By Paul Rogers, cross-posted from openDemocracy
The Arab awakening of 2011 has to a degree refocused international
attention away from Iran. A number of current developments, most
prominently the allegation that a high-level official in Tehran was
involved in a plot
to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, is now exposing
Iran's regime to renewed scrutiny. The suspicion and hostility that
marks the political relationship between Iran and the United States mean
that this shift may have very serious implications.
The indictment issued
on 11 October 2011 by a federal court in New York against two men -
Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American (and US citizen, arrested on 29
September), and Gholam Shakuri, a senior figure in the elite Qods Force
of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] - states that the murder
plan originated in Iran and got as far as approaching (and paying a
first instalment to) a would-be assassin linked to a Mexican drug-cartel. The belief, drawing on the testimony of Arbabsiar, is that the perpetrators intended (inter alia) to explode a bomb in a restaurant where the target was dining, which would almost certainly have killed other people.
The Barack Obama administration has reacted to the news by calling for intensified United Nations sanctions
against Iran, on top of those already imposed on account of Tehran's
nuclear-energy programme and the uncertainties over its exact purpose.
The secretary of state Hillary Clinton describes
the operation as "a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government's
longstanding use of political violence and sponsorship of terrorism".
Iran strenuously denies any role in what it regards as based on a
fiction concocted by the country's adversaries. The affair is thus already becoming another episode in an enduring pattern of enmity between the two states.
is as yet little substantive detail on an investigation that US federal
agencies had apparently been pursuing for four months. Some of the
alleged plot elements are odd, not least an amateurish approach that is untypical of the IRGC - as in the supposed hiring of a drug-gang associate who turned out to be a federal informant (see Joby Warrick, "Investigators initially doubted plot had Iran ties", Washington Post 12 October 2011).
The logic of confrontation
Washington shows every degree of confidence that it can justify the charge of senior Iranian participation in an actual operation. If the available information proves
to be accurate, this raises two questions: how senior were those in
Tehran behind the plan, and what does this and their involvement reveal
about the current political context in Iran?
Iran's power-structures are
factional and rivalrous. There has for some years been regular
jockeying for position and prestige, a situation that long preceded the
presidential election of 2009 which gave rise to huge street-protests.
The regime's crackdown on the reformist tendencies that came to prominence
then has now been followed by a new phase of barely concealed
intra-elite manouevring between the various camps (see Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: an elite at war", 27 May 2011).
The IRGC, which established its reputation during the destructive Iran-Iraq war
(1980-88), is a vital part of the regime's armoury. It is close to
being "a state within a state", in that it both has powerful and
autonomous economic interests activities and is determined to present
itself ideologically as the truest guardian of the revolution
of 1979. This image is becoming harder to uphold in a situation where
millions of young Iranians have little interest in distant heroics and
are more concerned with the difficult realities of their present.
Revolutionary Guards need an enemy to justify their purpose and project
their legitimacy. The Americans filled this role with the abrasive rhetoric
of the George W Bush administration against Iran following 9/11, and
the invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave Tehran no reason to change its
attitude. A number of mini-crises in the years since, especially over Iran's nuclear plans, has always found the IRGC among the most combative of Iran's power-centres.
the regional environment is changing, and with accelerating speed. Most
US troops are now leaving Iraq; several Arab regimes hostile to Iran
have collapsed in the face of largely non-violent uprisings, and others
(including Iran's ally, Syria) are threatened; Iran's Shi'a co-religionists are at the forefront of protest (and the prime targets of repression) in Bahrain; of the Arab states only Saudi Arabia, now also determined to subdue dissent among the Shi'a of the eastern region, presents a strong diplomatic challenge to Iran (as does Turkey).
combination - the IRGC's rooted sense of self-interest and destiny, and
a new geopolitical context where many strategic calculations are under
review - suggests that what may underlie the Washington plot is the
desire of elements within the IRGC to justify its own continued
importance and relevance. A serious crisis, one that might even spill
over into war, would certainly satisfy that requirement.
Washington plot may thus turn out to be a deliberate provocation
intended to incite a US response. There is an echo here of the argument
of some analysts that al-Qaida conducted the 9/11 attacks in order to
lure the "far enemy" into Afghanistan, and then mire it in an unwinnable
war (as the Soviet Union had been in the 1980s). How far ahead the IRGC
has calculated, if this is indeed part of its logic, it is at present
impossible to say.
The new ingredients
irrespective of the validity of this analysis, three further
substantial points need to be factored in. The first is that the more
hawkish foreign-policy voices and figures in Washington have alighted
on the assassination plot with enthusiasm, for two reasons. It confirms
their critique of Iran as the leading regional foe of the US - the pivot of the "axis of evil"; and the timing is very good in electoral terms.
The presidential-election campaign for 2012 is gathering pace.
There will be great pressure on Republican candidates to take a very
hard line against Iran, and the contenders will be drawn to outbid each
other over what robust action is needed. Indeed, a political sense of
the need to appear patriotic and not be outflanked may well inform the Obama administration's reaction to the plot.
The second point, which applies to both sides in the domestic American debate, is the growing US concern
over the independence of Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad. This
does not automatically translate into excessive Iranian influence, for
the Iraqis are conscious of their own distinct religious history and not
amenable to manipulation (see Tim Arango, "Vacuum is Feared as U.S. Quits Iraq, but Iran's Deep Influence May Not Fill It", New York Times, 9
October 2011). But it is troubling to Washington that the Iraqi prime
minister and his foreign-affairs officials have offered support to the
Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, effectively siding with the Iranians
on this issue (see Joby Warrick, "Iraq, siding with Iran, sends essential aid to Syria's Assad", Washington Post, 9 October 2011).
It is relevant here that a signal if unacknowledged aim of terminating the Saddam Hussein
regime in 2003 was to establish a pro-American order in Iraq in
parallel with a similarly pliant government in Kabul. These, along with
the US navy's fifth fleet, would (it was believed) constrain Iran.
Instead, the overall outcome of the decade's intervention for Iran - for
all the latter's internal problems - has been to strengthen rather than
weaken its regional position. Iraq's support for al-Assad is a specific
The third point concerns Iran's nuclear programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
has in recent weeks been more forthright in its concern over Iran's
nuclear programme; the IAEA's former deputy director, Olli Neinonen,
says that Iran could reach a state of "breakout" with enough highly
enriched uranium by the end of 2012 (see "The Iranians 'Tricked and Misled Us'", Spiegel Online, 10 October 2011). This would not in itself entail a direct nuclear-weapons capability, but it would mean that the potential for that can be realised within months.
does not advocate a military strike; neither, as far as can be judged,
does the Obama administration. But other influential voices in
Washington, and some senior figures in Israel, do (see "Israel vs Iran: the risk of war", 11 June 2010).
The next phase
alignment of the murder plot, the nuclear issue, international
sanctions, and the changing regional enviroment suggests that a move is
underway towards another period of potential clash of arms with Iran.
such periods, crises can quickly erupt and escalate in uncontrollable
fashion. The possibility of a military confrontation between the United
States (or Israel) and Iran is one such danger (see "The next Iran war" [16 February 2006]; "America and Iran: the spark of war" [20 September 2007]; and "Iran, America, Israel: the nuclear gamble" [2 October 2009]).
a significant group within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps really
has been preparing a violent and brutal attack within the United
States, knowing that its action will make outright war a real prospect, then this danger
will be harder than ever to contain. All the more reason for the US not
to give the group what it wants. This will require astute and
far-sighted leadership in Washington. In the event of a real crisis in
the coming months, a persuasive argument for a constructive and peaceful
resolution that avoids the catastrophe of a new war must be made at the