If Iran really is behind a plan to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, its capabilities and strategic acumen are far less impressive than anything we've seen thus far.
- By Afshon OstovarAfshon Ostovar is the author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and an assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. All views expressed are his own.
Details remain sketchy on the alleged Iranian-sponsored plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States. U.S. officials have linked elements of Iran’s Quds Force — a special branch of the Revolutionary Guards military organization — to the scheme, but have not clearly identified to what extent Iran’s leadership was involved (as one anonymous official admitted to the Washington Post, "We don’t have specific knowledge" that the head of the Quds Force was involved). Without knowing further details, it is hard to fathom why Iran would pursue such an attack or how this action would advance Iran’s core strategic interests.
Since the 1979 revolution that brought the Islamic Republic to power, Iran’s overriding concern has been for its regime’s survival. Iran’s leaders initially feared that the United States would sponsor a counterrevolution and reinstall the Pahlavi monarchy. Although many aspects of the Islamic Republic have changed since the early days of the revolution, fear of the United States remains the central driving force in all of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. Iranian authorities see pro-democratic activism inside its borders and mounting international sanctions targeting its nuclear program as only the latest U.S.-backed attempts to undo the Islamic Revolution and return Iran to the servitude of foreign imperialism.
In the last decade, Iran’s strategy for survival has largely focused on preventing outright conflict with the United States. While defending its revolutionary system from domestic pressures remains at the forefront of the regime’s agenda, it is the prospect of U.S. military intervention that most concerns Iran’s clerical and military leaders. Nearly everything Iran does in the international arena is driven by such fears. In the diplomatic realm, Iran relies on the support of partners such as Russia and China as a counterweight to the United States and the European Union; less diplomatically, Iran’s support of foreign militant groups affords the country a role in regional affairs it wouldn’t otherwise have. By maintaining strong ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, for instance, Iran has become a player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a position that grants Iran exaggerated influence in the region and a point of leverage in dealing with the United States, Israel, and Arab neighbors.
The bulk of Iran’s extraterritorial activities are entrusted to the Quds Force, which was established after the Iran-Iraq War. Under the direction of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the Quds Force took over the portfolio of the erstwhile Office of Liberation Movements (OLM), which had been established in the early days of the Islamic Republic to support foreign revolutionary and liberation organizations, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. Despite its ambitious purview, the OLM was hamstrung by a lack of government funding and interest. The Iran-Iraq War dominated the attention and efforts of Iran’s leadership, which left only a smattering of radicals to take charge of the office and its limited activities in the region. By the time the office was absorbed into the Quds Force, it had only been successful in establishing client networks in Lebanon, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.
But the Quds Force was never meant to replace the OLM. Instead of a government office engaged in advancing the goals of foreign revolutionary groups, the Quds Force was organized as a military division specializing in foreign operations geared toward advancing Iran’s strategic agenda. Similar to U.S. special-operations forces, the Quds Force works alongside foreign groups, providing them varying forms of training, military materiel, and financial support. Quds Force members are said to be chosen from the Revolutionary Guards’ most promising soldiers. They are highly trained in tradecraft and military tactics and are fluent in at least one foreign language. Reliable details on the Quds Force’s size do not exist, but estimates of its number of personnel typically vary between 5,000 and 15,000.
The relative effectiveness of the Quds Force is as much a testament to the division’s professionalism as it is to the limited scope of its activities. The Quds Force is active in many countries, but the bulk of its missions are confined to funneling weapons to groups like Hamas, providing logistical support and facilitating training for Iraqi Shiite militant groups, and as has been claimed by U.S. military officials, possibly transferring explosive devices to insurgents in Afghanistan. The Quds Force was also involved in the sectarian and anti-coalition violence that ravaged Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and was implicated by U.S. military officials in violent operations such as the 2007 kidnapping and murder of five U.S. soldiers in Karbala. In the 1990s, the Quds Force, along with elements associated with Lebanese Hezbollah, were also linked to terrorist bombings in Argentina and Saudi Arabia, but the evidence for Iran’s role in these attacks is sketchy and Iran has strongly denied any involvement.
In all these activities, the Quds Force has relied on its strong relationships with allied proxy groups and trusted militant networks. Its success in these operations has depended on not only the reliability of its partners, but also to a large extent on overlapping political and ideological interests. It is not a coincidence that the Quds Force works almost exclusively with individuals and organizations that have had long-standing ties with Iran’s senior leadership and Revolutionary Guards commanders.
Given the Quds Force’s modus operandi, it is odd that its commanders would entrust an unprecedentedly brazen attack against a foreign diplomat on U.S. soil to a former used-car salesman and Mexican drug-cartel hit men. Manssor Arbabsiar, the Iranian expatriate at the center of the plot, bears no resemblance to a covert operative, and any personal or familial connections he may have with Quds Force commanders does not explain his apparent role in facilitating the operation. The Quds Force also has no known connections with Mexican drug cartels, and enlisting them to carry out the terrorist attack runs counter to the Quds Force’s established pattern of working with long-standing, trusted contacts.
Finally, and perhaps most puzzlingly, the plot does not seem to fit Iran’s larger strategic objectives, whether regarding its relations with the United States, its relations with Saudi Arabia, or its relations with the international community. It makes little sense that Iranian authorities would choose such a drastic, extreme measure at this time, especially when such an act would do little to advance Iran’s prevailing goals, would assuredly provoke a harsh response by the United States, and would further tarnish Iran’s already poor global reputation. No matter how one looks at it, it is difficult to imagine how such an act would not severely jeopardize the security of the Iranian regime. If maintaining power and stability is what is driving Iran’s current leadership, such an attack would be of no apparent value.
Although U.S. officials have acknowledged the far-fetched aspects of this story (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even said, "The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder for hire to kill the Saudi ambassador — nobody could make that up, right?"), they have also consistently claimed that senior Iranian leaders and Quds Force commanders were aware of the plot. If true, this would be a gross misstep by Iran’s leaders. It would also mean that the same strand of belligerent radicalism that drove Iran’s support for terrorism in the 1980s remains an active component of the strategic thinking of Iran’s top military commanders and clerical authorities. The good news, if there is any, is that the Quds Force’s well-earned reputation for competence would be utterly shattered.