October 12th, 2011
07:00 PM ET

Drawing back the curtain on Iran

Editor’s Note: Maseh Zarif is research manager at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.

By Maseh Zarif – Special to CNN

The Iranian Quds Force plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in Washington in a terrorist attack using Mexican drug cartel associates shows the complex threat the Iranian regime poses. Had the attack succeeded, it would have marked a dramatic escalation in the Iranian war against Saudi Arabia, which Tehran has hitherto waged primarily by proxy. It would also have been an escalation of the decades-long war Iran has waged against the U.S., which Tehran has fought largely indirectly rather than on American soil.

Although these planned assassinations would have marked an escalation in Iranian hostility toward the U.S., we must also consider the plot in the broader context. For years the Islamic Republic of Iran has flouted international norms in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support for terrorism against American and allied interests, its destabilizing actions in the Middle East and its brutal repression of its own citizens.

In each of these areas Tehran’s hard-line leaders have been emboldened in recent years. Despite sanctions and repeated denunciations in international fora, Iran has developed its nuclear capabilities and overcome many of the most significant technical obstacles to developing a usable nuclear weapon, of which the most important was developing the ability to enrich uranium to 20%. The challenge of getting from 20% to weapons-grade fuel is far less imposing than that of enriching to 20% at all. International pressure and supposed isolation has failed to prevent Iran from advancing rapidly toward the ability to field nuclear weapons.

Iran has also expanded ties to terrorist and insurgent proxy groups in the broader Middle East beyond its longstanding support for Hezbollah and Hamas. The full extent of Iranian meddling during the Arab Spring is unclear, but the regime has exploited the situation and the unrest has provided an opening for it to undermine Sunni Arab Gulf countries that it has on occasion attempted to destabilize. Internally, the regime orchestrated a violent crackdown on dissent and opposition following the rise of the Green Movement inside Iran in 2009.

The disrupted plot is yet another, albeit significantly more dramatic, escalation of Iran’s war against the U.S., Israel, and, now Saudi Arabia. What does it mean for the United States? Beyond the tactical consideration of countering the Quds Force as a terrorist organization that now seeks to operate within American territory, it is time to recognize that past and present strategies aimed at curbing Iran’s ambitions and aggression are failing. The regime in Tehran and its agents are growing more hostile and have signalled in numerous ways that they remain at war with the U.S. and that they have no interest in reconciling or coming in from the cold. The Quds Force’s deadly designs are inextricably linked to the broader challenge posed by the Iranian regime, a challenge that appears only to be growing.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Maseh Zarif.

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Topics: Iran • Saudi Arabia • Terrorism

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Mycology

    blah blah blah, blame israel, blah blah blah, the jews did it.

    October 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  2. Matt

    It is very serious trying to start a war between the US and the cartels, trying to draw the US into another insurgency. Baer was right that it made no sense. But clearly they wanted Mexican involvement and for a reason, we only know that the Saudi was a target because the DOJ got in early and know the whole plot.

    If that had not occurred we would have had a bombing of a restaurant, multiple victims the Saudi just being one of, being tied back to a cartel. Why would a cartel target a Saudi Ambassador, it would appear it was coincidence and he was collateral damage. The cartels would had motive to do a bombing, but not assassinate the Ambassador.

    There would be another compartmentalized cell floating around in Mexico, there would need to be a catalyst for the Mexicans to have motive to conduct a bombing, this requires an incident to occur which the US would respond to leading to the cartels countering via a restaurant bombing. Before the place was turned into southern Lebanon.

    The key question is the sloppy nature of the operation, but the Iranians don't do random, everything has a reason. Iranian involvement would come out in the wash of the investigation (which could take years), so if appears to be a faction it limits the blowback. First we have to trace the bomb via forensics, the chain of evidence is long, it would be a long time before the Iranian were exposed as a 'rouge faction'. The Mexican involvement that is a different matter.

    The plot to destroy Mexico turn into a Vietnam on the border is an old KGB plot, not an Iranian idea, they have highjacked it. The DOJ have the guys cold, Iran have been caught out on this one for all too see. Basically they prevent a war from breaking out, between the US and the cartels, prevented an insurgency down south.

    After the first bombing, you would find the agents would fade away and disappear back to Tehran and the other aspect of the plot would not have occurred. It is a skillful act of deception, the cartel thinks they are doing a hit but are being set up, it was only the cartel and the agents that knew he was a target. To the rest of us it appears as a coincidence and collateral damage that he was killed. Think after the fact all the experts say it was an act of Islamic terror, but it leads back to Mexico and on the surface has no ties to Islamic terrorism, it is weird now, think how it would be after the fact trying to investigate the matter.

    As per usual we are all just puppets in the Ayatollahs game.

