“Brazen” alleged Iran-backed assassination plot perplexes U.S. analysts

Iran has fiercely denied U.S. charges that members of its elite Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force conspired in a foiled plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's envoy to Washington.

"The U.S. allegation is, obviously, a politically motivated move and a showcase of its long-standing animosity towards the Iranian nation," Tehran's ambassador to the UN Mohammad Khazaee charged in an angry letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday. "The Islamic Republic of Iran categorically and in the strongest terms condemns this shameful allegation by the United States authorities and deplores it as a well-thought evil plot."

Washington Middle East experts said that the allegations laid out in the American charges, if true, indeed represented a brazen escalation in Iran's recent m.o. Typically Iran's covert operations involve collaborations with trusted proxy militant groups to carry out attacks and antagonize rivals within its region. But Iran-watchers are still divided in their interpretation of the implications.

Some analysts have wondered out loud about the strength of the American case, asking whether the United States exaggerated the evidence tying Iranian officials to the alleged assassination plot. Others said the United States appeared to have the goods--including recordings of phone calls the chief suspect, Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar--made to Qods force associates to discuss the planned hit--but wondered what the motivation for such a provocative act would have been.

"This smelled to me very much like what we were seeing in Iraq in 2005 and 2007, when we were on a number of occasions astonished at how brazen the Qods force was," in sponsoring attacks against U.S. forces in that country, former National Intelligence Council analyst and State Department policy planning director David Gordon, now with the Eurasia Group, told The Envoy Wednesday. "There's no doubt in my mind that this goes back to Iraq."

Iran's elite Qods force "has been very important in Iraq; they have built an independent base of operations there… and this is where they have been hyper-aggressive in recent months against U.S. forces," Gordon continued. "Now the interesting thing is, this used to be contained to Iraq; how in the world did it get larger?" Has the Qods force grown so brazen and autonomous in the "crucible of Iraq," he wondered, that it acted independently of the Iranian government chain of command?

Former Treasury Department intelligence analyst Matthew Levitt strongly doubted that Qods operatives would have become so arrogant and reckless as to plot an assassination on U.S. soil without getting approval from the top. "There are red-lines, consequences," Levitt, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Envoy. "If there is anything that would need approval from the higher-ups, this would be it."

He conceded however that skepticism about the case is understandable, "because this really does fall outside the norms of Iran's normal modus operandi," he said. "It feels sloppy. But it wouldn't feel sloppy had we not caught a lucky break, and had the Mexican narco—person [the Iranian American suspect] approached [to conduct the hit] not been a cooperating witnesses."

There have been some notable past cases of Iran-backed groups conducting terrorism outside of its region. Among them, the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah was implicated in the 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aries, Argentina.

The 1980 assassination of a former Iranian diplomat Ali Akbar Tabatabai in Bethesda, Md., was carried out by an African American convert to Islam, David Belfield, aka Dawud Salahuddin, who said he had been recruited by an Iranian official. Salahuddin later fled to Iran, where he currently lives.

Some analysts and former officials, most notably former FBI director Louis Freeh, have contended the 1996 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia, was conducted by a Saudi cell that had Iranian support. Freeh contended that neither the U.S. nor Saudi governments wanted to publicly press this allegation at the time.

One thing is at least clear in the present case: Officials are no longer so reticent about airing explosive charges of alleged Iranian spookery. On Wednesday, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal denounced the exposed plot to a London conference, saying the evidence of Iranian complicity is "overwhelming."

"This is unacceptable," Prince Turki said, the Financial Times reported. "Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price ... no matter how high the level of that person is."

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