By Annie Tracy Samuel and Daniel L. Tavana
Shortly after news broke of an alleged, failed “Iranian” plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., policymakers began campaigning for tough action against the Iranian government. House Speaker John Boehner called on President Obama to “hold Iran’s feet to the fire,” and Rep. Peter King urged the president to “respond forcefully to this grave provocation by Iran.” Senator Dianne Feinstein urged the administration to “explore whether there are other plots going on . . . in other countries.”
Such calls are based on the assumption that senior officials in the Iranian government sanctioned the alleged plot. That assumption, however, is not supported by the allegations laid out in the Department of Justice’s complaint or by past Iranian behavior.
As some analysts and experts have noted, very little is known about the circumstances surrounding the plot or the involvement of Iranian officials. The charges presented in the complaint — the claims the U.S. government believes it has enough evidence to prove in court — are a good place to begin.
The complaint charges two defendants, Mansour Arbabsiar and Ali Gholam Shakuri, with conspiracy to murder the Saudi Ambassador. It describes Arbabsiar as a naturalized U.S. citizen holding both Iranian and U.S. passports and Shakuri as a member of the Quds Force, an elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The vast majority of allegations made in the complaint are based on statements made by Arbabsiar after he was arrested and confessed to his participation in the plot.
Arbabsiar claims that Quds Force officials recruited, funded and directed him to carry out the assassination. He said those officials approved the use of and payments to the man hired to execute the plot, an associate of an international drug-trafficking cartel who turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant. Arbabsiar also explained that when he was in Iran last spring, he met Ali Gholam Shakuri, the other defendant and alleged Quds Force deputy, and with his cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, whom he believed to be a “big general in [the] army” working “in other countries.”
The complaint documents recorded conversations between Arbabsiar and Shakuri, but includes no other evidence of a connection to the IRGC or other Iranian officials. Interestingly, it does not name or charge Arbabsiar’s cousin, Shahlai, leaving us to assume that there is only a weak link between him and the plot. The complaint does not allege that Arbabsiar works, or has worked, as an agent of the Quds Force or the Iranian government.
If we accept the charges made in the complaint and take Arbabsiar’s words at face-value, we know that two Quds Force officers unsuccessfully and sloppily arranged, through intermediaries they thought to be associates of a Mexican drug cartel, to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, D.C. There is no evidence in the complaint to support the claim that other elements of the Iranian government knew about, approved of, or ordered this plot.
It is possible that Shahlai and Shakuri acted in defiance of Iranian political leaders, as IRGC officers and other officials have done in the past. However, the present case is still hard to comprehend even if we assume that the Quds Force acted independently. When elements of the Force have acted abroad in the past, it has been much easier to see how their actions have served their definition of Iran’s national interest.
For example, it was an IRGC officer who leaked evidence of the Iran-Contra Affair to a Lebanese newspaper in the 1980s. The officer, Mehdi Hashemi, opposed Iranian relations with the United States and acted to undermine the deal between the parties, even though senior Iranian officials supported and carried it out. Similarly, IRGC leaders decided to send a contingent of fighters to Lebanon in 1982 despite objections that the mission would drain needed manpower from the Iran-Iraq War. The IRGC officers did so because they viewed the projection of power abroad as an essential element of the Revolution’s success.
Similarly, in January 2002, Israeli forces intercepted the ship “Karine A” in the Red Sea on its way from Iran to the Palestinian territories and discovered a shipment of weapons on board. Iranian president Mohammad Khatami insisted he had no knowledge of the shipment. Indeed, Khatami’s administration was working at the time with American officials to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan. Diplomats on both sides were reportedly interested in building on the positive momentum generated from the cooperation. The discovery of the weapons shipment helped derail the Khatami Administration’s foreign policy. It is therefore entirely conceivable that members of the IRGC or similar Iranian operatives acted independently of the President. While Khatami thought that (limited) rapprochement with the United States was in Iran’s interests, those responsible for the weapons did not, and acted to protect their own interests and equities abroad.
In the present case, Shahlai and Shakuri may be errant operators within the Quds Force who perceived the plot against the Saudi Ambassador as a way to further personal or political interests.
The structure of the Force is based on cell-like corps, which is conducive to freelancing and independent action and makes it difficult for Iranian leaders to rein in rogue elements. Further, the IRGC is not a monolithic institution. Its many organizations and factions have different perspectives and interests. There is competition for power and resources both within the IRGC and between the IRGC and other institutions within Iran’s factional security apparatus. IRGC members hold different views on Iran’s foreign policy, national interests and the strategies and tactics that should be used to further those interests.
Those facts must be kept in mind as U.S. policymakers decide how to act on the allegations contained in the complaint and the related intelligence. Evidence that two or three Iranian Quds Force officers are responsible for the plot is not the same as evidence that senior Iranian political or military officials ordered the assassination.
Annie Tracy Samuel is a research fellow in the International Security Program and Dubai Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of History at Tel Aviv University. Daniel L. Tavana is a second-year MPP student at Harvard Kennedy School, where he studies Middle Eastern politics.