Something just doesn't add up...

Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N. Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.

The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.

As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.

Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?

Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.

So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.

Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

A tangled tale

For the record: I don't know if there was a genuine Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Let me repeat that: I don't know. And neither do you. All we know is that the U.S. government claims to have uncovered such a plot, involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman who allegedly was getting direction from some part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This dangerous criminal mastermind reportedly thought he was paying a Mexican drug cartel to conduct the actual attacks, when he was in fact dealing with an undercover DEA agent.

As I said, none of us really know what was going on here, but several features ought to be kept in mind. First, the Iranian government is by all accounts a contentious and unruly body, and it is possible that some rogue element of the Revolutionary Guards came up with this cockamamie but obviously despicable scheme. Whether Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad had anything to do with it, of course, is another matter entirely.

Second, the FBI doesn't have a terrific track record in identifying and documenting this sort of conspiracy, and we'd be fools to take their accusations at face value. There is sometimes a fine line between uncovering a real terrorist plot and subtly encouraging one, as in the famous case of the "Miami Seven," whose plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago appears to have been largely inspired by the undercover agent who eventually exposed them. Until we know a lot more about the actual time line and evidence behind these latest accusations, a certain skepticism is warranted. And I wouldn't be surprised if the government eventually reveals that the evidence of direct Iranian involvement is based on intercepted signals intelligence, which it will then claim it cannot make public without compromising sources and/or methods. In other words, just trust us...

Third, before we leap to the conclusion that this is more evidence of how heinous Iran's revolutionary leadership is, let's pause to remember that the United States and some of our allies have done similar things in the past. We tried to bomb Muammar al-Qaddafi's tent back in the 1980s, and the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro and a few other foreign leaders back in the 1960s. And the United States has certainly backed various groups that used assassination and other forms of terrorism to advance their political aims, such as the Nicaraguan contras. Some of you might think that these efforts were justified; my point is simply that we aren't wholly innocent in this regard. That doesn't justify what Iran is accused of doing, but it might temper our own moral outrage a bit.

Lord knows there's plenty of grounds for concern about various Iranian actions (including their reliance on murder and/or sabotage on several occasions in the past), and no shortage of conflicts of interest between Tehran and Washington. But this story is sufficiently bizarre -- would a real Iranian agent actually try to hire a drug cartel to do his dirty work? -- and the potential consequences are sufficiently grave that we really ought to wait until we know more before drawing any conclusions at all.