Iran Assassination Plot Is More Complex Than We Think

The plot is certainly odd: Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American used car salesman living in Texas, receives $100,000 from Iran and works together with a low-level member of Iran’s elite Qods Force, Ali Gholam Shakuri, and a Mexican drug cartel to attempt the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. It sounds more like Hollywood, but some version of these events actually did happen. Mansour is in custody right now, but Ali is not. For the moment, the best anyone can do is to speculate, but that hasn’t stopped some U.S. politicians and op-eds from jumping to premature conclusions.

On one end of the debate, this entire story is a fabricated plot by the United States to convince the world to launch harsher sanctions on Iran, and potentially even pave the way for a retaliatory military attack. On the other, Iran’s top political elite personally authorized the attack to harm and embarrass the U.S., weaken American relations with Saudi Arabia, and to get revenge at the Saudis for their support of the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain against Shi'a protestors. However, I find both of these explanations to be lacking.

Concerning the former, there are a number of reasons to doubt this was pure fabrication by the U.S. If Obama truly wanted to manufacture evidence against Iran, this kind of fantastical storyline isn’t the most convincing way. It would have resulted in significant losses of American life if successful. In addition, the FBI’s generally apolitical reputation would be severely damaged in committing themselves to a made-up story this big.

It is also unreasonable to believe that it was a carefully orchestrated plot from Khamenei. The Qods Force has a reputation for brutality, but also professionalism, which clearly this plot didn’t have. Arbabsiar had a history of untrustworthiness, and Iran would have known the money they sent him would likely be tracked. In addition, this attack was not in Iran’s strategic interests. The potential damage they would incur (and may as yet), from severe U.S. sanctions on their central bank to military action, would make this a losing scenario for them. Not only that, but it would have given the U.S. an important diplomatic vindication on the international stage that Iran is not to be trusted, something the Iranian regime is loathe to do.

Still, this leaves us with a staggering variety of potential alternatives in the gray area in between. The alternative I find most likely is that this plot came from Iran, but not at the highest levels. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Force has gained power and influence domestically since they helped put down the 2009 Green Movement protests, and this attack may have been from someone within their ranks pulling off a rouge operation. How high up it went exactly is impossible to ascertain, but that it did not reach Khameini or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely considering the consequences noted above. 

In addition, a rouge Quds Force member would lack the resources of the entire organization, and may not have considered the strategic consequences. The attempt would have just been retaliation for perceived wrongs by the U.S. against Iran. Alternatively, given Mansour’s history, he may well have fabricated some aspects of the story himself and received only minor help from the IRGC, if at all.

Whatever the reality of the situation, America, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are taking this incident extremely seriously: Obama has ordered U.S. diplomats around the world to tell their host governments about this incident, Saudi Arabia has reacted harshly, and Iran, along with vehement denials, has agreed to look at the available evidence and wants to speak with the arrested Iranian-American. Whatever its true origins, this event will have reverberations for years to come in U.S.-Iranian relations.

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