Eliminating the Saudi ambassador in Washington promised other rewards as well. A successful assassination would create a greater divide between the United States and one of its most important allies in the Arab world. Additionally, the assassination would be viewed as a direct warning to the Saudi monarchy, since the kingdom's current Ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, is a key advisor to the king on national security matters. So, Iran has no shortage of reasons for wanting to kill the senior Saudi diplomat in America.
But if that was the case, why was the "plot" conceived is such ham-handed fashion? According to court papers (and the comments of various U.S. officials), the key figure in the operation was Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old Iranian-American used car salesman from Texas. Arbabsiar reportedly attempted to enlist assistance from Mexico's infamous Zetas drug cartel in acquiring explosives and carrying out the attack. The plan reportedly involved detonating a bomb inside one of the ambassador's favorite D.C. restaurants while he ate.
Arbabsiar is now in custody; a second man named in the indictment, Gholam Shakuri, is said to be in Iran. Sources indicate the assassination plot involved high-level officials in the Qods force, the clandestine arm of the IRGC. Turk al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. told reporters this afternoon that "the burden of proof and amount of evidence in the case is overwhelming, and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this...someone in Iran will have to pay the price." In response, Iran described the terror plot as a "fabrication" and a "diversion," aimed at shifting domestic attention away from U.S. economic problems."
According to the U.K. Guardian, some western diplomats have expressed skepticism about the plot, saying it was highly unlikely that senior Iranian officials would sign off on such a plan. And they have a point; if Tehran wanted to kill Ambassador al-Jubeir, why entrust the enterprise to someone who hardly fits the profile of a professional Qods force operative.
The U.S. military has spent years battling Qods force agents in Iraq and Afghanistan; intelligence officers will tell you they represent the most capable elements in the IRGC. Put another way, there are plenty of Qods force operatives who could easily enter the United States, carry out the plot and make a clean get-away. Why involve a used car salesman and drug cartels?
Several possibilities come to mind. First, the assassination plot may have been a deliberate ruse, aimed at shifting intelligence and law enforcement resources away from other teams preparing to carry out separate attacks. You'd better believe the folks at FBI Headquarters, Langley and Fort Meade are double-checking their information, looking for clues that might lead to other (and perhaps more menacing) Iranian plots while Arbabsiar spins his tale for investigators.
There's also a chance the assassination scheme was launched by rogue elements within the IRGC and Iranian political circles (yes, we realize that is an oxymoron). Angered by the lack of progress in "getting even" with Riyadh, members of the Qods Force, in concert with political elements, might have decided to do a little free-lancing and hatched a plan to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
However, you can't rule out the option that senior Iranian officials endorsed (and participated in) the hare-brained scheme. Intelligence and covert ops organizations have a long history of launching plots that are breathtakingly dumb. Readers will recall that the CIA engaged in a series of operations aimed at killing Fidel Castro, involving such diverse elements as an exploding cigar and the U.S. mafia. None of those plots came close to succeeding, but the boys at Langley kept trying, anyway. The men running the Qods Force are not immune to bad ideas, either.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of this story is how quickly talk of military action entered the picture. Mr. al-Faisal's remarks will be interpreted (in some circles) as a green light for U.S. attacks against Iranian targets. And late this afternoon, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry said military action against Tehran "could not be ruled out." There are also unconfirmed reports that the Obama Administration will provide a briefing this evening on the plot to key members of the Senate Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees.
Predictably, such talk has raised a "wag the dog" scenario, with the Obama Administration using the Iranian plot to divert attention away from a host of domestic woes. We're not prepared to go down that road, but stoking sentiment against Iran could serve another purpose. As we've noted in previous posts this year, Tehran is on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons--a development which could occur before the end of the year. If public (and political) sentiment is already aligned against Iran, it would make it that much easier to launch military strikes against Iran. By launching a clumsy effort to kill a senior Saudi official, Iran may have given the U.S. an opportunity to rally international opposition against the Tehran regime.
ADDENDUM: Thomas Joscelyn at The Long War Journal reminds us that some of the Iranians implicated in the assassination plot are quite capable of carrying out deadly operations. Abdul Reza Shahlai, identified as "coordinator" of the planned attack, was the mastermind of a 2007 strike against U.S. troops in Karbala. Shahlai, who was previously identified as a Deputy Commander of the IRGC-QF, is the cousin of Manssor Arbabsiar; Gholam Shakuri, who served as an intermediary, is Shahlai's deputy. Family ties between Shahlai and Arbabsiar made the Iranian-American a convenient tool for the operation, but it still doesn't explain why the IRGC-QF was interested in farming out the enterprise to less-skilled personnel.