As the details of the alleged bomb plot by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force against Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, emerges, one is left wondering where this leaves US-Iran relations.
Expert and media skepticism
While many of the details have yet to emerge, the basic narrative of the plot is as follows. An Iranian-American used-car salesman, with family ties to a commander of the secretive Quds Force, planned to hire a Mexican drug-cartel to assassinate al-Jubeir in Washington. The would-be plotter trusted a US law enforcement confidential informant to help execute the plan, and unwittingly ending up under arrest and at the centre of a possible international incident.
A long list of Iran and Middle-East experts in the US have come out saying that this plot does not fit the Islamic Republic’s modus operandi, and that evidence linking the alleged plotters to the Iranian government should be regarded with some skepticism. This includes ex-CIA officer Robert Baer, ex-National Security Council official and Columbia University scholar Gary Sick, Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington Kenneth Katzman, Tel-Aviv based Israeli-Iranian analyst Meir Javedanfar, and others. The US media has also been somewhat critical of the case against the Iranian government, including such staples as the Atlantic, New York Times, Washington Post, and even the Wall Street Journal.
Is Iran capable of carrying out such a plot? The answer is probably. Iran has a track record of assassinating Iranian opposition figures abroad and is suspected of being behind a number of attacks against US forces in the Middle East up until present-day. But as much of the media analysis has pointed out, what would the Islamic Republic stand to gain from this? Indeed as we’ve shown, Iran has been attempting to move in the direction of reconciliation with both Saudi Arabia and the US. This includes signals to the Saudis that Iran is ready to lower tensions, the Iranian government’s release of the American hikers and the recent nuclear offer.
On the other hand, is the US capable of fabricating this plot? The answer is possibly. While there appears to be solid evidence that a plot existed, its links with the Iranian government appear tenuous at best. At times like this the Bush Administration’s case leading up to the Iraq War come to mind. Yet American President Barak Obama’s administration was an early proponent of dialogue with Iran (although this policy has shifted), and does not appear to be preparing the US for a war with Iran.
US foreign policy in the Middle East
Regardless of whether this was a plot by the Iranian government, a rogue faction of the Quds Force, or something else entirely, it is trivial when compared to the implications of this revelation for US-Iran relations. The US appears to be using the Iranian government’s alleged links to this plot as a pretext to put pressure on Iran. What goal could the US be pursuing in bringing this pressure to bear? Could it be over Iran’s nuclear program? This does not appear to be case. The nuclear issue, while always in the background, has not really been prominently highlighted by either the Obama administration in the context of this current affair. As we pointed out recently, Iran has endured sanctions and other censure to maintain its nuclear program, which it views as a strategic asset. It has now built sufficient infrastructure (scattered around its territory) and reached a high enough technical capacity that it is more or less secure in its possession of this strategic asset, and the present allegations do not carry enough weight to force Iran to back down on an issue to which it has held on despite the challenges.
Saudi Arabia’s central role in this drama is perhaps then a stronger indicator of what this whole affair may be about. Iran’s response to the US accusations has not been to attempt to diffuse the situation by directly appealing to the US, but rather by reaching out to regional actors. The fact is that the revolutions of the last year in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), known as the Arab Spring, caught the Obama administration off-guard and have not been positive for the US overall. America may have lost reliable partners in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, while the final outcomes in Libya and Syria remain remain to be seen. Moreover, the revolutions may spread to the main pillar of US strategy in the region, the Persian Gulf oil-producing Arab monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia. Iran has called these revolutions an Islamic Awakening, which it claims has been inspired by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. America’s loss has been Iran’s gain, and pending the outcome of Syria, Iran’s position in the region may have become stronger post-Arab Spring.
The exposure of this plot in such a high-profile manner, the emphasis on the link with Saudi Arabia, and the apparent flimsiness of the case may mean that this entire spectacle is a serious warning to Iran over its regional role. In one fell swoop, the US has pushed back against Iran’s aggressive expansionist foreign policy during the Arab Spring, and thrown the Islamic Republic completely off balance. Iran’s diplomatic energy has been redirected toward addressing this crisis, rather than expanding its influence. The US appears to be retaking the initiative, and strongly warning Iran to back-off its core interests in the post-Arab Spring MENA, especially Saudi Arabia, or else. And for the time being, it appears to be working- with Iran scrambling to assure the Saudis that no such plot ever existed. Iran seems to lack the strategic resources to respond to this challenge in an adequate way. The ball is in Iran’s court now. While it appears that aggressive options such as open confrontation through military forces or proxies (i.e. Hezbollah or Hamas) are less feasible, Iran may use more subtle influence. For example, it may put more focus on aiding its allies in countries like post-Arab Spring Egypt to come to power through the ballot-box, or it bring itself closer to other Saudi rivals such as Qatar. We will continue to update you as this affair unfolds.