Mansour Arbabsiar dabbled in a lot of different jobs while living in Texas. He worked as a used-car salesman for a time, owned a convenience store and even a kebab shop. Along the way, he burned a few business partners and got a divorce. A difficult life, perhaps, but not all that much different from any other struggling businessman. That changed last week when Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old Iranian American, showed up in a U.S. federal court in New York. The charge? Conspiring to assassinate the ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
The plot’s details could have been plucked from an episode of the hit TV show 24. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had allegedly used Arbabsiar—a beefy man with a prominent scar on his cheek—as a point man to contact Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel, to carry out the hit. The relations between the U.S. and Iran, already at a low point, hit rock bottom in the wake of the accusation. Despite strong denials from Iran’s government, the rhetoric heated up in Washington. “We don’t take any options off the table,” said President Barack Obama. “We’re going to continue ... to mobilize the international community to make sure that Iran is further and further isolated and pays a price for this kind of behavior.”
So what gives? Why would the Revolutionary Guards, known for running a tight ship, get involved in such a sloppy caper? The answer may have more to do with Iran’s convoluted domestic politics than its relations with Saudi Arabia and the United States. “There is a portion of the Revolutionary Guards who want to create an external crisis so they can consolidate their power and push to unite different groups inside Iran,” says Mohammad Reza Heydari, a former Iranian consul in Norway who defected last year. “Whether the attack was carried out or not, it would have the same effect for this group. They want to scare people about an imminent attack from the West.”
The Revolutionary Guards have a long history of operations beyond Iran’s borders. Political dissidents have been assassinated in Europe, Turkey, and Pakistan. Weapons and cash have been funneled to regional proxy groups. The bulk of these activities have been carried out by the Quds Force, a branch of the Guards created during the Iran-Iraq War and tasked with carrying out operations outside the country. The word “Quds” is the Arabic name for Jerusalem, and estimates place the membership of the force between 5,000 and 15,000. This recent plot isn’t the first time the Quds Force has been accused of going after a Saudi target: the organization was also blamed for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
In recent years, the Quds Force has been heavily involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, one of the men sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for the alleged plot, Abdul Reza Shahlai, was a key player in Iraq at the height of the U.S. “surge.” In a Newsweek interview with military intelligence in Baghdad in 2007, Shahlai was named as the primary contact between the Guards and splinter factions of the Mahdi Army militia. At the time, these Shia militiamen were blamed for attacks against the U.S. military, as well as on Sunni civilians.
Shahlai, according to the Treasury, is Arbabsiar’s cousin and coordinated the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador and to “carry out follow-on attacks against other countries’ interests inside the U.S. and in another country.” Many Iran watchers have been stumped why the Revolutionary Guards would turn to a desperado like Arbabsiar to carry out such a sensitive mission. This family link could be the key piece of the puzzle. Shahlai may have recruited his cousin to scout out the mission without the approval of his superiors.
If so, it wouldn’t be the first time a member of Iran’s security forces has “gone rogue.” A series of murders of writers, intellectuals, and dissidents inside Iran during the ’90s was eventually blamed on wayward members of the Intelligence Ministry. “It’s possible that this plan was coordinated with only some elements of the Quds Force,” says Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of the Revolutionary Guards who is now a member of Iran’s political opposition. “Arbabsiar may have bragged to his relative from the Quds Force about his connections and been told to go ahead and look into it. This plan seems to have been more at the analysis rather than the execution stage.”
Even if the operation was seen as a long shot by the plotters, they may have pushed ahead because of their deep hatred for Saudi Arabia. When the Saudis sent more than 1,000 troops in March to help squash the protests led by Shiites in Bahrain, Iranian leaders went ballistic. “The statements made by the Revolutionary Guard leadership, especially after the Saudi Arabian military’s involvement in Bahrain, shows they had an interest in punishing them for their involvement,” says Ali Alfoneh, an expert on the Guards at the American Enterprise Institute. The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, would have been a natural target. In a 2008 Wikileaks cable, al-Jubeir told Ryan Crocker, then ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. David Petraeus that the Saudi king hoped the U.S. would “cut off the head of the snake,” in other words, attack Iran.
Regardless of how the case against Arbabsiar proceeds, the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are clearly boiling over. There will no doubt be a ramping-up of the struggle between the two powers across the region in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and especially Syria, where Iran is the sole defender of Bashar Assad’s struggling regime. Saudi King Abdullah made a pointed break with Assad.
In the middle of this power struggle, the U.S. is left with few good options. So far, American officials have talked tough without making any direct military threats. But the pressure may soon build for a strike. “The government of America shouldn’t rush to conclusions. The environment is becoming very politicized, like the lead-up to the Iraq War, and there is a lot of pressure for a quick decision,” says Hossein Mousavian, a former lead Iranian nuclear negotiator. “But a military attack on Iran will drag the Middle East down in flames.” Perhaps that’s exactly what the plotters were hoping for.