Argument

Why Iran Wants to Attack the United States

The Islamic Republic's terror plots may look bumbling today, but what about tomorrow?

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.

The foiled attack in Turkey was a watershed event for Hezbollah operational planners and their Iranian sponsors. According to Israeli intelligence officials, a blame game ensued between Hezbollah and the Quds Force over the past two years, as the two sides pointed fingers at each other for the failed operations. Meanwhile, by late 2009, Iran was increasingly interested in using Hezbollah to combat threats to its nascent nuclear program. The Islamic Republic was in need of an enforcer: Malfunctioning components had ruined Iranian centrifuges, IRGC officers had defected, and in January 2010 a bomb killed Iranian physics professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi outside his Tehran home.

Iranian officials were furious at Mohammadi's death, and reached two conclusions in its aftermath: First, Hezbollah had to revitalize its operational capabilities. And second, the IRGC would no longer act solely as logisticians supporting Hezbollah hit men -- it would now deploy Quds Force operatives to carry out terrorist attack abroad.

And Iran was in the position to tell Hezbollah where it would fall within Iran's plans. In February, Clapper characterized the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran as "a partnership arrangement, with the Iranians as the senior partner." This "strategic partnership," as National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew Olson put it, is the product of a long evolution from the 1980s, when Hezbollah was just a proxy of Iran.

Under Iran's instructions, Hezbollah's international terrorist wing, the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), underwent a massive operational reorganization. New operatives were recruited from the elite of Hezbollah's military wing for intelligence and operational training, while existing IJO operatives were moved into new positions. At the same time, the IJO invested in the development of capabilities and tradecraft that had withered on the vine after the group decided to rein in most foreign operations in an effort to keep out of the crosshairs of the post-9/11 war on terrorism.

As part of its IJO shakeup, Hezbollah engaged in detailed talks with Iranian officials to lay out Hezbollah's role in Iran's larger plan for a coordinated shadow war targeting Israeli, American, British, and Arab Gulf state interests. The plan they settled on would include operations intended to achieve several different goals, including taking revenge for Mughniyeh's assassination, retaliating for attacks on Iran's nuclear program, and convincing Western powers that an attack on Iran would lead to asymmetric terrorist attacks worldwide.

To this end, Iranian decision makers settled on a campaign of violence based on three broad targets: Israeli tourists, formal government targets (diplomats, retired officials), and targets broadly representative of Israel or the Jewish community (community leaders, prominent Israeli companies). It assigned the task of targeting Israeli tourists -- a soft target -- to Hezbollah, and gave the Quds Force responsibility for operations targeting Israeli, American, British, or Gulf states' interests. The latter would be carried out by Unit 400, the Quds Force's new special external operations branch.

The operational blitz that followed is now well known. Hezbollah operations included plots in Bulgaria, Thailand, South Africa, and Cyprus. Meanwhile, Quds Force operatives were at work in India, Georgia, Thailand, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Kenya, and -- through Mansour Arbabsiar -- the United States. Tehran was desperate to implement its new strategy and exact revenge for covert attacks against its nuclear program, so the Quds Force traded speed for tradecraft -- and reaped what it sowed. In some cases, Iranian agents employed laughable operational security; in others, the agents, like Arbabsiar, were kooky.

But the threats were real enough. Last June, Jonathan Evans, the director-general of the British intelligence agency MI5, noted that the plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy in Washington "leads straight back to the Iranian leadership."

The Quds Force is sure to recover from its operational sloppiness, and Iranian leaders appear committed to a policy of targeting Western interests. Arbabsiar's guilty plea ends one chapter in Iran's shadow war against the West, but authorities must remain vigilant for the plots yet to come.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Meet Sandy, the Game Changer

This storm could upend American politics -- if we're lucky.

One reason U.S. politics is almost as popular as NASCAR among American sports is that it gives the little guy someone to root for. Of course, that's almost never the candidates of the major parties, most of whom are odious concoctions of their own egos and the corrupting forces of money and ideology. But dependably, in campaign after campaign, a character sneaks on to the stage who captivates and highlights issues that otherwise would go unnoticed or under-examined.

