By Barry Rubin
Remember that Hillary Clinton ad about it being the early morning hours and the phone’s ringing in the White House? Well it’s arrived in real life, and the phone is — or isn’t — going to be answered by Barack Obama. And the question is: What are you going to do about the dramatic announcement of an Iranian plot to attack targets in Washington, D.C.?
True, it’s a bizarre story about Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Mexican drug lords. But, after all, the United States was impelled a step toward entering World War One by the Zimmerman Note in which German agents sought to entice Mexico to go to war against the United States.
Vice President Joe Biden has said that “nothing has been taken off the table” when it comes to the U.S. response. The Saudis, who are famous for keeping a low profile and trying to avoid problems — often through money — are openly livid. They’re basically saying something along the lines of, “We told you so.” They tried and gave up because they didn’t get U.S. or Western help. Will anything change now?
Is This Story True?
There are some points that would make one question this whole garish tale. Most important:
–This does not match past Iranian practice. Many “experts” think this is the clincher, but precedent is not always a reliable guide. Things change. Be careful on this point. But clearly this does not correspond with past Iranian operations that went through either direct agents or trusted Muslim Islamist clients.
–Why should some Iranian-American businessman in Texas be a key Iranian agent? It’s called secret agent work for a reason. A sleeper cell should not be obvious. And he did have a relative in the Revolutionary Guards hierarchy, if the indictment is to be believed, who helped him.
–Why didn’t Iran use its own assets? Again, I think this is a strongest argument against the story. The whole thing is amateurish but more importantly it was Iran’s most sensitive operation ever and the absurdly high danger of exposure was obvious. Even if Iran was going to do this kind of operation, it would have developed these contacts with the Mexicans and not immediately entrusted some drug gang official that one of their guys barely knew.
–What was the Iranian goal? Certainly, Iran has been threatening the United States with dire consequences for a while. But why the sudden decision to escalate? Revenge for sanctions? And what was their plan for concealing Iranian involvement if the attack did happen? One can explain such a change, but one cannot explain it very well. This raises questions, but again is not a definitive answer.
The Administration is telling its favored reporters that the Iranians were desperate (sanctions are biting; Tehran is become more aggressive in Syria to fight the revolution there and in Afghanistan. I don’t buy it. Iran’s operations are designed to spread or protect existing influence among Muslims and not to launch a direct bin Ladin style Jihad on American soil. Again, if the evidence exists I’ll accept it but on an analytical basis it doesn’t compute.
Did the Administration make the whole thing up to protect itself politically? No, it wouldn’t dare since such behavior would eventually be easily exposed and backfire big-time. And besides, if it were going to do such a thing it would invent a free-lance terror plot, not drag the United States into a potential confrontation with Iran, a country that it’s been trying to avoid confrontation with.
(If I had to make a guess–and it is too early to do so–I’d speculate that the Iranian agent(s) involved didn’t have full authorization to organize such attacks but that’s an educated guess. The problem with that theory is that Iranian regime organizations tend to be heavily top-down, Iran is a dictatorship, and the counter-intelligence groups keep an eye on everyone. But even if my theory were to be correct, since the Iranians would never admit it was a rogue operation that wouldn’t save the regime from potential consequences, if any. )
All that’s important is this: If the U.S. government has persuasive evidence that it can present, then it happened. Since the main defendent has turned state’s evidence then he will supply details and we would see that the story is true and the trail does lead back to Iran’s government. BUT if the Obama Administration can make the charges stick that is only the beginning of its problems!
Might This Blow Up in the Obama’s Administration’s Face?
Absolutely yes. If they were fooled by a fabricator, if revealing the case too soon (to stave off criticism of Attorney General Holder over the gun-smuggling case) damaged the chance of success in uncovering the terrorist network, or if the government’s response is not equal to the crisis they’ve developed, then the Obama administration will look worse.
This whole affair is extremely dangerous for the White House. Any idea that this is an easy win for the administration — see how good we are at protecting America — is dead wrong.
I am not arguing and do not believe that they created this plot, but this would not be the first time that U.S. officials have been fooled by Iranians with an agenda to fool them.
What Will the Administration Do about It?
The response is fraught with peril. The immediate reaction — we’ll mobilize world opinion! — makes the administration look buffoonish. If this is true, it is an act of war by Iran, at least by elements in the Iranian government (you know, the kind of people who could one day give nuclear weapons to terrorists).
Response A: Do Nothing
Wow, can you see that in the presidential debates in 2012? An enemy chose to attack the very capital city and the Obama administration could only respond with press releases and Biden growling!
Response B: The “Sunni Strategy”
This really scares me. This administration is quite capable of saying: Iran is the enemy so what we must do is work with our good Muslim friends, you know the Muslim Brotherhood? We need to win over Hamas and Hizballah from Iran by proving we are nice to them. Oh, and we need to work closely with that wonderful Turkish government, like letting them organize the political succession in Syria!
And so on. Do not underestimate the stupidity, incompetence, and ignorance of this administration regarding the Middle East.
Response C: A United Front against Revolutionary Islamism
The U.S. government takes the lead in organizing and supporting Europe, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf monarchies, Israel, and Jordan into a cooperative alignment. Back the oppositions in Iran, Turkey, and Lebanon. Punish enemies and reward friends. Whatever shortcomings Saudi Arabia has, its leaders have been correct about the Iranian threat and their frustration with Obama’s failure to lead. The Saudis even tried to save Lebanon from Iranian-Syrian domination but gave up when Washington wouldn’t help them.
The point is not to go to war with Iran but to oppose Iranian interests and allies everywhere, including the use of covert operations. Challenge Iranian agents of influence in Lebanon and Iraq. Containment is not just about nuclear weapons for Tehran, but about the spreading influence of that regime and, more broadly, the gains being made by revolutionary Islamists throughout the region.
That also means the United States must seem like a strong and determined leader. It must have very serious credibility. And it will have to identify revolutionary Islamism as the enemy.
Look, this is the Obama administration we are talking about. I don’t think they can do it. Hopefully, the next president can do so. There better be a next president in sight because there are a lot more crises on the way.
As I said at the start, I do not think this is some brilliant maneuver that will end up being to the Obama administration’s advantage. They have either made a huge mistake that’s going to be exposed or presented themselves with a challenge they cannot meet.
Ring! Ring! It’s your telephone, Mr. President.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com