Details remain sketchy on the alleged Iranian-sponsored plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States. U.S. officials have linked elements of Iran's Quds Force -- a special branch of the Revolutionary Guards military organization -- to the scheme, but have not clearly identified to what extent Iran's leadership was involved (as one anonymous official admitted to the Washington Post, "We don't have specific knowledge" that the head of the Quds Force was involved). Without knowing further details, it is hard to fathom why Iran would pursue such an attack or how this action would advance Iran's core strategic interests.
Since the 1979 revolution that brought the Islamic Republic to power, Iran's overriding concern has been for its regime's survival. Iran's leaders initially feared that the United States would sponsor a counterrevolution and reinstall the Pahlavi monarchy. Although many aspects of the Islamic Republic have changed since the early days of the revolution, fear of the United States remains the central driving force in all of Iran's domestic and foreign policies. Iranian authorities see pro-democratic activism inside its borders and mounting international sanctions targeting its nuclear program as only the latest U.S.-backed attempts to undo the Islamic Revolution and return Iran to the servitude of foreign imperialism.
In the last decade, Iran's strategy for survival has largely focused on preventing outright conflict with the United States. While defending its revolutionary system from domestic pressures remains at the forefront of the regime's agenda, it is the prospect of U.S. military intervention that most concerns Iran's clerical and military leaders. Nearly everything Iran does in the international arena is driven by such fears. In the diplomatic realm, Iran relies on the support of partners such as Russia and China as a counterweight to the United States and the European Union; less diplomatically, Iran's support of foreign militant groups affords the country a role in regional affairs it wouldn't otherwise have. By maintaining strong ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, for instance, Iran has become a player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a position that grants Iran exaggerated influence in the region and a point of leverage in dealing with the United States, Israel, and Arab neighbors.
The bulk of Iran's extraterritorial activities are entrusted to the Quds Force, which was established after the Iran-Iraq War. Under the direction of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the Quds Force took over the portfolio of the erstwhile Office of Liberation Movements (OLM), which had been established in the early days of the Islamic Republic to support foreign revolutionary and liberation organizations, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. Despite its ambitious purview, the OLM was hamstrung by a lack of government funding and interest. The Iran-Iraq War dominated the attention and efforts of Iran's leadership, which left only a smattering of radicals to take charge of the office and its limited activities in the region. By the time the office was absorbed into the Quds Force, it had only been successful in establishing client networks in Lebanon, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.
But the Quds Force was never meant to replace the OLM. Instead of a government office engaged in advancing the goals of foreign revolutionary groups, the Quds Force was organized as a military division specializing in foreign operations geared toward advancing Iran's strategic agenda. Similar to U.S. special-operations forces, the Quds Force works alongside foreign groups, providing them varying forms of training, military materiel, and financial support. Quds Force members are said to be chosen from the Revolutionary Guards' most promising soldiers. They are highly trained in tradecraft and military tactics and are fluent in at least one foreign language. Reliable details on the Quds Force's size do not exist, but estimates of its number of personnel typically vary between 5,000 and 15,000.