Why Washington is destined to take the first punch
Residents of Washington, D.C., may have been both disturbed and relieved to hear that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officers this week skillfully foiled an alleged plot by Iran's Quds Force to blow up the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States while he dined in a local restaurant. Investigators were no doubt assisted by the plot's seeming ineptitude, which involved a used-car salesman from Texas and a paid informant in Mexico who posed as a drug gang member. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up the conclusions many had reached about the bizarre story: "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?"
Even so, the U.S. Justice Department did charge Gholam Shakuri, a member of the Quds Force, with a long list of conspiracy offenses and thus connected the Iranian government to the plot. Even though this particular bombing attempt seems amateurish, it should be little comfort that elements of the Iranian intelligence service now seem to have Washington in their cross hairs. Indeed, this week U.S. soldiers in Iraq were targets of the Quds Force; according to the New York Times, on Oct. 12 militants trained by the Quds Force wounded three U.S. troops in a rocket attack in southern Iraq. U.S. policymakers will now be under pressure to find ways to actively prevent or deter future attacks. However, a variety of barriers will prevent the Obama administration from taking any strong action against Iran, at least until a major attack actually succeeds. Washington will thus have to brace for the big first punch.
After the United States levied unilateral sanctions on four Quds Force officials this week, U.S. diplomats fanned out across the world to rally international support for deepening the sanctions against Iran. However, according to the New York Times, the ham-fisted nature of the plot is undercutting the U.S. plea for cooperation. In this case, the Quds Force may ironically be receiving protection from the incompetence it allegedly exhibited in this case -- the plot's seeming implausibility is causing the diplomats' pleas to fall on deaf ears. In addition, memories of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 apparently continue to weigh on the international audience that U.S. diplomats are struggling to persuade. Without an attack having actually occurred, with the plot seemingly out of character for the elite Quds Force, and with U.S. intelligence claims now suspect, U.S. diplomats seem unlikely to get cooperation on additional sanctions that would alter the behavior of Iranian policymakers.
What about military retaliation, such as a night of airstrikes against Quds Force targets inside Iran? The purpose would be to correct the impression seemingly held by policymakers in Iran that they don't risk consequences from a bomb attack on Washington. If, on the other hand, the Washington plot was engineered by midlevel "rogues" in the Quds Force, military retaliation would be a signal to top-level Iranian officials that they will be held responsible for their subordinates' actions. My FP colleague Will Inboden noted that in 1993 President Bill Clinton ordered the destruction of Iraq's intelligence headquarters after a failed attempt to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush. The message this time would be that Quds Force operations are no longer risk-free.
However, the Obama administration, with undoubtedly much support from the Pentagon brass, is in no mood right now to start another shooting war. Airstrikes on Quds Force targets would appear to the rest of the world as a severe overreaction to an inept bomb plot, with the aforementioned international skepticism of U.S. intelligence only adding to the doubt. Diplomatically, the United States would be on its back foot from the start. Air strikes were likely never a serious consideration inside the White House.
Pentagon planners will resist having to execute an air operation while they are in the midst of the final withdrawal from Iraq and attempting to manage a fragile situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also know that a U.S. strike would not be the last move -- Iran's response to the attack would likely affect Saudi Arabia, Israel, Afghanistan, and others. If such an action has to occur, Pentagon planners likely prefer it to happen some other time and under more favorable logistical and diplomatic circumstances.
Deterrence doesn't seem to be working against Iran. Either Iran's top leaders don't fear U.S. retaliation, or they aren't in control of their subordinates -- neither explanation bodes well for deterrence theory. If the U.S. government hopes to dissuade a future Quds Force operation against Washington or some other important target, it will have to make some demonstration that will impress Iranian decision-makers. Until that happens, Washingtonians will have to brace and hope for the best.