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The Iran plot: How should the U.S. retaliate?

Yesterday’s news of the Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir is stunning. Among other things, following on the recent case of the Iranian pastor facing execution only for his Christian faith, this plot provides further evidence of the multifaceted malevolence of the Iranian regime. The details of the plot ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
/AFP/Getty Images
/AFP/Getty Images
/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday's news of the Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir is stunning. Among other things, following on the recent case of the Iranian pastor facing execution only for his Christian faith, this plot provides further evidence of the multifaceted malevolence of the Iranian regime. The details of the plot also display the Iranian strategic game in its brazenness and morbid sophistication. In this case the plan involved an unprecedented targeting of American soil, a simultaneous blow against two of Iran's enemies, the United States and Saudi Arabia, and further heightening of tensions with our troubled southern neighbor, Mexico.

The Obama administration has announced retaliatory sanctions, and is weighing options for a further U.S. measures. America's response should have at least two dimensions: an effective tactical retaliation and a strategic countermove.

What kind of retaliation? As Ken Pollack points out, Iran considers itself to be at war with the United States, and in as it calculates its offensive moves, Tehran "may no longer be concerned about a massive American conventional military retaliation." In this case, the Obama administration's response thus far of announcing additional sanctions is necessary but insufficient. Depending on what the investigation reveals, a military response should at least be considered among the options. One possibility could be targeted strikes against Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) training camps inside Iran. This would also have the advantage of punishing the same entities responsible for killing American troops in Iraq, and supplying munitions to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yesterday’s news of the Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir is stunning. Among other things, following on the recent case of the Iranian pastor facing execution only for his Christian faith, this plot provides further evidence of the multifaceted malevolence of the Iranian regime. The details of the plot also display the Iranian strategic game in its brazenness and morbid sophistication. In this case the plan involved an unprecedented targeting of American soil, a simultaneous blow against two of Iran’s enemies, the United States and Saudi Arabia, and further heightening of tensions with our troubled southern neighbor, Mexico.

The Obama administration has announced retaliatory sanctions, and is weighing options for a further U.S. measures. America’s response should have at least two dimensions: an effective tactical retaliation and a strategic countermove.

What kind of retaliation? As Ken Pollack points out, Iran considers itself to be at war with the United States, and in as it calculates its offensive moves, Tehran "may no longer be concerned about a massive American conventional military retaliation." In this case, the Obama administration’s response thus far of announcing additional sanctions is necessary but insufficient. Depending on what the investigation reveals, a military response should at least be considered among the options. One possibility could be targeted strikes against Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) training camps inside Iran. This would also have the advantage of punishing the same entities responsible for killing American troops in Iraq, and supplying munitions to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is not the case that the assassination attack would have to have actually been carried out to justify a kinetic response. For example, in 1993 the United States uncovered a plot by Saddam Hussein to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush, and the Clinton Administration appropriately retaliated with cruise missile strikes against Iraqi Intelligence headquarters.

There remains some question about whether this Quds Force operation was authorized at the highest levels of the Iranian Government, specifically by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. It is very likely that Khameini did know. But even if he did not — even if this was overseen by "rogue elements" of the Quds Force — a strong response is warranted for the simple reason that Tehran is responsible for creating, equipping, and supporting the IRGC, and must be held accountable for its actions.

To be sure, there are also ample reasons to argue against a military response at this time, and the United States must be equally careful about gratuitous escalation and unforeseen consequences. But the severity of this threat is significant enough, particularly in what it reveals about Tehran’s new strategic calculations about its latitude to target the United States, that we at least consider a kinetic retaliation among the options.

Perhaps more important will be the strategic dimension of the American response, and here the priority should be using this incident to shift the strategic momentum against Iran. As if any more evidence was needed why this regime cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability, this is it. The American strategic countermove should include repairing the frayed U.S.-Saudi relationship, bringing Turkey back in alignment with the United States and against Iran, stepping up multilateral pressure on Iran’s ally the Assad regime in Damascus, reinforcing our support for the embattled Calderon government in Mexico, and making a renewed effort to enlist Chinese and Russian pressure against Iran on multiple fronts.

While the Russia "re-set" has thus far been oversold, here is a chance to get the Russians to deliver some results. China and Russia’s double-veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria last week was as beneficial to Iran as it was to Syria. With this latest plot so brazenly targeted at our capital city, Iran has now overreached so far that Russia and China’s hedging policy of playing both sides is no longer viable. Beijing and Moscow must now realize that any further support or cover they provide to Tehran amounts to a direct alignment against the core interests and security of the United States.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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