The bizarre plot federal law enforcement officials described Tuesday in which elements of the Iranian government are accused of trying to blow up Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. with explosives planted in a Washington restaurant sounds like something out of a spy novel. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III acknowledged as much at the news conference announcing the arrest of one of the alleged conspirators. Yet if true, the charges represent an unprecedented and intolerable provocation by a regime long known for exporting terrorism, and they demand the strongest possible response — short of direct military action — from the U.S. and the international community.
The allegations, which are contained in a criminal complaint filed by the Justice Department this week, outline a brazen scheme by top officials of Iran's elite military arm, the Quds force, to hire a Mexican drug cartel to murder Saudi ambassador Adel al-Jubeir while dining out. Had the plot been successful, U.S. officials say, hundreds of people might have been killed or injured.
The plot apparently unraveled only because the Iranian agent sent to Mexico in May to meet with the cartel, identified as Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, unwittingly met instead with a Drug Enforcement Administration informant posing as a cartel member, who notified authorities. Mr. Arbabsiar, who has been described as a former used car salesman in Texas, was arrested last month and reportedly has been cooperating with federal investigators to identify his Iranian handlers and confirm the involvement of top Quds force officials.
Why the Iranian government would apparently back such a risky and provocative attack on U.S. soil at a time when tensions between the two countries are rising remains something of a mystery. It seems highly unlikely that a rogue element in the Quds force would mount such a provocation without the permission or knowledge of the country's highest authorities, although U.S. officials say they can't definitely rule out that possibility. Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter rivals for influence in the Mideast, and previous Quds operations have targeted foreign diplomats as well as home-grown dissidents, though only once before on American soil.
Counter-terrorism experts also suggest the assassination plot may be linked to an internal power struggle in Tehran between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, who wields ultimate control over the Quds force. Given the high level of professionalism of most previous Quds operations, the clumsy way this plot was carried out — almost as if it were intended to be discovered — has led to speculation that it could even have been a deliberate attempt by the Khamenei faction to embarrass President Ahmadinejad and undermine his authority. In the wilderness of mirrors that characterizes Iran's fractured political structure, it may prove impossible to figure out the motivation of all the various players or the rationale behind their actions.
What seems clear, however, is that Iran has crossed a line by targeting the American homeland for terrorist attack, a provocation some lawmakers are calling the equivalent of an act of war. While this page does not believe a direct military response is either appropriate or wise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is right to insist that Iran be held accountable for its flagrant violation of diplomatic conventions and international law.
The U.S. can strengthen its case for tougher economic sanctions against Iran by sharing with its allies and other members of the international community as much of the intelligence pointing to Tehran's involvement in the plot as possible. In particular, it's vital to get Russia and China to agree to tough new measures against the Iranian banks and businesses controlled by the Quds force, from which it draws a significant portion of its support.
Iran's behavior will only change when its leaders become convinced that exporting terrorist violence will only further isolate their country from the world community and that the costs of disregarding international norms far outweigh any potential benefits. The U.S. can't unilaterally bring about that change of attitude in Tehran. But it can use this opportunity to mobilize a united front of nations willing to impose the kind of sanctions that Iran's autocratic rulers can no longer afford to ignore.