Obama must respond carefully on alleged Iranian assassination plot

An artist's rendering of Manssor Arbabsiar at his arraignment Tuesday at federal court in New York.

Story highlights

  • Daniel Brumberg: The odd cirumstances of the recent alleged terror plot are perplexing
  • He says alleged plotter, and connection to Mexican gangsters, Quds Forces seem unlikely
  • But Justice Dept. evidence compelling; we must wait for more information to shed light, he says
  • Brumberg: Administration must handle the politics and public response to Iran with care
Let me plead guilty to being completely perplexed by the news that two Iranians, one a naturalized U.S. citizen, and the second a Quds Forces operative, are alleged by the United States government to have conspired to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington. The Islamic Republic's leaders are ruthless "true believers," but they are neither crazy nor reckless.
The idea that they would support enlisting a used-car salesman or -- even more improbably -- that they would endorse paying $1.5 million to a Mexican drug cartel gangster, is practically inconceivable, not to mention unprecedented for the Quds Forces, which are part of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Moreover, and most importantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and allies surely grasp that to have condoned such a crazy mission would have been to flirt with committing an act of war against the United States.
Is it any wonder then that a chorus of skepticism has been heard among U.S.-based Iran watchers, including some American analysts known for taking a hard-line toward the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Still, the Department of Justice's complaint offers some compelling evidence of a real and, most of all, dangerous plot. Thus we must wonder, along with former CIA agent and author Robert Baer, that "maybe there's a radical group that wants to stir up the pot."
Yet this "rogue operations" idea is also hard to fathom. I do not know of any competent Iran analyst who would ascribe previous Iranian operations in Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Argentina to the independent actions of lower-level security operatives. What we know from previous attacks is that at some crucial point, Iran's highest leaders do weigh in. To entertain the rogue operations thesis is to assert that something fundamental has changed, not only in the way Iran's security apparatus conducts business, but also in the way Iran's leaders conduct foreign policy. And so maybe, as Baer hazards, things have indeed "fallen apart" in Tehran?
My problem is that I find this proposition equally (if not more) unlikely than the idea of Iran's leaders effectively launching a war against the United States and its Saudi allies. And so, along with many of my colleagues, I am left hoping that more light will be shed on the bizarre tale. But even if more facts are eventually presented, it is unlikely that we will ever know with certainty what Iran's leaders knew or did not know.
It is against the backdrop of such frustrating ambiguity that the Obama administration must prudently calibrate its public response to Iran. Our leaders have to play the blame game carefully. Attorney General Eric Holder seemed to indicate as much in his press conference, in which he emphasized that the U.S. complaint did not charge that Iranian top leaders had any role in the plot itself. Having avoided suggesting any such link -- at least for the time bein -- U.S. leaders are now free to take a range of diplomatic initiatives, such as calling for enhanced international sanctions, while deflecting the inevitable calls for military action against Iran.
The most likely source of such calls will be Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have good strategic and tactical reasons to make hay out of the U.S. charges. Genuinely fearful of Iran, they also surely see this as a golden opportunity to make common cause with Washington, and in so doing blur the memory of Riyadh's role in crushing Bahrain's democratic uprising.
Thus it is hardly surprising that the pro-Saudi Al-Arabiya satellite network directly blamed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the bombing plot, or that Prince Turki al-Faisal has stated that someone in Iran would have to "pay the price" for an act so "criminal in its intent" that it was "beyond description."
However understandable, we should not allow such assertions to define our policy. At best, they should be one of several factors that U.S. policy makers consider as they figure out how best to respond to this latest twist in the U.S.-Iran cold war.