10.11.11

Iran’s Covert War Against the United States

The Iranian attempt on the Saudi ambassador’s life shows that Tehran is meaner and nastier than ever before. And no longer fears U.S. military retaliation. says Brookings’ Ken Pollack. Plus, Eli Lake on the escalating shadow war.

It’s shocking, but not entirely surprising to learn that the United States government has evidence that the Iranian regime was trying to kill Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir.

Of course, we need to be careful with this claim. It has not yet been conclusively proven, and it would not be the first time that Iran was accused of something it didn’t do. Nor would it be the first time that the U.S. government was convinced of something that later turned out not to be entirely correct (see “Iraqi WMD”).

That said, the confidence of the U.S. government in its claim is striking, and if its contentions are borne out, it would represent a major escalation of Iranian terrorist operations against the United States. That said, it would not necessarily represent a radical departure from the trend in recent Iranian foreign policy.

In particular, while this plot—a mass casualty attack on U.S. soil—would go well beyond what Iran has attempted in the past, it would represent an extrapolation of another pattern, namely the emergence of a more aggressive, risk-tolerant Iranian regime over the past two years.

In 2009, Iran experienced its own version of the Arab Spring. In response to the rigged re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, millions of Iranians took to the streets in protest, demanding the end of the Islamic regime and the creation of a new democracy in its place. Iran’s leaders briefly debated what to do before Tehran’s hardline faction won out and the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered its powerful security apparatus to crush the revolt.

The harder-line leadership has pursued a more aggressive, more recalcitrant, and more anti-American foreign policy.

This crackdown was not only focused externally on the Iranian people, however.  At the same time, Khamenei and other Iranian hardliners—particularly the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard—also purged the government of its more moderate elements. Pragmatists like former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani were sidelined or ousted altogether, and the regime that emerged reflected the Iranian radical perspective more than at any time since the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, this harder-line leadership has pursued a more aggressive, more recalcitrant, and more anti-American foreign policy than at any time since the early days of the revolution. Over the past two years, Iran has ramped up its support for radical Shiite groups in Iraq, who have in turn stepped up their attacks on Iraqi Sunnis, on more moderate Iraqi Shia, and on American troops. In Afghanistan, Iran has provided more assistance and more lethal weaponry to the Taliban, contributing to the rising U.S. and Afghan security-force death toll there. Remarkably, despite the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929—which imposed unexpectedly harsh sanctions on the regime for its refusal to halt its nuclear program, causing widespread economic hardship in Iran—Tehran thumbed its nose at international offers to negotiate an end to the nuclear impasse. Meanwhile, the regime has steadfastly clung to its Syrian ally, backing its slaughter of thousands of civilian protesters rather than give up its dictatorship.

It is against this backdrop that we should weigh the possibility, as suggested by the U.S. government claim, that Iran may have tried to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States by blowing up a restaurant on American soil. If true, it would suggest three important things about Tehran’s thinking that take us beyond what we already believed:

1. That the regime believes it is already locked in an undeclared covert war with the United States—perhaps believing that the United States was behind the Stuxnet virus that set back Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the killing of several Iranian nuclear scientists on Iranian soil. Alternatively, the regime may believe that the Israelis were behind those acts, but that the U.S. (and Saudi Arabia) egged them on.

2. That the regime is willing to go way beyond anything it has ever done before to strike blows against the United States in this war. For instance, in the 1990s, the last time the regime (mistakenly) reached a similar conclusion, the most it did was to detonate a truck bomb outside an American military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen. The Saudi-American tie was there in this attack as well, but at that time, the Iranians stayed off American soil.

3. That the regime may no longer be concerned about a massive American conventional military retaliation. In the past, that fear has been an important restraint on Iranian action against the United States. Again, if true, this plot suggests that the Iranians may believe either that the United States is so consumed with its own internal problems and so determined to avoid another war in the Middle East that the American people would not countenance any action that might risk escalation with Iran. Alternatively, it may suggest that Iran believes its nuclear program is far enough along to deter conventional American military retaliation.

Each of these would be troubling in its own right. It's why it is so important to substantiate both the plot, and its connection to Iran. Because if it is valid, it represents a very significant set of steps in the wrong direction for Iranian strategy.

Nevertheless, even if the claim is shown to be valid, we should not assume that this means that Iran is an irrational nation hell-bent on harming Americans at any cost, as it is sometimes depicted in the Western press. Even after the 2009 purge, the Tehran regime is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was recklessly aggressive to the point of inadvertent suicide. But, if this incredible claim is proven true, it should remind us that Iran also is not a normal country by any stretch of the imagination, and that in a Middle East already in turmoil we now face a more aggressive, more risk-taking Iran that may be looking to stir the pot in ways that it once found imprudent.