Five questions raised by the alleged Iranian assassination plot

While Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Captain Louis Renault issued an official statement saying that his government is "shocked, shocked" at allegations that they were behind an assassination plot to kill Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir, the incident raises many important questions.

Among them:

  • What would the Obama Administration's response have been had they succeeded?
    If the plot had unfolded as planned and these Iranian operatives had blown up al-Jubeir in a restaurant in Washington, would the Obama Administration have considered retaliating with force against the Iranians? Drone strikes? Air strikes against selected Iranian targets (that perhaps happened to be linked to their nuclear program)? Coordinated action with the Saudis? With the Saudis and the Israelis? Or would the United States have protested vigorously in the U.N. and taken actions akin to those they are taking now to further isolate Iran in the international community? What if American citizens had been killed in the attack as they almost inevitably would have been? Remember Joe Biden's assertion long-ago that the President would be tested by foreign enemies. This is the kind of thing he had in mind. Except the context here is that the United States is broke and pulling out of the Middle East and Obama would certainly like to avoid being drawn back into a big conflict in the region. The Iranians, it seems were betting that the response would therefore be contained. And while I understand the rationale, I think the calculation is wrong. Dead Americans lying in the rubble of a Washington restaurant would require an immediate and forceful response. It would be a mistake for the Iranians or anyone else to underestimate the power an attack would have to galvanize U.S. public opinion in favor of strong action.
  • What will happen if U.S. efforts "isolate Iran" aren't successful?
    The U.S. is, according to the Washington Post, "scrambling in search of new punitive measures to impose against a country that has already been hit with multiple rounds of sanctions." As the quote implies, finding new penalties that have been already been considered, imposed, or failed is going to be tough. Further, getting other countries to go along with such measures is going to be tough if there are big powers that will sit on the sidelines as they have in past such efforts (which after all, involve the much bigger stakes associated with Iran's nuclear program). So you have to assume that whatever the United States comes up with is going to be weaker and less effective than would be optimal. And the result will be a message to the Iranians that the downside risk of exploring such initiatives is fairly minimal. It may even end up sending a message that is the opposite of the point above -- which is that the United States will not be able to response effectively even to a successful attack. My sense is that's wrong ... but let's be clear, even considering a plot like the one revealed yesterday suggests that somebody somewhere concluded the risks associated with it were manageable and worth undertaking.
  • What were the Iranians thinking?
    The prior point leads directly to the core question, why would Iran undertake such a mission? Some might ask whether this was a decision taken high up in the Iranian government, but in my view that is a naïve question. The plan allegedly involved both the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its covert Quds force. These are among the most important of Iran's institutional terror arms and a plot that would directly provoke both the United States and the Saudis would not have been undertaken without approval from senior Iranian leadership. Which means that high up in the Iranian government there are those who feel they can attack the United States and the Saudis with impunity and that they welcome the potential escalation of conflict that might bring. Whether these are radical elements seeking to achieve an internal political objective through the initiative or not, the plot suggests a degree of hubris that is worrisome to say the least. Is it fed by progress Iran is making extending its influence into Iraq, its success thus far in staving off the opposition in Syria, recent progress made by its clients in Hamas, the apparent retreat of the United States to deal with domestic economic problems? Is it the beginning of a new set of bolder initiatives? If they are willing to undertake such a mission what does it mean they may be contemplating on lower risk fronts like cyber-attacks? If they are willing to be so bold what does it mean they might do should they ever actually attain nuclear weapons capability? Whatever the answers to these questions are, there is no question but that the Iranians are emboldened and remain, as the United States has long asserted, one of the leading state-sponsors of terror.
  • What does the alleged involvement of Mexican cartels in the plot imply?
    It suggests that the increasing inability of the Mexican government to impose the rule of law in several important regions of the country near the U.S. border poses a more serious security risk than is commonly discussed. Taken in conjunction with other evidence of Iranian efforts to establish operational footholds in this hemisphere (see Ambassador Marc Ginsburg's Huffington Post piece from yesterday on this), it also should suggest that security cooperation in the Americas ought to be a higher priority issue than it at least seems to be. Not that the Iranians and their scattershot and some might suggest hare-brained plans pose any kind of sustained threat to the United States of themselves. But all pockets of deeply anti- United States feeling or failed or failing states or regions in the hemisphere are certain to attract bad actors and sooner or later some plan is going to result in real damage being done. If that's the case, the casualties won't just be in the U.S., they will be to U.S. relations with other countries in the Americas. Imagine for a moment if a restaurant blast in DC was linked to both Iran and Mexican cartels. How high do you think that wall on the border would end up being? How hollow would Mexican government claims that "everything is under control" ring?
  • What does Iran's involvement in this plan mean for Iran's enablers in the world? Thus far, Iran has been able to avoid feeling the real pain of sanctions targeting its nuclear program because of the explicit or tacit support of a wide variety of enablers around the world, notably those from a host of major emerging powers who may speak official words of condemnation (or not) but who continue to deal with the Iranians in ways that support the regime. Much as Putin's efforts to undercut democracy in Russia were "a headache for the BRICs" in the words of one senior diplomat familiar close to the countries involved, so too does Iran getting caught behaving true to form produce collective egg on the face of those who have been suggesting the Iranians have been persecuted by the United States or the Israelis or other powers the world loves to hate. How would a successful attack have impacted these countries and their stance on Iran? And were it to produce a forceful response that for a while put Persian Gulf oil flows at risk, how might that have impacted not just the world economy but countries like China and India that depend increasingly on that oil? Do incidents like this move such powers closer to the role that they must ultimately play as more active protectors of global security? Do they reveal to countries like China, India and Brazil in particular that there are serious dangers associated with being too involved with or supportive of a regime as dangerous as that in Tehran?

