Nothing's certain about Iranian plot

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been under relentless attack by Iranian conservatives.

Story highlights

  • Shireen Hunter: Iran has most to lose, rivals have everything to win from plot revelations
  • She says Iranian politics in disarray, with Iran's president under attack by conservatives
  • Hunter: Saudis, others in region, some in West want tougher U.S. stance toward Iran
  • Hunter: Iran has been wrongly and rightly accused of terror attacks in past
The United States announced a plot was foiled to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which it linked to Iran. But before passing final judgment and acting upon this information, it would be prudent to ask cui bono -- who profits from this affair? In this sense, Iran has everything to lose and its regional rivals everything to win.
At the moment, Iranian polity is more divided than ever. This is especially true regarding President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has surprised everyone by turning relatively moderate on foreign policy and offering the United States a nuclear swap deal -- again -- and by talking of the possibility of negotiations with Washington.
Ahmadinejad is under attack by conservatives, including powerful elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Fars News, which represents the views of the Guards, has been conducting a relentless campaign against him for the past year. Recent corruption charges in Iran at least partially reflect this power struggle. So it is more than conceivable that the assassination plot is part of an effort to discredit Ahmadinejad.
But at a time when Iran is under worse economic and political pressure than ever, and is desperate to avert more sanctions and military attacks, as some in the United States, Europe and the Middle East want, it's hard to believe even the Islamic Revolutionary Guards would be so stupid as to provide them with a perfect reason to do so.
Of course, this is not the first time that Iran either has been implicated in terror attacks or has been accused of being involved. The earliest of such attacks dates to the 1980s, when Iran, still in throes of revolution and war, took advantage of Lebanon's unstable conditions following the Israeli invasion of 1982 and got involved in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and hostage-taking.
Shireen Hunter
In these early operations, a mixture of revolutionary-ideological and practical considerations played a role. Some observers at the time described hostage-taking as a way to avenge both U.S.-Western support for Iraq in its war with Iran and an effort to discourage such help.
Some of these operations also reflected ideological differences within the Iranian political leadership, between the so-called radicals -- now turned reformists -- who wanted to prevent any rapprochement with the West and were keen to export revolution, and those who were more moderate and pragmatic.
During the 1990s, President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was keen to improve Iran's relations with the West. The radicals, and possibly elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who were bitter over his favoring technocrats over Muslim revolutionaries, were intent on sabotaging his efforts. For example, in July 1991, the Iranian vice president announced that several European heads of states were to visit Iran. But, in just the next month, the Shah of Iran's last prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar, was assassinated in Paris, preventing such visits. And in December 1992, separatist Kurdish leaders in Berlin were assassinated in a restaurant called Mikonos.
A German judge implicated Iran's minister of intelligence and even Rafsanjani himself in this Berlin assassination, largely on the testimony of Iran's former president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr. This raises the question why Rafsanjani, who wanted to improve relations with the West, would engage in acts that were certain to ruin stronger ties. One answer is that his domestic and foreign enemies conducted these killings to sabotage him.
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Iran also has been accused of attacks that were later discovered to be the work of others, such as the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996. The United States and Saudi Arabia insisted that Iran was responsible, and only the election of Mohammad Khatami as Iranian president averted a military strike against Iran. Later, in 2007, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said in an interview that al Qaeda, rather than Iran, was responsible.
Given this history, it is not impossible that some other interests might have been involved in the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. The plot provides the perfect nexus between nuclear weapons and terrorism, which could justify even military strikes against Iran. This would please many Arabs, notably Saudi Arabia, which has been calling for such a strike for some time, along with other states in the region and those hawks against Iran in the United States and Europe.
Saudi Arabia is in fierce competition with Iran in the Middle East and South Asia. It would be particularly pleased by a toughening of U.S. attitudes toward Iran.
If one assumes even a modicum of rationality on the part of Iranian actors, a plot such as this is totally ruinous for Iran. On the other hand, Iranian factions can be reckless with the nation's interests in their game of power, and there is a temptation to think that one won't get caught. An Iranian plot certainly is one of the possibilities. But until all the facts are in and clarified, nothing is absolutely certain.