to attempt to obtain its goals, thus meaning that the strategy is working?

Not everyone is sold on the veracity of the government’s case however. I really don’t even want to bring this up, but Greg Greenwald has a piece that I’m pretty sure was constructed purely based on a template of every other article he’s written at Salon, insisting that the whole thing was made-up or exaggerated far beyond what it should be to give the US a pretext to increase its military actions around the world. As he puts it: “If the Obama administration decided tomorrow that military action against Iran were warranted in response, is there any doubt that large majorities of Americans — and large majorities of Democrats — would support that?” Well, no, I highly doubt that this will be the situation, and in any case, I’m pretty sure Greenwald has been predicting that we’re going to attack Iran for the last five years.

More serious people also have their doubts about the case, centered around several key points.  Scott Peterson at the Christian Science Monitor points out that the scheme doesn’t fit Iran’s typical M.O. when it comes to matters like this, with no apparent cost-benefit analysis that would give much in the event of a success. He also notes that previous Iranian assassinations have only targeted Iranians, never foreigners, and that the choice of Arbabsiar as an agent would be incredibly poorly thought-out.

Steve Clemens, though, lists as a potential motive the intensifying of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s proxy war for regional dominance, pointing out that the Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir “is not a member of the Saudi royal family but is widely considered to be the closest national security adviser and confidant to King Abdullah”. I disagree with his conclusion, however, that “if the US does not take action, then the Saudis will most likely retaliate in ways that will escalate the stakes and tensions with Iran throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia”. Saudi Arabia will not take military action against Iran, despite the arsenal we’ve sold them; the worst thing I can imagine the KSA doing in response would be seeking a way to force Iran out of OPEC, which is in and of itself an improbable feat. Clemens’ colleague/boss Max Fisher takes a more suspect view of the incident, taking neither side for the time being, but noting the oddness of the affair.

Iran, for its part, is denying the whole thing vehemently, as one would expect. What one wouldn’t expect though is the insistence on the part of the Iranian Government that whole thing is part of a plot to distract the worldfrom the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Pause for a second to wrap your heads around that one. The Washington Post has a piece up about the reaction from analysts in Iran, with the consensus forming that there’s no way that President Ahmadinejad or his government had anything to do with this plot, as the security structure of Iran are well out of his hands. Even they have no idea who could have done it, or why, considering even a successful lot would immediately be blamed on Iran, with just as many theories there as here:

Some analysts speculate that the bizarre alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador was engineered by the Revolutionary Guards — but was meant to be discovered by U.S. intelligence — in order to sabotage any possible back-channel talks between Ahmadinejad’s representatives and the United States.

Others dismiss that theory, saying that the Iranian hierarchy’s control of foreign policy is clear. Khamenei makes the important foreign policy decisions, and extensive surveillance by political commissars leaves little room for rogue elements.

For my part, I think this sounds like it has all the makings for an ill-conceived crisis plot by an inexperienced delegate at a Model United Nations conference. As Dan Trombly of Slouching Towards Columbia pointed out though on Twitter, just because it would be extremely stupid is no reason for us to rule out QF entirely; the Cold War was full of plots and schemes that in hindsight sound implausible at best, asinine at worst. It is completely possible to rationally come to a very idiotic decision, as both US history and human nature will tell us; need I mention the Bay of Pigs invasion?

In any case, it is far too soon to be thinking about lessons learned from this incident and changes to our strategy in response, just as it’s too soon to strike the whole thing out as totally fabricated. I’m inclined to believe that the US government wouldn’t have arrested Arbabsiar and charged him in so public a fashion if the facts were shaky. Further, the one question I’d like answered is where did the money that was transferred to an FBI bank account originate from? If this really was the work of a delusional malcontent, that’s a large sum to be able to get wired from a foreign bank. I’m sure that more will come out about this issue in the coming days, but for right now the same facts are in front of everyone right now, and have led to very divergent trains of thought, each supported by the evidence at hand. Everyone needs to just sit back for a bit and let this play out some before making grand policy recommendations.