Argument

Worst. Plot. Ever.

If Iran really is behind a plan to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, its capabilities and strategic acumen are far less impressive than anything we've seen thus far.

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.

The relative effectiveness of the Quds Force is as much a testament to the division's professionalism as it is to the limited scope of its activities. The Quds Force is active in many countries, but the bulk of its missions are confined to funneling weapons to groups like Hamas, providing logistical support and facilitating training for Iraqi Shiite militant groups, and as has been claimed by U.S. military officials, possibly transferring explosive devices to insurgents in Afghanistan. The Quds Force was also involved in the sectarian and anti-coalition violence that ravaged Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and was implicated by U.S. military officials in violent operations such as the 2007 kidnapping and murder of five U.S. soldiers in Karbala. In the 1990s, the Quds Force, along with elements associated with Lebanese Hezbollah, were also linked to terrorist bombings in Argentina and Saudi Arabia, but the evidence for Iran's role in these attacks is sketchy and Iran has strongly denied any involvement.

In all these activities, the Quds Force has relied on its strong relationships with allied proxy groups and trusted militant networks. Its success in these operations has depended on not only the reliability of its partners, but also to a large extent on overlapping political and ideological interests. It is not a coincidence that the Quds Force works almost exclusively with individuals and organizations that have had long-standing ties with Iran's senior leadership and Revolutionary Guards commanders.

Given the Quds Force's modus operandi, it is odd that its commanders would entrust an unprecedentedly brazen attack against a foreign diplomat on U.S. soil to a former used-car salesman and Mexican drug-cartel hit men. Manssor Arbabsiar, the Iranian expatriate at the center of the plot, bears no resemblance to a covert operative, and any personal or familial connections he may have with Quds Force commanders does not explain his apparent role in facilitating the operation. The Quds Force also has no known connections with Mexican drug cartels, and enlisting them to carry out the terrorist attack runs counter to the Quds Force's established pattern of working with long-standing, trusted contacts.

Finally, and perhaps most puzzlingly, the plot does not seem to fit Iran's larger strategic objectives, whether regarding its relations with the United States, its relations with Saudi Arabia, or its relations with the international community. It makes little sense that Iranian authorities would choose such a drastic, extreme measure at this time, especially when such an act would do little to advance Iran's prevailing goals, would assuredly provoke a harsh response by the United States, and would further tarnish Iran's already poor global reputation. No matter how one looks at it, it is difficult to imagine how such an act would not severely jeopardize the security of the Iranian regime. If maintaining power and stability is what is driving Iran's current leadership, such an attack would be of no apparent value.

Although U.S. officials have acknowledged the far-fetched aspects of this story (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even said, "The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder for hire to kill the Saudi ambassador -- nobody could make that up, right?"), they have also consistently claimed that senior Iranian leaders and Quds Force commanders were aware of the plot. If true, this would be a gross misstep by Iran's leaders. It would also mean that the same strand of belligerent radicalism that drove Iran's support for terrorism in the 1980s remains an active component of the strategic thinking of Iran's top military commanders and clerical authorities. The good news, if there is any, is that the Quds Force's well-earned reputation for competence would be utterly shattered.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Sometimes a Deal Is Just a Deal

Sorry, folks: There's no wider significance to the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. Middle East peace is as far away as ever.

The five-year saga that will likely lead to the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit -- in one of those bizarrely asymmetrical prisoner exchanges that make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so tragic and intriguing -- has all the hallmarks of a John le Carré thriller.

There's no way you can put half a dozen intelligence services, including the Germans, the Israelis, two sets of Palestinians (Hamas and Fatah), the Turks, the Egyptians, and the Americans, in the same story and not tell a complex tale. No doubt the story line was also worthy at times of the Keystone Kops, with overplayed hands, crazy demands, and missed signals and opportunities. Like so many other features of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, this deal could probably have been done much earlier.

But now that it is done (or almost so), what exactly does it all mean? First, let's not have any illusions here: The deal for Shalit was self-contained; it offers no first phase of a broader political deal between Israel and Hamas, no Act I in some kind of modus-vivendi play with a happy ending to break open the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Any such plan would prove to be the key to an empty room. With no deal in sight on the big issues between Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, why would anyone believe there's room to compromise between Israel and Hamas, the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism? The region is very uncertain right now; neither the Israelis nor Hamas are open to taking big risks. Stability, the avoidance of conflict, the pursuit of narrower agendas in that uncertain environment are a different story. And that's what's driving this train. This is transactional, not transformational diplomacy.

For Hamas, the deal makes enormous sense. The organization is increasingly unpopular in Gaza, having failed to deliver a better economy, freedom of movement, or relief from taxes; it needed a lift. (The scenes of Gazans celebrating the swap deal suggest that it worked.) And what a great time to move. As Abbas grabs the center stage at the United Nations with a faux statehood initiative full of symbols, Hamas delivers concrete gains at home. We can't underestimate the resonance of the prisoner issue in Palestinian society. It's huge, and this release -- probably the largest ever -- will touch thousands of friends and family members of those released.

There's also the problem of Syria, where Hamas's external leadership has hung its shingle for some time now -- but for how much longer? With Bashar al-Assad's regime likely headed south, Hamas needs other options. And to hedge its bets, why not move closer to Egypt? After all, it's Cairo that determines whether the Gaza-Palestine border is open, and it was the Egyptians who mediated this accord. After the failure of the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement -- also brokered by Egypt -- it was important that the Egyptians pull this one off. And Hamas was under pressure to help.

Israel's motives in doing the deal are much simpler to understand. The determination to retrieve soldiers left behind on the battlefield -- dead or alive -- is a commitment deeply grounded in Israeli culture and history. Of course it's also driven by political calculation, particularly with the current prime minister. Netanyahu badly wanted Jonathan Pollard, an American citizen who spied on the U.S. Navy on Israel's behalf, released during his first stint in office; he brought heavy pressure to bear on President Bill Clinton during the 1998 Wye River summit negotiations with the Palestinians. It was only CIA director George Tenet's threat to resign that likely stayed Clinton's hand.

Netanyahu has been under enormous popular pressure for failing to cut a deal to secure Shalit's release -- his parents have waged a relentless media campaign on his behalf, with camp-outs, marches, and rallies around the country -- though the prime minister will likely take some political shots from the security establishment for going ahead with it. But the Israelis clearly calculated that waiting only increased the possibility that continued turmoil in the region and splits within Hamas might have lost Shalit. There's no doubt that no matter how good Israeli intelligence, the Shin Bet must have been concerned that Shalit might have been taken out of Gaza, even transferred to Iran.

But let's be clear. The deal changes almost nothing in the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Had the deal included high-profile Palestinian prisoners such as Marwan Barghouti, a former Fatah leader with a national reputation, or Ahmad Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it would have had much more significance. Letting Barghouti out would have been a direct challenge (and threat) to Abbas's leadership -- a clear effort by Israel to divide the PLO that he heads.

No, this deal takes care of business, period -- business that Hamas and Israel needed to get done. And though it does make clear that these two parties can do deals together and may well presage a period of stability (neither side wants a war), it has no bearing on peace. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on with little prospect of serious negotiations, let alone a conflict-ending accord.

On this one, what you see is what you get: An organization that has milked a kidnapped Israeli soldier for all it can get and an Israeli government that can't like the deal but is really compelled to cut it have found some common ground. The Israeli-Palestinian issue rarely offers up agreement on anything. Pocket this one and buckle your seat belts; this conflict is bound to get a lot worse before it gets worse.

SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images