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    Middle East
     Oct 18, 2011

Obama totes his Iranian smoking gun
By Victor Kotsev

Regardless of what we believe about the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, it has attracted a lot of attention. The specifics are less important than the highly charged context in which the news broke - with tensions running so high in so many parts of the Middle East, Iran is involved practically everywhere, locked in an intense power struggle with its American-backed arch-enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In the immediate future, the charges can serve to further isolate the Islamic Republic in the international community. The United States has been trying to do just that (supported by Saudi Arabia, which officially notified the United Nations of the alleged conspiracy), and despite initial skepticism, [1] the debate seems

to be picking up.

Different observers have compared it to the hostage crisis at the United States Embassy in Tehran in 1979, the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992, and numerous other attacks worldwide, many on diplomatic targets, that were attributed to Iran, the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah (closely allied with Iran), or both.

Israeli analyst Yossi Melman points out, "Saudi Arabia's ambassador Adel al-Jubeir is considered a bitter rival of Iran and his actions have been loathed by the ayatollah regime for years ... al-Jubeir maintains close ties with the Saudi king, and according to WikiLeaks documents he was one of the people who succeeded in toughening the king's stance toward Iran." [2]

Investigative journalist Gareth Porter suggests that the American secret services may have practically entrapped the main suspect, Mansour Arabsiar, and influenced him heavily to pursue the terrorist track with his Iranian handlers (See FBI account of 'terror plot' suggests sting, Asia Times Online, October 14, 2011). "On May 24, when Arabsiar first met with the [Drug Enforcement Administration] DEA informant he thought was part of a Mexican drug cartel, it was not to hire a hit squad to kill the ambassador," writes Porter. "Rather, there is reason to believe that the main purpose was to arrange a deal to sell large amounts of opium from Afghanistan." [3]

Others, such as former high-ranking American diplomat Martin Indyk, find the Iranian plot convincing. "Seldom is the Iranian hand in terrorism revealed as clearly as it was Tuesday in the careful details provided by the US Justice Department," writes Indyk. He goes even further, linking the plot to the prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas last week, and arguing that the latter was a blow to Tehran.

"The best way for Iran to spread its influence into the Arab heartland is to stoke the flames of conflict with Israel. Any prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel would take fuel off the fire." [4]

Given how clumsily the Washington plot was reportedly executed, it is hard to imagine that it was specifically coordinated with another complex process that lasted for months (the Shalit deal). Still, there is reason to believe that the Iranian regime is on the defensive, and Indyk's reasoning that "[w]hen the Iranian regime finds itself in a corner, it typically lashes out" may not be too far off.

Not that the United States, Israel or Saudi Arabia are doing very well in the Arab Spring revolutions - the events in Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen attest to that - but Iran has suffered several particularly bad setbacks recently.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Syria is burning in a slow civil war; the government of Bashar al-Assad, a close Iranian ally, still appears to be strong, barring a foreign intervention [5], but the situation in the country is so bad that, according to US ambassador there Robert Ford, people cannot even afford to buy eggs. [6]

Syria is a crucial part of Iran's defensive network in the Middle East, and its loss would be a major blow to both Iran and Hezbollah. As a result of the civil war there, Iran has already lost a lot of influence with Hamas.

If Francesco Sisci's analysis is correct, a great fear of the Iranians may well be that, should relations between Israel and the Palestinians warm, Arabs and Israelis could cooperate against the Islamic Republic (and other powers that seek to dominate the Islamic world, such as Turkey). Sisci writes:
... Arabs and Israelis could have common ground, and Palestinians could be in the golden position of being able to mediate between Arabs and Israelis - and between the Arab-Israeli front and Turkish or Persian ambitions. This could change forever the shape of the Middle East, and potentially bring about a more integrated market where Muslims, Christians and Jews could co-exist and thrive outside of an oil-driven economy. [7]
While any major alliance certainly does not seem imminent, since last year a flurry of reports has asserted that Saudi Arabia would cooperate with Israel in an attack on Iran - for example, by opening up its air space. [8]

