An Iranian-American used car salesman pleaded guilty this month to conspiring with Iranian agents to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Mansour Arbabsiar's guilty plea would appear to be the end of this story, but in truth it raises more questions than it answers.
The facts were never really in dispute. U.S. officials learned of the plot early on and built an airtight case. The assassin Arbabsiar tried to hire was in fact a DEA informant. Once arrested, Arbabsiar confessed. At the direction of law enforcement, he then called his cousin and Quds Force handler, Gholam Shakuri. With agents listening, Shakuri insisted Arbabsiar go ahead with the plot. "Just do it quickly. It's late."
But why was the Quds Force, which had earned a reputation for operational prowess even among its enemies, so eager to move forward with an obviously flawed operation? Arbabsiar appears to have been a weak character who "wants to be important," as a government-retained psychiatrist determined. He was drawn into the plot by his cousin, a general in the Quds Force, the arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for external operations. So the real question is: What was the Quds Force thinking?
According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the plot "shows that some Iranian officials -- probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime."
This new calculus, intelligence officials believe, dates back to January 2010, when the Quds Force decided that it and Hezbollah, its primary terrorist proxy, would embark on a new campaign of violence targeting not only Israel but U.S. and other Western targets as well.
In the wake of last July's attack on Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian city of Burgas, a barrage of journalists called asking me to explain the logic of the attack. I was finishing a book on Hezbollah -- Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God, due out next year -- but still could not easily place the attack within Hezbollah's established modus operandi. The more I thought about it, the more perplexed I became. So, much to my editor's dismay, I stepped away from my keyboard long enough to meet with diplomats and intelligence and military officials from several countries to try and make sense of the new trend of Shia extremist attacks tied to Iran and its proxies. Here is what I have come to understand.
To understand the decision Iran made in January 2010 to engage in a new campaign of violence, one must hark back to the February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah master terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, who was allegedly responsible for the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, and numerous other attacks. Following Mughniyeh's death in Damascus, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for an "open war" on Israel. "The blood of Imad Mughniyeh will make them [Israel] withdraw from existence," Nasrallah vowed.
Within weeks, Hezbollah would attempt the first of several failed and foiled plots -- a series of simultaneous car bombings around the Israeli and U.S. embassies, the kidnapping of the Israeli ambassador, and blowing up a radar tower in Baku, Azerbaijan -- intended to make good on Nasrallah's threat. Several additional plots were foiled, leading the Quds Force to partner with Hezbollah and provide extensive logistical support for a large-scale bombing in Turkey in fall 2009. Turkish authorities disrupted a plot in which Hezbollah and Iranian agents posing as tourists intended to attack Israeli and possibly American and local Jewish targets. According to one account, a cell led by Abbas Hossein Zakr was looking to strike Israeli tourists, Israeli ships or airplanes, or synagogues in Turkey. Turkish police arrested Hezbollah operatives who reportedly smuggled a car bomb into the country from Syria while Quds Force agents left the country posing as tourists.