Iran containment strategy cast in doubt

A country willing to attempt an assassination on U.S. soil defies the “rational actor” presumption that lies at the heart of nuclear deterrence.

The de facto U.S. strategy of containing an Iran on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons may have just gotten a lot more dangerous. That strategy of isolating Tehran internationally, and building an anti-Iran alliance along its periphery protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, relied on the "rational actor" theory of international relations. Under such circumstances, the strategy assumed that even an Iran with nuclear weapons could not unduly intimidate its neighbors. Crossing a clear U.S. redline by passing those weapons to allied terrorist groups such as Hezbollah would invite annihilation.

If it proves true, Tuesday's announcement by senior Obama administration officials that the Quds Force -- the elite special-operations unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard -- was linked to a plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C., and subsequently bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies here, clearly crossed a post-9/11 redline.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrest of one naturalized U.S. citizen and the warrant for an Iranian at large for conspiring to bomb and kill Saudi Arabian Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir and allegedly planning to blow up the two embassies.

The plot was "sponsored and ... directed from Iran and constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law," Holder said at a news conference. "The U.S. is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions," he said.

A Tehran willing to engage in such high-risk behavior defies the "rational actor" presumption that lies at the heart of nuclear deterrence. In Washington, Riyadh, and Jerusalem, governments are reconsidering their Iranian strategies and recalibrating their "acceptable risk" calculations relating to Iran's nuclear program.

"State-sponsored terrorism is not new territory for Iran, which in the past has been guilty of assassinating Iranian dissidents in Europe and directing terrorist bombings in Argentina in the 1990s and against U.S. forces in Lebanon in the early 1980s," said Brian Michael Jenkins, a longtime terrorist expert at the RAND Corporation. "But if the Quds Force is truly behind this latest plot, it has raised the stakes into a totally different category by plotting attacks on U.S. soil. An Iranian government that is willing to take that kind of risk is pretty close to reckless, and that raises serious questions about how they would act with nuclear weapons."

Washington has arguably not witnessed such an act of state-sponsored terrorism since 1976, when Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet ordered the assassination of former Chilean official Orlando Letelier, who was killed in a car-bomb explosion in the capital. The risk of direct U.S. military retaliation is also inherent in such terrorist plots. When Libyan agents bombed a disco in Germany frequented by U.S. service members in 1986, for instance, President Ronald Reagan sent long-range bombers to Tripoli. Bill Clinton responded to al-Qaida attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 with cruise-missile strikes on terrorist facilities. In the post-9/11 era, it has been understood that a state-sponsored terrorist attack on the United States would be considered paramount to an act of war.

"Iran has been in a tense showdown with Saudi Arabia, and it has been simultaneously emboldened by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and frightened by the Arab Spring democracy movement that has destabilized its ally Syria," said Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism and Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. "Given that Iran has historically approved such Quds Force operations at a very high level, if the plot is true, it may suggest that all those forces and pressures are making Tehran much more risk tolerant."

One possible explanation is an increasingly tense power struggle inside Tehran between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Given that he is losing that battle, a desperate Ahmadinejad could conceivably believe that provoking an attack by the United States could allow him to consolidate power as the defender of Iran against "the Great Satan." But even given Ahmadinejad's history as a firebrand and ideologue, the plot to launch multiple bombings in Washington at this time seems uncharacteristically reckless.

Robert Baer is a counterterrorism and Iran expert formerly with the CIA. "The Quds Force has never been this sloppy, using untested proxies, contracting with Mexican drug cartels, sending money through New York bank accounts, and putting its agents on U.S. soil where they risk being caught. It reads more like a Hollywood script than an actual Quds plot," he said in an interview. "I'm sure the administration is acting on solid evidence, and possibly this is the work of some rogue element of the Quds Force that for some reason is intent on embarrassing Tehran. But something doesn't add up. The Quds Force is simply better than this."