Finally, questions aside, if the plot against the Saudi Ambassador is as it was described in yesterday's press events and in subsequent stories, the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in detecting it and quashing it deserves national ... and international ...a ppreciation. Tough as the above questions are, it is clear in considering them that a successful attack would have produced much tougher questions indeed.

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David Rothkopf

Is America incapable of conducting a moral foreign policy?

We can't blame the moral failures of today on someone else.

It's not Bush this time. It's not a prior generation betraying a trust. It's not another country failing to live to the standards of civilization. We're not even able to defend ourselves by saying we were ignorant of what was happening or by feigning that we were looking the other way.

This time, it's us. American liberals have the reins of U.S. foreign policy right now and we are embracing a course in which we are the ones who condone torture, turn our back on genocide, sidestep the rule of law. We operate Guantanamo and defend using extreme measures with terrorists. We ignore national sovereignty. We acknowledge the deaths of thousands upon thousands at the hands of weak, brutal regimes and we say, "not our problem" or "to intervene would be too hard." Then we go off and weep and some other movie of the Holocaust and walk out wondering how any generation could allow such a thing to happen. But we are demonstrating that evil exists in the world not because of the occasional rise of satanic bad men but because of the enduring willingness of average people tolerate what should be intolerable -- apathy has killed more people than Osama or Saddam ever did.

(And before all the "yes, buts...": It is too easy to say Obama is not "really" a liberal. He is in fact, the distilled essence of the liberal ideal in America over the past couple decades, the product of liberal movements, the liberal establishment, an espouser of liberal ideals, the most open and clearly liberal political candidate to be elected to high office in the United States since the middle of the last century -- more so than self-described "centrists" like Clinton, Carter or Kennedy. He may have checked his liberal ideals at the door of the White House situation room, but that's not a counter-argument, that's the point.)

All of us who embrace in any way any part of the idea of liberalism need to own up to the current situation, to remember our past righteous condemnations of others and to ask how we got here. We need to examine why we apply our values so sporadically -- if any beliefs that are so haphazard and so selectively applied can be called a values system at all.

Look at the story running in today's New York Times and elsewhere on the new U.N. report on torture in Afghanistan. Based on hundreds of interviews, the conclusion is that America's Afghan allies regularly employ torture against prisoners linked to that country's insurgency. According to the Times "It paints a devastating picture of abuse, citing evidence of ‘systematic torture' during interrogations by Afghan intelligence police officials even as American and other Western backers provide training and pay for nearly the entire budget of the Afghan ministries running the detention centers." It would be preposterous to suggest the United States, bankrolling these operations, did not know what was going on. It is clear that despite our vast military presence in Afghanistan, we did nothing to stop it. It is also, as it happens, illegal for the United States to provide aid to police organizations embracing torture but that little issue seems to have been set aside. That these governments we support also abuse their female citizens or institutionalize intolerance only compounds the wrong.

Or, alternatively, look at the discussions surrounding the decision by this administration to authorize the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. CNN reported yesterday that U.S. may release its memo authorizing the decision to kill the terrorist leader. The objective is to demonstrate the legal basis for the attack which also killed another U.S. citizen. While Awlaki richly deserved to die, the question as to whether U.S. officials have the right to summarily order such an attack raises important ethical questions about the nature and conduct of modern warfare and the decision processes by which public officials arrogate onto themselves roles traditionally left to judges and juries.

Another dimension of the ethical issues raised in the Awlaki attack has to do with the broader question of drone warfare. Scott Shane's "Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race" in the Sunday Times raised the specter of this issue growing and, as I have argued before, before it does, we ought to be having a vigorous discussion about why it is we think having the technology to violate the sovereignty of other nations with impunity grants us the right to do so. The implication of Shane's piece, of course, is that sooner rather than later, the shoe is going to be on the other foot. We will be targeted. Our officials may be cited as direct threats to some other nation ... perhaps even reasonably cited as such. And then what?

Further, as important as are the issues raised in such stories, equally important are the issues raised by the instances where there are few if any stories at all. We don't hear much about Guantanamo any more. We don't debate much those wars and social catastrophes in which we don't intervene despite the huge human costs. We are essentially silent about the moral consequences of postponing discussion on tolerating an economic system that promotes inequality, puts the weakest at risk due to the greed of the most powerful or threatens the planet's environment.

Some might call the approach America today embraces as realism. Others might say it is justified by circumstances. Both may be true and the tough hard realities of the world may be what directs all American presidents into the mainstream of compromise and pragmatism. But what it is also is frequently morally indifferent and occasionally indefensible.

We have to acknowledge that we have become that which we condemned. We have demonstrated through our actions that we too feel morality is just for speeches and or to be used as a cudgel with which to attack the opposition. And we have to ask, can there be such a thing a liberal U.S. foreign policy or is our national character so corrupted by a sense of self-righteous exceptionalism that there is no place in our policies for solid values consistently applied?

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