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"Not Even Iran Could Be This Clumsy"

In this sketch, Judge Michael Dolinger presides over the arraignment of Manssor Arbabsiar at Manhattan federal court, Oct. 11, 2011. Two people, including a member of Iran's Quds Force, were charged with targeting a Saudi diplomat.
AP Photo

"Not Even Iran Could Be This Clumsy"

Op-Ed, The Boston Globe

October 24, 2011

Author: Juliette Kayyem, Belfer Lecturer in Inernational Security, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security


IíLL BEGIN with the obvious: I have no idea, nor does most of the world, whether top leaders of the Iranian regime actually plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. The scheme revealed by the US Justice Department earlier this month was so bizarre, amateurish, and brazen that itís hard to believe that even Iran would be so clumsy.

As the Obama administration pursues a multinational effort to slap additional sanctions on Iran, thunderous rhetoric has escalated. The growing calls for more actions against Iran are premature but predictable. They also play into the hands of Iranian hard-liners whose own struggle for survival solely depends on US belligerence.

So, here we go again. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol has called the plot "an engraved invitation to use force." Speculating from the less-than-definitive Justice Department complaint that the Iranian government was in on the plan (or perhaps disclosing classified information he was privy to), House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King called it an "act of war." Senator John McCain condemned the proposed sanctions program as too weak in light of Iran's clear use of terror. House Speaker John Boehner wants to hold "Iran's feet to the fire."

The danger of the public demands for "more, more, more" action without definitive statements of what the "more" actually entails ó missile strikes? assassination attempts? ó is surely known by even the most hawkish critics of Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Just what does "feet to the fire" actually mean? The consequences of a military strike, by us or Israel, which rightly views Iranian nuclear ambitions as an existential threat, are not too difficult to imagine. Iran's conservative regime will have found its own perfect provocation for war in the form of enemy aggression. Even Meir Daga, the former Israeli Mossad chief, said earlier this year that an Israeli Air Force attack on Iran would be "the stupidest thing I have ever heard."

This chest-thumping is all built around a very confusing series of allegations surrounding a 56-year-old US citizen who is a used car salesman and holds an Iranian passport (the alleged middleman), a DEA agent posing as a member of a Mexican drug cartel (the would-be assassin), and a few members of the elite Iranian covert action group, the Quds Force (the alleged masterminds).

Let's not take the bait.

Political dynamics within Iran are more complicated than the veils of secrecy that seem to cover its political establishment. While it might be very manly for American hawks to strut their stuff (and denounce the Obama administration in the process), such talk only bolsters the position within Iran of the notorious Revolutionary Guard and its supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iranian hard-liners are looking at their neighbors and seeing a very confusing landscape. Their best friend and sometime puppet, Syria's Assad regime, is holding on for dear life. The Saudi regime, Iran's bitter enemy, is preserving its regional influence: It ensured the neighboring Bahrain monarchy did not fall by sending in troops in February. It also saved Yemeni President Ali Saleh's life when he fled to Riyadh for medical treatment. Should Saleh fall, the Saudis have been playing the field; they are also supporting Salehís main antagonist, the Islah party.

What does the Iranian regime, whose own stability was undermined by the 2009 Green Revolution, have to hold on to power? Fear, brutality, Islamic nationalism ó but, mostly, the bogeyman known as the United States.

In this light, the plot that landed in a small district court in New York could be more strategic than it looks: Iran could be baiting its own critics. When Obama minimized war talk by calling the plot a mere violation of international law, how very annoying that must have been to the Iranian regime.

Instead of calling for military action to replace slow diplomatic efforts, Obama is using the case to justify harsher diplomatic efforts. Until more facts are disclosed, the true nature of Iran's intentions are merely subject for speculation. Was it an assassination attempt? Was it a ruse? Was it a crazy overreach by low-level officials? Until we know more, tougher economic sanctions are justified, while rumors about the stability of the regime and its control over subordinates can flourish. In any case, US interest is being served.

Unless, of course, we do "more."


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

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For Academic Citation:

Kayyem, Juliette. "Not Even Iran Could Be This Clumsy." The Boston Globe, October 24, 2011.

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