    Criminals have to be careful of the Madrid Syndrome, he was not a criminal at all but a terrorist that used deception to provide the logistics by infiltrating the criminal world. So this maybe like a Hollywood script, but another script many years earlier already played out. That was like out of the Sopranos when the FBI asked Tony about terrorists, no one was asking them to be informants, it is up to them either tell someone about it, or deal with it internally. Most important is be aware self-policing for infiltration. It has been 10 years and people do not think that al-Qaida or like this case other terrorists have not tried to apply the Madrid Syndrome. You may have a member of a MC, that is not a criminal at all but an al-Qaida member that has infiltrated and who is using the club as a means to facilitate terrorist acts (Madrid Syndrome). And that goes for all other organizations.

    October 12, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • NonZionist

      / / / Would the Fox Nooze people ever lie to us? We can judge for ourselves!

      / / / Would Bush 43 ever lie to us? The Downing Street Memos prove that he did.

      / / / Would Clinton ever lie to us? Yugoslavia, Waco, and, least of all, Lewinsky, prove that he did.

      / / / Would Ronand Reagan ever lie to us? Iran-Contra proves that he did, in a very big way.

      / / / Would Obama ever lie to us? No, no, no! Unthinkable!

      / / / Obama is Different! Obama represents Change! Obama will close Gitmo! Obama will End War! Obama will use Soft Power and Dialogue and Sunshine and Transparency! Obama will not sell out to the Insurance Racket! Obama, our Messiah! The Messiah would never ever lie to us?

      / / / Would He?

      / / / And then I remember that Our Messiah blocked attempts to hold the Bush neo-cons accountable for their war-crimes. He supported Lieberman. He never misses an opportunity to capitulate to Republicans and Zionists. He has compromised away every principle. This is the Man we are supposed to Just Trust, as he paves the way to another war, another trillion-dollar holocaust.

      October 16, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    I hope the author will understand the word WAR in international relations means armed fighting. He has used this word too generously in this posting. Officially there's NO WAR going on between Iran and the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Of course the word is used widely and daily that has nothing to do with armed conflicts. But in international context, this word has a more deliberate meaning. There were many facts in his posting, but the wording was a bit over the top.

    October 13, 2011 at 4:51 am |
    • Thinker23

      Apparently, the Cold War that lasted from the late 1940s to late 1980s never happened...

      October 13, 2011 at 5:24 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Yes, there's an attribute "Cold" to emphasise the word "War", just like a "trade-war" or "currency-war" etc.
        But the author didn't make any differentiation in his wording. "The disrupted plot is yet another, albeit significantly more dramatic, escalation of Iran’s war against the U.S., Israel, and, now Saudi Arabia".

        October 13, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  4. SG Logan

    Successive European, US and other governments in the international community have gone out of their way to help the theocratic tyranny change its terrorist and belligerent policies and in particular its thirst for the nuclear bomb. The US administrations of all colours have gone as far as placing the main Iranian democratic opposition on the FTO list as well as letting the mullahs get away literally with murder of thousands of US soldiers in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq by the Iranian regime’s proxy terrorist groupuscules of whatever religious persuasion, not to mention keeping quiet on the terrorist regime's cooperation with the Al-Qaeda in shedding the blood of 3000 innocent civilians in the twin towers. Does any sane person wonder why the regime does not understand the modern world? Theocratic rule belongs to the Dark Ages and we won't want it in our own home countries, and nor do the Iranian or other Middle Eastern people want it in theirs as evident in the tens of thousands of Iranian democracy campaigners who’ve given the ultimate price to bring freedom to their country. It's high time we stop meddling in the Iranian affairs on behalf of the religious fascism and help the Iranian people and opposition to bring about freedom and sanity to their homeland and peace and stability to their vitally important region.

    October 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  5. palebluedot

    I.von hettingen....If you dont think Iran has declared war on the US,Isreal,and now Saudi Arbia then you need to spend more time in the real world

    October 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  6. Hasselhoff

    who f-ing cares.

    October 14, 2011 at 2:51 am |
  7. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    So when do the Doilie Heads and the Towel Heads start killing each other?

    October 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  8. JR

    No evidence been provided in this case. It's such a child like plan to created division between two major oil powers in the region and reap the benefits. It's the same old game with a new twist. Frankly people are beginning to see the light and the truth and we are just sick of it. All these sanctions do nothing but hurt the people of Iran. They will not do anything in regime change.

    October 15, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  9. Kerry

    Don't forget, these are also the same people who took American hostages in 1979-1980 and paraded them around for the world to see. As insane as this plot is I put nothing past them. A narcissistic and psychotic society such as Iran has no conscience and thereby is quite capable of these acts. Whether Ayatollah Ali Khamenei knew of it or not is irrelevant, it happened on his watch. If he and his regime can be brought then down possibly the Iranian people have a chance to join the free world.

