U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, left, announce the foiling of a terror plot Tuesday.

Story highlights

Frida Ghitis: Alleged Iran terror plot could have been disastrous

She says Saudis, Israelis could have initiated hostilities in response

Ghitis says the U.S. could ill afford to become involved in another war

She says incident shows how volatile the divisions are in the Middle East

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of “The End of Revolution: a Changing World in the Age of Live Television.”

CNN  — 

The last thing Washington needs now is another war. But accusations by U.S. officials that Iran was plotting a series of assassinations – terrorist attacks – on U.S. soil show just how quickly and suddenly America could find itself facing the wrenching decision about whether to enter yet another armed conflict in the Middle East.

The alleged Iranian plot revealed by Attorney General Eric Holder was a plan to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, in a public place, potentially inflicting massive civilian casualties. Officials said the plotters discussed following up later by bombing the Israeli and Saudi Embassies in Washington, and possibly the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina as well.

When one tries to understand what or who would stand behind such a plot, the most startling realization is just how many rivalries, enmities and divisions are simmering in today’s Middle East, and how many of them could easily boil over, becoming full-blown cross-border, even regional wars that could spill far beyond the Middle East.

Frida Ghitis

The Iranian plot was allegedly hatched this spring. That was a time when Saudi Arabia, the long-time Sunni rival of Shiite Iran, was sending tanks into neighboring Bahrain, helping the unelected rulers of that tiny kingdom suppress a popular uprising, part of the so-called Arab Spring. It was an uprising that enjoyed strong support from Iran. Sectarian divisions within Bahrain complicated the calls for democracy there, threatening to turn the island-state into a proxy for a confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran.

But spring was also the time of a fierce power struggle inside Iran’s government, pitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the country’s clerics, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Washington says the terror plot was planned by Iranian officials. It charges that members of the Quds Force, elite members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, directed the operation. The IRGC, responsible for protecting the regime and spreading the Islamic revolution, and its Quds force are loyal to the supreme leader. It is conceivable that the operation could have been planned without the knowledge of Ahmadinejad. Internal rivalries in Iran could have played a role. So could fears that the Islamic Republic’s key ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was coming under intense pressure to relinquish power, potentially dealing a harsh blow to Iran’s regional strategic position.

Iran denies the charges, calling them an American “fabrication.” And it’s worth noting that the U.S. government affidavit claims Iranian agents Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri thought they were dealing with Mexican drug gang members to carry out the assassination. That would be a departure from Tehran’s usual modus operandi.

The charges may sounds farfetched, but Iran has a track record of daring international terrorist operations. It tends, however, to keep them in the family. In 1992 and 1994, Argentina suffered its worst terrorist attacks. The first, a bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killed 29 and wounded more than 240. Two years later, the bombing of a Jewish community center killed 85 and injured hundreds more. Argentine investigators are convinced that Iran masterminded the attacks and its allied Lebanese militia Hezbollah carried them out. Interpol has issued arrest warrants for five Iranians and one Lebanese in that case.

Perhaps in this plot, Hezbollah declined to participate, fearing a direct confrontation with the U.S.

If Iran indeed planned to carry out the attacks Washington accuses it of organizing, the world has averted what could have become a cataclysmic conflict.

The affidavit says Iranian agents considered high numbers of American casualties to be acceptable collateral damage. But even if no Americans had died, the consequences would have been disastrous.

Saudi Arabia would have responded with fury to the assassination of its top international envoy and to the attacks on its embassies. And then there’s Israel. If Iranian agents had bombed Israeli Embassies, as the affidavit claims they planned to do, there is little doubt that a ferocious war would have broken out.

For years the U.S., Israel, Arab countries and much of the Western world have worried about Iran’s nuclear aspirations. If successful, these terrorist attacks would have converted those worries into open warfare.

President Obama would have had his “3 o’clock in the morning call,” telling him of war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Iran and Israel, or perhaps all three, and their allies, in the heart of the oil-producing Middle East. The president would have had to decide whether the U.S. would enter another major conflict on the side of America’s allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The plot, if true, was apparently thwarted. But the risks to the people of the Middle East, to America, and to the rest of the world are far from over, even if the timing could not possibly be more inconvenient.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.