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Breakdown of Iranian attempted assassination of Saudi official on US soil

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This morning (Australian time), US Attorney-General Eric Holder announced that two men have been charged with attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US and, more significantly, doing so on behalf of the Iranian government. The two men were Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalised US citizen of Iranian origin, and Gholam Shakuri, who is believed to be in Iran. Incredibly, Arbabsiar cooperated with the US authorities once arrested and so much of the information on the assassination plot was collected from his testimony.

Naturally, the Iranian government has denied the allegations and blamed a Zionist conspiracy.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called the claims a "prefabricated scenario" and a "ridiculous show."

"These old-fashioned behaviors are based on the long-standing hostile American-Zionist policies and are ridiculous show in line with scenarios to provoke division," the semiofficial Fars news agency quoted Mehmanparast as saying Tuesday.

The plot

According to the affidavit for the charges (which can be viewed HERE), the plot was orchestrated by the Qods Force, a highly secretive arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which conducts elite covert operations overseas.

A fascinating aspect of the operation, as well as the one that eventually led to its discovery, was that the Iranian agents attempted to procure an assassin from a well known shady Mexican drug cartel. Arbabsiar happened to be connected with a cartel operative who had been acting as an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Agency - it was this informant who revealed the plot to US authorities. The affidavit contains a chilling account of Arbabsiar and the potential assassin formulating their plan of action. The assassin was to kill the ambassador in a restaurant that he frequented and, as Arbabsiar made clear, it was not a matter of significant concern to the Iranians if the other patrons of the restaurant were also killed as "collateral damage".

[It d]oesn't matter how you do it. I mean, if you do it by yourself, kill is better, but ... sometimes, you know, you have no choice ... They want the guy done [killed]. If the hundred go with him, f**k 'em.

The assassination was set to cost the Iranians $1.5 million, $100,000 of which had been transferred into an account in the US. There were also further plots that were supposedly planned to follow this one.

Analysis and response

Iran expert Michael Rubin has pointed out that this assassination plot is not an isolated event. While this is on a larger scale than previous assassinations, Iran has for years been going after Iranian dissidents in foreign countries.

The Washington Post's Jerry Markon has suggested that Ambassador Jubeir is of particular renown as a symbol of Saudi ties with the West.

Jubeir, 49, is one of the best-known Saudi figures in the West and among the most powerful foreign policymakers outside the royal family. The son of a Saudi diplomat, he speaks fluent German and virtually unaccented American English. A political science and economic graduate from the University of North Texas, he also holds a master's degree in international relations from Georgetown University.

He first appeared as a spokesman for the Saudi government during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and quickly became known as a foreign policy adviser to then-Crown Prince Abdullah, with particular influence on policy toward the United States. When it became known that the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks were carried out by Saudi citizens, Jubeir was dispatched to Washington to represent the kingdom's interests before the American public and policymakers. He became ambassador the the United States in 2007.

Furthermore, according to The Atlantic's Steve Clemons, al-Jubeir was a very high profile target for the Iranians as he is a high-ranking member of the Saudi regime.

Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir is not a member of the Saudi royal family but is widely considered to be the closest national security adviser and confidant to King Abdullah. Al-Jubeir is constantly flying between Riyadh and Washington and wherever the Saudi King is as the King constantly calls on him for counsel and advice -- and thus al-Jubeir is far more than just an Ambassador.

Max Fischer, another Atlantic writer, points out that, uncharacteristically for the Iranians, the assassination attempt would be an act that damages Iranian strategic interests.

The Iranian leadership, for all their twisted human rights abuses and policies that often serve the regime at the cost of actual Iranians, are not idiots. Though they use terrorism as a foreign policy tool, the attacks in Iraq and Lebanon and elsewhere have clearly been driven by just that -- a cool-headed pragmatic desire to further Iranian foreign policy interests. Unifying the U.S. and Saudi Arabia at a time when they are drifting apart with a plot that would galvanize American publics and policymakers to support Saudi Arabia, and all without actually doing much strategic damage to either country, would be monumentally stupid. They've made serious, ideology-driven mistakes before -- as government often do -- but this plot comes so far out of left field that it should raise more questions than accusations.

Clemons responds by saying that Iran may not be quite as weak as is commonly thought.

Bottom line is that Iran is feeling its oats and could see some value in striking right into the heart of the US-Saudi relationship on US soil as a sign of its strength. From their viewpoint, the Iranians may feel that Saudis may be more angry at the US for having failed to prevent the assassination rather than becoming best friends again. The US options for responding to Iran would be as constrained after the assassination as before.

An assassination of an official like Adel Al-Jubeir who was both Ambassador and close confident of King Abdullah would be calculated so as not to kill a royal -- but rather someone who mattered more than any other to the King's strategic gamble at the moment.

In fact, it should not come as such a surprise that the Iranians would go through Mexican cartels in order to do their dirty business. There is a well-documented history of Iranian proxy Hezbollah cooperating closely with cartels and also using drug smuggling as a significant source of funding.

The other facts in the case are still rather murky and no doubt will become increasingly clear in the coming days. That said, the plot described by Holder is a serious breach of US sovereignty and effectively a declaration of war against Saudi Arabia. As Barry Rubin observes, the real question now is whether this incident will cause the US to finally take strong action against the Islamic Republic, which has been waging a covert war against America for years.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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