Down the road, if proven, and especially if bolstered by additional credible charges (for example of Iranian involvement in the killing of US troops in Iraq), the plot against the Saudi ambassador could even serve as a casus belli for the United States against the Islamic Republic. It could also be a justification for President Barack Obama to tacitly approve (sometimes called giving the "yellow light") on an Israeli operation against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Whether Israel is capable of confronting Iran on its own - or ultimately willing to do so - is another question, one that nobody seems to be able to answer. In any case, Israeli officials are again drumming up the heat on the Iranian nuclear program.

Leaked estimates claim that the window of opportunity for a strike on the Islamic Republic this winter will close in two months, because "[i]n normal winter weather conditions, it would be very difficult to carry out such a complex assault"; reports in the Israeli press convey how worried American officials are about a unilateral Israeli operation.

One even has to wonder if the continuous dire admonitions of the former chief of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, of the Benjamin Netanyahu government to abstain from attacking Iran aren't to an extent a show intended to dramatize the threat. [9]

According to most estimates, Iran is at least several years away from producing a nuclear weapon - if it is even going down that route, something it denies. Nevertheless, tensions in the region are running extremely high - Iraq also deserves a mention - and the rhetoric of the American administration has grown very loud. Reportedly, Obama claimed that no options were "off the table in terms of how we operate with Iran" following the plot incident. [10]

It is possible that elements within the Iranian regime are interested in a confrontation; the Islamic Republic responded to the accusations with threats of its own. "Any inappropriate measure against Iran, whether political or security-related, will be strongly confronted by the Iranian nation," Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, quoted by Reuters. [11]

None of this bodes very well for regional peace in the Middle East; if it turns out that neither side is sufficiently motivated to ward of a confrontation, war might come around just by inertia.

As a final note, a recurring element in many of the subplots mentioned above is Hezbollah. While nothing so far points to its direct involvement in the Saudi ambassador plot, it is known to have significant networks in South America, to cooperate closely in terrorist activities with the Iranian Qods force, and to be keenly interested in everything involving Israel and Syria (the latter being its resupply life line from Iran), including the Shalit deal. Its presence is rumored in many places touched by the Arab Spring, and its role in the region is likely gravely underestimated by most analysts

1. U.S. Challenged to Explain Accusations of Iran Plot in the Face of Skepticism, The New York Times, October 12, 2011 (registration required).
2. The mystery behind the alleged Iran assassination plot, Ha'aretz, October 16, 2011.
3. FBI account of 'terror plot' suggests sting, Inter Press Service.
4. The Iranian Connection, Foreign Policy, October 12, 2011.
5. The Issue Of Foreign Intervention – US Calls on Assad to “Step Down Now”. Robert Ford, making a difference (By Ehsani), Syria Comment, October 7 2011.
6. Robert Ford: Syria violence reminds me of Iraq, Foreign Policy, October 14, 2011.
7. Israel, Palestine and the art of war, Francesco Sisci, October 13, 2011.
8. See, for example, CISI, Report Alleges Saudi Arabia Approves Israeli Attack on Iran's Nuclear Sites, June 14, 2010.
9. Former Mossad chief: Iran far from achieving nuclear bomb, Ha'aretz, October 4, 2011.
10. Obama: No options off the table over Iran assassination plot, Ha'aretz, October 13, 2011.
11. Iran warns off West over alleged Saudi envoy plot, Reuters, October 16, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

The occupy Iran Fast and Furious plot (extended)
(Oct 14, '11)

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Iran crisis close to climax? (Jul 2, '11)

FBI account of 'terror plot' suggests sting

2. Is China drinking its own Kool-Aid?

3. The occupy Iran Fast and Furious plot (extended)

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5. Never have so few been blamed for so much by so many

6. US, Korea on brink of new trade world

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(Oct 14-16, 2011)


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