By Hossein Aryan
While the alleged assassination plot of the Saudi ambassador in Washington by men affiliated to the Quds Force provides good material for a spy novel, it raises many questions particularly about the modus operandi of the force and the huge political risk that the clerical regime would be taking.
To begin with the primary evidence that links the Quds Force to the plot are the words of an allegedly co-conspirator Mansoor Arbabsiar, who told US law enforcement agents that he was recruited and directed by men he believed to be senior Quds officials.
If the Quds Force is behind the plot on US soil, then it would be a first, though such a huge undertaking would not take place without a direct order from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and not Ahmadinejad, who is also the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Armed Forces.
With a strength of roughly 4000 men, the Quds Force is a special unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with responsibility for extraterritorial operations. Past and current activities of this force in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Bosnia have shown that it is an experienced and disciplined force for the mission it is supposed to accomplish. The commander of the force, the media-shy Major-General Qassem Soleimani, a veteran of Iran-Iraq War, is a shrewd officer who is known for his sound initiative and calculated risks. It has offices in most Iranian embassies and its budget is classified and directly controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei.
In the light of this, it is hard to believe that this force would try to recruit an assassin from a Mexico drug cartel instead of using its own. It is also highly unusual for such a force or it operatives to wire money into the US or talk about the plot over the phone. It is out of character for the Quds Force. As former CIA agent Robert Baer told Britain’s Guardian newspaper: “The Quds Force is very good. They do not sit down with people they do not know and make a plot. They use proxies and they are professional about it “.
Assuming that the Quds Force was behind this plot, both in terms of it nature and implementation, it raises both the recklessness of the force and the Supreme Leader. In the past the agents of the clerical regime, whether from the Quds Force or the Ministry of Intelligence, have carried out assassination operations beyond Iran’s borders, but they were Iranian dissidents, not foreign diplomats.
Questions have also been raised about the overall aim of the plot. What would Iran gain from killing a Saudi envoy on US soil knowing that it would bring fierce retribution from the international community, including increased isolation and more sanctions? This is while the clerical regime is trying hard to improve relations with countries in the East and skirt sanctions.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with Reuters, has already asked the countries that are hesitant to enforce existing sanctions on Iran, presumably Russia and China, to “go the extra mile”.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds over a range of issues particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring. They are rivals in the domain of energy markets and influence in the Levant and the Persian Gulf region. But if the Quds Force is behind the assassination plot of the Saudi diplomat, the rivalry can easily turn into a dangerous game with unfathomable consequences.
The plot, if proven conclusively, could be the work of a rouge faction within the Quds Force operating without Khamenei’s blessing. Though unauthorized operations of these sorts are not unprecedented in Iran, but they were mainly carried out inside the country. During Rafsanjani’s second term in office, rouge elements of the Intelligence Ministry led by Saeed Emami killed many dissidents in what became known as Serial Murders.
Recently, Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC commander, has said that the Supreme Leader “does not recognize any restrictions for the Guards in carrying out its duties in different domains for defending the Islamic revolution.”
The clerical regime is under tense pressure from within and without and it is possible that the Supreme Leader or the IRGC which is practically playing the role of a shadow government, are prepared to take high risks and embark on bold actions. The alleged plot could be seen in this light whereby the regime wished to deal a blow to both the United States and Saudi Arabia on US soil.
As far as the clerical regime is concerned, it is engaged in a covert war with the United States over its nuclear program. It sees the US and Israel behind the Stuxnet virus and the killing of some Iranian nuclear scientists. Moreover, the clerical regime is emboldened by the withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq and its seemingly-unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Statements made by Iranian officials in the last few months indicate that the regime is trying to capitalize on what it perceives as the diminishing US influence in the region.
The plot, if true, could be due to the regime’s perception that the war-wary and financially-strapped US would not be eager to entertain any military action against Iran. The regime may also believe that the progress it has made in the nuclear domain and enrichment is a deterrent itself and can ward off US military action.
Iran categorically denies the US allegation and its ambassador at the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that it is “a well-thought [out] evil plot” by the United States to divert attention from its current economic and social problems and protests against its long support for dictatorial regimes abroad.
Meanwhile some US politicians are calling the plot an “act of war” and a number of analysts are warning that the US accusation of Iran attempting to kill a Saudi envoy is a pretext for casus belli against the Islamic regime.