Whether this candidate is a big-name iconoclast like New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg or a provocative outsider like Ron Paul -- who, although wrong on plenty of issues, was dependably willing to challenge conventional wisdom -- these folks liven up the debate. This year it took until the very end of the campaign to introduce 2012's biggest truth-teller. Like Beyoncé and Cher, she is known by only one name. But few if any players in the current campaign are likely to have the same impact.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Sandy.

Sandy, like many in an America with changing demographics, has overseas roots, hailing from the tropics. She rose to our attention in the south but ultimately, like so many others, she hit the big time in the northeast, and her political impact will extend well into the heartland of America, where this election will be decided. Like Joe Biden and Chris Christie, Sandy is an uncontrollable, wind-powered force of nature. Like many politicians, the first impression she may give the average voter is that she is all wet. But there is more to Sandy than meets her eye.

Sandy is a game-changer. For those of you who live far from the eastern shores of the United States, it is also worth noting that she is also a hurricane, a big one, currently cutting an 800-mile swath across one of the most heavily populated areas of the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. And in so doing, she is speaking volumes about subjects many U.S. politicians have avoided and, at the same time, she is having a major impact on America's process of electing a president.

To begin with, Sandy will do more to draw attention to issues of climate change than all the candidates running for every office in the United States during this election cycle have done. While it's impossible to attribute her size or impact to man-made origins, it is also impossible not to wonder whether the recent frequency of large storms is related to the growing oceans of data about the reality of global warming. Sandy looks like what climate scientists have been warning about for years.

Remember Hurricane Katrina? She may or may not have been triggered by man-made climate change. But she certainly forced climate back into the national discussion for an extended period. Sandy will do likewise. Certainly, given the sad virtual silence about the issue from our presidential contenders -- which amounts to nothing less than a planet-wide risk of the first order -- Sandy's intervention in this regard is welcome, if hugely and tragically costly.

Next, Sandy will also remind Americans and the world of the foolishness of some recent U.S. fetishes. I live in Washington, D.C., ostensibly the nerve center of the U.S. national security apparatus and target No. 1 for anyone interested in attacking America. The city is surrounded by military facilities and is home to a Department of Homeland Security that spends billions of dollars seeking to protect America against disruption. Yet this storm, like virtually all others of any size, will almost certainly knock out power to many of our nation's leaders and the infrastructure on which our government depends for days. The city has already been brought to a standstill. Could burying power lines and strengthening critical infrastructure prevent all that? Of course. But is it as sexy as buying more drones, water boards, and stealth helicopters? Nope.

So says Sandy, "Go ahead and protect yourself against low-risk threats. I want to remind you how vulnerable you are to the more predictable, commonplace variety."

Sandy also will batter the other elements of the region's infrastructure, in which America has failed to invest for the past half century or so. She will destroy weakened roadways and bridges and breakwaters. She will lash ancient port facilities. She will paralyze an air-traffic control system and railway systems that lag behind the world in their use of modern technologies. She will say, "Why aren't you spending your precious resources to protect your people and your economy? Why are you frittering away money building roads and airfields on the other side of the world when you should be taking care of business at home?"

She will also, of course, be the first figure on the national stage to do something about the scourge of obscenely over-financed campaigns. Instead of merely complaining about them, she will pull the plug on them by turning off power to millions. While sitting in darkness may be a hardship, enjoying a break from campaign ads (and Twitter and Internet snark and faux-analysis and political hyperventilation) will be seen by many as a welcome break.

Admittedly, this service comes at the high cost of making columns like this one unavailable to readers. But that seems small price to pay.

Finally, of course, Sandy really will have a political impact. We are not sure what it will be. There seems to be a kind of strangely otherworldly dimension to a giant storm that batters primarily blue states and involves the rare combination of circumstances that can send the impact of a hurricane into battleground territory like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Not only will ads be off the air, but early voting is being cancelled and some of the lingering impacts of power losses and infrastructure damage will certainly take a toll on voter turnout. Indeed, as it happens, Sandy may be that rarest of political actors -- one who reveals big truths and quite possibly has a lasting impact on world affairs. Because if, as seems likely, the U.S. presidential election is so close that any one big thing might shift the delicate balance, Sandy just might be the one to do it.

Mario Tama/Getty Images