- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
While Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Captain Louis Renault issued an official statement saying that his government is "shocked, shocked" at allegations that they were behind an assassination plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir, the incident raises many important questions.
- What would the Obama Administration’s response have been had they succeeded?
If the plot had unfolded as planned and these Iranian operatives had blown up al-Jubeir in a restaurant in Washington, would the Obama Administration have considered retaliating with force against the Iranians? Drone strikes? Air strikes against selected Iranian targets (that perhaps happened to be linked to their nuclear program)? Coordinated action with the Saudis? With the Saudis and the Israelis? Or would the United States have protested vigorously in the U.N. and taken actions akin to those they are taking now to further isolate Iran in the international community? What if American citizens had been killed in the attack as they almost inevitably would have been? Remember Joe Biden’s assertion long-ago that the President would be tested by foreign enemies. This is the kind of thing he had in mind. Except the context here is that the United States is broke and pulling out of the Middle East and Obama would certainly like to avoid being drawn back into a big conflict in the region. The Iranians, it seems were betting that the response would therefore be contained. And while I understand the rationale, I think the calculation is wrong. Dead Americans lying in the rubble of a Washington restaurant would require an immediate and forceful response. It would be a mistake for the Iranians or anyone else to underestimate the power an attack would have to galvanize U.S. public opinion in favor of strong action.
- What will happen if U.S. efforts "isolate Iran" aren’t successful?
The U.S. is, according to the Washington Post, "scrambling in search of new punitive measures to impose against a country that has already been hit with multiple rounds of sanctions." As the quote implies, finding new penalties that have been already been considered, imposed, or failed is going to be tough. Further, getting other countries to go along with such measures is going to be tough if there are big powers that will sit on the sidelines as they have in past such efforts (which after all, involve the much bigger stakes associated with Iran’s nuclear program). So you have to assume that whatever the United States comes up with is going to be weaker and less effective than would be optimal. And the result will be a message to the Iranians that the downside risk of exploring such initiatives is fairly minimal. It may even end up sending a message that is the opposite of the point above — which is that the United States will not be able to response effectively even to a successful attack. My sense is that’s wrong … but let’s be clear, even considering a plot like the one revealed yesterday suggests that somebody somewhere concluded the risks associated with it were manageable and worth undertaking.
- What were the Iranians thinking?
The prior point leads directly to the core question, why would Iran undertake such a mission? Some might ask whether this was a decision taken high up in the Iranian government, but in my view that is a naïve question. The plan allegedly involved both the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its covert Quds force. These are among the most important of Iran’s institutional terror arms and a plot that would directly provoke both the United States and the Saudis would not have been undertaken without approval from senior Iranian leadership. Which means that high up in the Iranian government there are those who feel they can attack the United States and the Saudis with impunity and that they welcome the potential escalation of conflict that might bring. Whether these are radical elements seeking to achieve an internal political objective through the initiative or not, the plot suggests a degree of hubris that is worrisome to say the least. Is it fed by progress Iran is making extending its influence into Iraq, its success thus far in staving off the opposition in Syria, recent progress made by its clients in Hamas, the apparent retreat of the United States to deal with domestic economic problems? Is it the beginning of a new set of bolder initiatives? If they are willing to undertake such a mission what does it mean they may be contemplating on lower risk fronts like cyber-attacks? If they are willing to be so bold what does it mean they might do should they ever actually attain nuclear weapons capability? Whatever the answers to these questions are, there is no question but that the Iranians are emboldened and remain, as the United States has long asserted, one of the leading state-sponsors of terror.
- What does the alleged involvement of Mexican cartels in the plot imply?
It suggests that the increasing inability of the Mexican government to impose the rule of law in several important regions of the country near the U.S. border poses a more serious security risk than is commonly discussed. Taken in conjunction with other evidence of Iranian efforts to establish operational footholds in this hemisphere (see Ambassador Marc Ginsburg’s Huffington Post piece from yesterday on this), it also should suggest that security cooperation in the Americas ought to be a higher priority issue than it at least seems to be. Not that the Iranians and their scattershot and some might suggest hare-brained plans pose any kind of sustained threat to the United States of themselves. But all pockets of deeply anti- United States feeling or failed or failing states or regions in the hemisphere are certain to attract bad actors and sooner or later some plan is going to result in real damage being done. If that’s the case, the casualties won’t just be in the U.S., they will be to U.S. relations with other countries in the Americas. Imagine for a moment if a restaurant blast in DC was linked to both Iran and Mexican cartels. How high do you think that wall on the border would end up being? How hollow would Mexican government claims that "everything is under control" ring?
- What does Iran’s involvement in this plan mean for Iran’s enablers in the world? Thus far, Iran has been able to avoid feeling the real pain of sanctions targeting its nuclear program because of the explicit or tacit support of a wide variety of enablers around the world, notably those from a host of major emerging powers who may speak official words of condemnation (or not) but who continue to deal with the Iranians in ways that support the regime. Much as Putin’s efforts to undercut democracy in Russia were "a headache for the BRICs" in the words of one senior diplomat familiar close to the countries involved, so too does Iran getting caught behaving true to form produce collective egg on the face of those who have been suggesting the Iranians have been persecuted by the United States or the Israelis or other powers the world loves to hate. How would a successful attack have impacted these countries and their stance on Iran? And were it to produce a forceful response that for a while put Persian Gulf oil flows at risk, how might that have impacted not just the world economy but countries like China and India that depend increasingly on that oil? Do incidents like this move such powers closer to the role that they must ultimately play as more active protectors of global security? Do they reveal to countries like China, India and Brazil in particular that there are serious dangers associated with being too involved with or supportive of a regime as dangerous as that in Tehran?
Finally, questions aside, if the plot against the Saudi Ambassador is as it was described in yesterday’s press events and in subsequent stories, the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in detecting it and quashing it deserves national … and international …a ppreciation. Tough as the above questions are, it is clear in considering them that a successful attack would have produced much tougher questions indeed.