Incredulity has been the most common response to reports that Iran plotted with Mexican drug traffickers to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, at a Washington, D.C. restaurant. Given past U.S. intelligence failures, the opacity of the Iranian regime, and the seemingly clumsy nature of the operation, it is easy to dismiss the Obama administration's allegations that Iran planned such a risky attack. But there are plenty of reasons to think that the Islamic Republic's senior leadership was responsible for the plot.
The incredulity takes three forms: the Iranians would never conduct such an operation because it goes against their interests; the Iranians are too competent for such a cartoonish plot; and if Iran did do such a thing, it must have been a rogue operation by junior intelligence officers. All these arguments are plausible -- and all are probably wrong.
The suspected Iranian agent, Mansour Arbabsiar, allegedly met with a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) source whom he tried to hire for murder. "They want that guy done," he reportedly told the agent, referring to the Saudi ambassador. "If the hundred [of collateral victims] go with him, [expletive] them," according to the U.S. government complaint. Arbabsiar also "met several times in Iran" with Ali Gholam Shakuri, a senior member of Iran's paramilitary Quds Force, a special unit of the country's Revolutionary Guards that has carried out many terrorist attacks. Shakuri in turn informed the head of the Quds Force, who reports directly to Iran's Supreme Leader. There are also intercepted phone calls between Arbabsiar and Shakuri, which is hard evidence to dismiss. And then there is the money -- $100,000 -- transferred for the plot. Together this is pretty damning evidence.
But why would Iran do such a thing? Even FBI Director Robert Muller noted that the allegations seemed like "a Hollywood script." The blowback from the operation could be considerable, particularly if, as Arbabsiar anticipated, a hundred bystanders were killed along with the Saudi ambassador.
Tehran may have felt it still needed to act despite these risks. Iran has suffered serious recent setbacks in the Middle East. Its Syrian ally is under siege. Closer to home, Saudi troops led a crackdown in March in Bahrain, Iran's Gulf neighbor; the Sunni government there brutally repressed fellow Iran's Shiites, and the United States seemed to give tacit approval. Indeed, Saudi officials claim that Shakuri helped to plan Quds Force operations in Bahrain giving him a personal motive to lash out against the Saudis and the United States.
Revenge may also have been a motive, since several Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in recent years -- killings that are widely thought to be the handiwork of Israel intelligence, with U.S. approval. At a minimum, Iran would certainly believe that the "Little Satan" would not take such actions without the support of the "Big Satan." So payback and setbacks may have led Iran to lash out.
But even if Iran had a compelling motive, why would it use a bumbler like Arbabsiar and then allow him to use drug traffickers as allies?