- The Obama administration mistakenly believes it can exploit the Iran-Saudi assassination plot
- U.S. officials are likely playing to Iran's advantage, not America's
- Tehran seeks to defend itself through proxy allies across the region, not war
- Iran is confident that some Arab Spring regime changes will work to Tehran's advantage
Calls by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to "unite the world in the isolation of and dealing with the Iranians," in response to an alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia's Ambassador in Washington, reflect a hubristic misapprehension of reality. The Obama Administration mistakenly believes it can exploit the accusations for strategic advantage. In fact, they are likely to play to Iran's advantage, not America's.
The U.S. foreign policy community profoundly misunderstands the Islamic Republic's national security strategy. The Islamic Republic seeks to defend itself not primarily by conventional military power, in which it is deficient, but by forging ties to proxy allies around the region—actors with the ability to affect on-the-ground outcomes in key regional settings who are inclined to cooperate with Tehran.
In some cases, these actors are discrete political movements, often with paramilitary capabilities—e.g., Hizballah in Lebanon and Shi'a political parties cum militias in Iraq. In other situations, Tehran sees public opinion as its chief ally. By contrasting some regimes' cooperation with the United States and Israel with its own posture of "resistance" to American and Israeli ambitions to regional hegemony, Tehran cultivates "soft power" across the Middle East.
Iran conceives its strategy, especially in a period of relative decline in America's standing, as one that constrains unfriendly regimes in the short term and undermines them in the longer term. Over the last decade, it has helped the Islamic Republic reap significant political and strategic gains in important theaters across the Middle East—Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine. With the advent of the Arab awakening at the end of last year, Iranian decision-makers are confident that some Arab states' shift toward governments more reflective of their peoples' attitudes and concerns—and, hence, more inclined to pursue more independent foreign policies vis-à-vis the United States and Israel—will work to Iran's advantage. Iranian policymakers correctly calculated that virtually any successor to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq would be a net positive for Iranian interests. Now, they calculate that a successor to the Mubarak regime in Egypt is bound to be less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States and Israel and more receptive to Iran's message of resistance.
Iran's strategy toward Saudi Arabia runs very much along these lines. Tehran's approach is to highlight Saudi collusion with Washington and (at least indirectly) with Israel on important regional issues, thereby attracting support from ordinary Saudis—not just Saudi Shi'a but also Sunnis who dislike their government's pro-American stance.
In the short term, Iran seeks to constrain the Saudi government from cooperating in military strikes or other coercive actions against it by making this an unpopular prospect for much of the Saudi population. In the longer term, Iran is working to transform the regional balance of power from one in which the United States, the Saudis, and other American allies dominate to one in which American, Israeli, and Saudi influence is marginalized by the diplomatic realignment of Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey, post-Saddam Iraq, and now Egypt.
The Saudi leadership tries to push back by portraying Iran as an "alien", Shi'a/Persian element in its environment. At times, this helps the Kingdom hold the line against the Islamic Republic's soft power offensive. But the long-term trend is toward rising Iranian influence. In this context, the notion of an Iranian government plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States simply has no logic.
History also suggests we treat the Obama Administration's claims of Iranian government complicity with deep skepticism. For eight years, during 1980-1988, the fledgling Islamic Republic had to defend itself against a war of aggression launched by Saddam Husayn—a war of aggression financed primarily by Saudi Arabia. Nearly 300,000 Iranians were killed in that war. But, during the entire conflict, the Iranian government never targeted a single Saudi anywhere in the world.
This is not because the Islamic Republic loves the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is because Iran's national security strategy ultimately depends on appealing to the Saudi public not to support attacks against Iran, by harnessing popular anger over Israeli actions and U.S. overreach in the war on terror. Killing a Saudi Ambassador would have exactly the opposite effect. Whatever Mansour Ababsiar and his cousin may have talked about, it is wholly implausible that the Iranian leadership decided that this was a smart thing to do.
The Obama Administration's calls for more concerted action against Iran will ultimately backfire—because they will be seen in most of the Muslim world (outside Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab monarchies closely linked to Saudi Arabia) as the United States yet again leveling dubious life-and-death charges as the pretext to contain or even eliminate another Muslim power. President Obama, his advisers, and all Americans need to ask themselves if this is really the time to bring the United States even closer to another Middle East war fought in blind defiance of the region's strategic realities.