    October 16, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  10. NonZionist

    The government is once again promoting a laughable conspiracy theory.

    In three years, under Obama, not a single person has been held accountable for anything. Banksters steal billions, neo-cons start wars, 4,500 Americans and a million Iraqis die because of neo-con lies, a trillion dollars are added to our debt because of the same lies, America becomes synonymous with Abu Ghraib and torture - and no one cares! The crimes and lies are perpetrated with total impunity.

    But now, suddenly, Obama discovers "Accountability" with a capital "A" and calls for Iran to be punished (i.e. obliterated) on the basis of an absurd conspiracy theory, a theory that is not supported by the evidence currently available.

    Is this for real? No. It's no more real than "Iraqi WMDs" or the "Saddam Atta Link" for example. No, we do not suddenly have "Accountability". Rather, it is the total LACK of accountability in our government that makes it possible to lie like a rug, use the lies to start a lovely little war, and then use the war to deflect attention from the lies that spawned it.

    October 16, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Sanjana

      Dear M.Ali,Regarding your first post:In an world where US foreign poilcy is guided by adherence to human rights, legitimacy, and so on, I would agree with you (assuming that the government in Iran adheres to human rights and so on).However, any realist would point out that US foreign poilcy is not guided by these principles, and is instead guided by their strategic interests. Think Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, among others. Judging by the nature of this blog, I believe the Leveretts also agree that engagement with Iran is benefitial for US strategic interests. The current US/Israel campaign against Iran is driven by the belief that Iran poses a threat to their hegemony in the Middle East. Iran also has the potential to encourage political participation among the global Muslim population, which is also arguably a threat to the status quo (a threat in the eyes of the US, because the status quo maintains their influence across the Muslim world). There are also other factors, such as Israel's domestic stability: the Iranian Threat (as see on JPost) may discourage immigration to Israel, and may in fact encourage a brain drain.Therefore, your argument is not valid, because the current US poilcy has nothing to do with human rights and legitimacy (although this should not be confused with the policies of American/Western NGOs, who are genuinely driven by a desire to uncover injustice, which is why there are as critical of their own governments as anybody else). The reason I believe the Green Movement is, 1) beneficial for Iran, and 2) supported by many Western politicians, is not because Iran will become a more democratic and legitimate state, but because the Green Movement promises a far more pragmatic and moderate foreign poilcy.This is also why I am skeptical of the Leveretts' motives, becuase they are strenuously promoting the current government's legitimacy, with no apparent reason other than to promote the current government's domestic agenda.Regarding your second point:To an extent I agree with you. But I have some objections.1) the US is threatened by an extensive network of terrorist organisations, including homegrown terrorism. For example, the Wikileaks show how Saudi nationals are pumping billions of dollars into various organisations that are not only a threat to the US, but also a threat to the world (think madrassas in Pakistan).2) Dissent in the US is bigger than you portray. There are many notable academics, such as Noam Chomsky, who are very vocal and actively promote the agenda against US imperialism and shrinking rights within the US. The difference between the US and Iran is that the US system is inherently seen as legitimate. Instead, the argument is that recent administrations have become wayward and need to be checked. Nobody wants to overthrow a system that is founded in some of the most important and revolutionary principles the world has ever seen. At most, they want to sit in the comfort and security of their homes and communities, and publicise their grievances. I wonder how many Americans are motivated to risk their enviable comfort and security in order to bring down their government.The legitmacy of the system in Iran however is questioned far more. As much as you hate the opposition (at home and abroad), they make up a very significant population of Iranians who question their own system. When this group includes many notable revolutionaries and loyal politicians, you know you have a problem.The lack of legitimacy is why anti-government demonstrations naturally tend towards anti-regime demonstrations, because the problem is too rooted within the system to make cosmetic changes. That is also why successive governments in Iran have used an iron fist to suppress any dissent, because they know that dissent will only lead down a slippary path.3) It sounds cliche by now, but the Green protests started off as asking where is my vote? The initial protests were almost completely peaceful, including the massive silent protest. I believe that the Green Movement offered a perfect opportunity for the regime to prove its legitimacy. This could have been done by allowing peaceful protests, by allowing politicians and activists to publicly debate their grievances, by allowing a free media to investigate claims of fraud, and so on. That is what democracy is.Instead, the regime curled up into a ball and pursued a massive clampdown on the population, victimising ordinarly people, civil organisations, as well as loyalists. Refer back to my second point to see why they did this.4) Iran will always be exposed to external threats, given its strategic location and an intelligent, active population. This should not stand in the way of political development. In fact, research shows that democratic states very rarely go to war with each other.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  11. Sam

    How the f uck do we allow kids to write on war and policies???

    January 18, 2015 at 3:32 pm |

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