Stanford Progressive

How Plausible is the Iran – Saudi – US Assassination Plot?

By Danya Alabandi, Staff Writer, published October, 2011

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The United States accused two Iranians of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, on Tuesday, October 11th. The two men, Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old Iranian citizen with U.S. citizenship, and Gholam Shakuri, a member of the Quds Force, were charged with conspiracy to use plastic explosives to murder the Saudi ambassador, by hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel. Saudi ambassador Jubeir is considered to be a close aide and adviser to King Abdullah and a key U.S ally in the Middle East.

The Obama administration gave United Nations diplomats detailed intelligence to support charges that Iran plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. President Obama was quoted as saying, “We believe that even if at the highest levels [of Iranian government] there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability.”

An “Evil Plot” Against Iran

The Quds Force is the arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that runs covert and special operations outside Iran. The special external operations unit reports directly to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Quds Force commander. The Quds Force has begun playing a more noticeable role in Iranian foreign policy in recent years.

Iran fiercely denied the allegations, with the UN ambassador Mohammed Khazee writing a letter to the Security Council stating that the story is a fabrication and an “evil plot” against Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proclaimed the plot a scam concocted by Washington to distract the American citizens from their own escalating economic problems. Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, saying that “the absurd and conspiratorial scenario was made so immaturely that even political circles and media of the U.S. and its allies were suspicious about it.”

Foreign Governments React

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “Iran must be held accountable” for its actions, and Saudi Arabia is convinced that Iran must “pay a price.”

If the U.S. could prove that the Iranian government was involved in the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, Iran would be violating the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons. Iran signed the treaty in 1978, requiring its government to consider prosecuting Shakuri in its court system or extradite him to the requesting country – in this case, potentially the U.S. or Saudi Arabia (both longtime foes). However, seeing as Iran vehemently denies the charges, they are unlikely to turn Shakuri over.

French ambassador Gerard Araud said the UN briefings made by the U.S. were credible and convincing, and France would back any U.S. initiative at the council. Colombian ambassador Néstor Osorio said, “Given the position and seriousness of the people who came to give us an explanation, it is not to be taken lightly.” Most recently, the European Union has begun administering the “punishment” asked for by the White House by sanctioning five individuals believed to be connected to the plot.

Others have been less ready to accept Washington’s charges as fact, particularly after their belief of American intelligence eight years ago led to the Iraq war. Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin had a more skeptical tone and said it all looked “rather bizarre.” Brazilian ambassador Maria Viotti also appeared less than convinced.

“Secret War”

The accusations made by the U.S. succeed intense tension between Iran and global oil superpower Saudi Arabia over the recent turmoil spreading across the Arab world, with both countries suspecting each other of provoking turbulence against their governments or their allies’ governments.

In Syria, president Bashar Al-Assad blames the upheaval in his country on foreign-backed armed groups and provocation by Arab countries, Saudi Arabia being one of them. Syria, a country where the Sunni majority is ruled by a Shi’ite minority, is a close Arab ally for Iran, which is majority Shi’ite.

In Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority and Sunni-ruled country, King Abdulaziz has insinuated that his government blames the recent riots in a Shi’ite village on Shi’ite-ruled Iran. Saudi Arabia also sent armed forces to help thwart Shi’ite demonstrations, regarded as proxies for Iran, in neighboring Bahrain.

This map of the Middle East shows the two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and some of their respective allies in the region (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Saudi concerns over Iran’s nuclear power program and Iran’s role in post-Saddam Iraq also fueled hostility between the two nations in the oil-producing Gulf region. “There is a secret war going on between the Saudis and Iranians, and it does not surprise me that one of its battlegrounds could be the U.S. because of its major role in shaping policy toward the region,” said Mohammad Masri, a researcher at the Jordan University Center for Strategic Studies.

“Not convinced”

Analysts are questioning whether Iran would actually take the incendiary step of killing a major diplomat, especially in the United States. They find it implausible that the Iranian government, or legitimate circles within it, would be involved in such a potentially disastrous plot.

“I am not convinced that Iran would attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the U.S. There is no political use to it,” said Mohammed Qadri Saeed, a strategic expert at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. An assassination plot on U.S. soil would be high-priced for Iran; they would lose a lot more than they would gain. An assassination would cause further sanctions led by the U.S. and the international community, and potential military action as well – not a good move for a nation attempting to integrate into the international community and combat isolation by the U.S. and its allies.

Iran’s Quds Force has been accused of waging wars on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, Iran had much easier targets to pursue, analysts are saying, so why would they go after someone on U.S. soil? Furthermore, Iran has been rising as an undeniable power in the Middle East; its political and economic influence in the region is more prominent than ever, and it is playing a critical role in most of the major issues in the region, ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the price of oil and nuclear energy. Analysts are saying that a step as drastic as an assassination plot on U.S. soil might be plausible for an attention-hungry country, but not for Iran.

U.S. officials themselves don’t seem to have a unanimous stance on the issue. Many of them agree that previous Quds Force operations involved much better tradecraft than the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador which, they believe, is full of holes. When Attorney General Eric Holder was asked if the higher levels in the Iranian government knew about the assassination plot, he responded: “We are not making that charge at this point.” Subsequently, a senior law enforcement official told CNN, “Holder was not alleging that the highest levels officials in Iran were involved.”

This qualification of the allegation is telling of the caution with which even administration officials are treading. Dr. Gareth Porter, an investigative historian, has offered the possibility that it was a “sting” operation, with the American agents posing as drug cartel operatives seducing Arbabsiar with the prospect of an easy assassination done by Mexican criminals. In fact, the Justice Department evidence suggests that Arbabsiar was initially more interested in a drug deal with the cartels, trading Afghan opium for cartel money.

This, as Holder admits, does not implicate any member of the Iranian leadership. Since only so much evidence has been made public, we are, for now, reduced to speculating based on the evidence available. Only time will tell if perhaps the administration should have moved forward with even greater caution before making these allegations public.

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