On Tuesday, the US Justice Department accused ‘agents of the Iranian government of being involved in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, with help from a purported member of a Mexican drug cartel.’
This warning came as ABC News, citing an unnamed official, reported that the plot also included ‘plans to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington, as well as those belonging to Saudi Arabia and Israel in Buenos Aires, Argentina.’
The success of the US case against Iran will clearly depend on the quality of the evidence that the US government has at its disposal. Certainly, if this evidence is found wonting, and the case against the two suspects being held — an Iranian American and an Iranian Quds Force officer — is thrown out, it would be a major blow to the credibility of US law enforcement agencies as well as the US government.
Looking ahead, what if the US government should be able to prove its case, including allegations of a plan to hit the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires? This would undoubtedly show the Iranian leadership's continued commitment to a tried and tested strategy. After all, Iran has been accused of being behind the 1992 suicide attack against Israel's embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people and injured 242. Meanwhile, Interpol has issued arrest warrants against Iranian officials over their alleged involvement in the AMIA bombing, which took place in Buenos Aires in 1994.
But concrete evidence that Iran was planning to strike in Washington as claimed would mark the opening of a whole new chapter in Iran’s dealings with the United States and Saudi Arabia.
For a start, it could mean that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority for permitting attacks of this nature, is willing to go further than simply hurting US and Saudi interests through proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. This would set a new precedent, as Iran previously shied from launching operations against US and Saudi interests on their own soil.
Yet there’s another, somewhat intriguing possibility. Could elements within the Iranian government or security establishment have planned this attack, without Khamenei's knowledge in order to hurt him and his regime? On the surface, at least, this seems unlikely. However, details of the US claims certainly suggest that the idea isn’t completely without merit. Why? Because according to the Justice Department, Arabisar, who the US government has accused of being connected to the Iranian government, is supposed to have wired $100,000 to the US undercover agent whom he thought would carry out the hit against the Saudi Ambassador.
But this would be extremely sloppy and unprofessional work by a government that has, over the years, become adept at hiding its tracks. Why would Khamenei make himself and his regime so vulnerable by wiring money directly? Why wouldn't Iranian security officials use third parties operating through third countries?
As crazy as the Iranian regime can sound through its rhetoric, when it comes to protecting its interests, it‘s essentially rational and careful. Iran knows that it can’t afford a war against the United States. It also knows that further deterioration could mean more sanctions and further isolation, both of which would hurt the regime’s ability to sustain itself at home. This is more important to Khamenei's interests right now than the elimination of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington.
The fact is that looking at Khamenei's background, such a reckless initiative as the one he is accused of is almost too radical, the costs too high for his regime. This is why it seems at least plausible that elements within the Iranian regime could have orchestrated this to hurt him, with the goal of eventually pushing him out of power.
The Iranian regime is already fractured, and the business interests of many officials are being undermined by Khamenei's nuclear policies. Meanwhile, the children of former officials such as Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi, are reportedly in jail because of their opposition to the regime. Anyone who wants to hurt Khamenei from within would have plenty of reason to undertake such an initiative, especially as it would ultimately tar the supreme leader.
The Iranian government has been a sponsor of terrorism for many years. But this claim is truly extraordinary. If true, Khamenei has either been extremely reckless, or is being set up by opposing elements within his regime. Time, and the evidence presented in court, will help us get close to the answer.
First published in the-diplomat.com.
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian - Israeli Middle East analyst and the co-author of 'The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran'. He runs the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (meepas) from its offices in Tel Aviv, Israel.
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