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The Iranian-Saudi cold war heats up

With Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement today that the U.S. government had thwarted an Iran-backed plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to the United States in a Washington restaurant, we asked FP contributor Simon Henderson for his take on the implications of this surprising escalation. Here’s what he had to say: By Simon Henderson Baker ...

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With Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement today that the U.S. government had thwarted an Iran-backed plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to the United States in a Washington restaurant, we asked FP contributor Simon Henderson for his take on the implications of this surprising escalation. Here’s what he had to say:

By Simon Henderson
Baker Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

The extraordinary detail of the alleged Iranian-backed plot to assassinate Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, revealed today by Attorney General Eric Holder, raises all sorts of questions.  Why would Iran have wanted to carry out such a killing here in the United States, where its "fingerprints" on such a plot would have had – indeed, will have — such an impact on U.S. policy toward Iran?

If, as the now-unsealed amended complaint reveals, there had been "a hundred, a hundred and fifty" people killed and injured, including "senators", there would have been huge political pressure on the White House to order a retaliatory military strike on Iran.  An Iranian spokesman has responded by rejecting the charges as a "ridiculous show" – but will the Islamic Republic persist in what certainly appears to be a newly aggressive policy?

And what will be the reaction of  Saudi Arabia – where Prince Nayef’s Interior Ministry last week warned rioting Saudi Shiites not to act "at the behest of a foreign country" (code for Iran) and promised that Saudi Arabia "would strike with an iron fist" against disaffected citizens to preserve the "security and stability" of the kingdom. The news of the Iran plot may have already driven the United States and Saudi Arabia closer together: King Abdullah and Jubeir met with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon on Oct. 1 to discuss "a number of issues of mutual interest" — we now know what at least one of those items must have been.

More trivially, one could facetiously point out that targeting Jubeir would have problematic because he often seems to be out of Washington.  Indeed, he seems to spend a huge amount of time back in Saudi Arabia, where he is King Abdullah’s favorite English-language translator.

And, the issue that will intrigue Washington society as well as its political class: Which was the restaurant where Jubeir was going to be "hit" where he ate "like two times a week," according to the indictment. My bet is on Café Milano in Georgetown. It’s known to be one of al-Jubeir’s favorite haunts — even if prosciutto di parma and Pinot Grigio aren’t obvious fare for a Saudi diplomat.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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