Tony Badran is a Research Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, DC. He focuses on Lebanon, Syria and...
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By Tony Badran
The alleged Iranian plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and to target the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, has left casual observers, analysts and regional experts shocked. They see this prospective Iranian campaign as an unprecedented escalation in Tehran’s war against the US and its allies. In reality, the Iranians have been building toward something like this for months. Recognizing the strategic designs behind Iran's brazenness should spur the Obama administration to reassert its leadership in the region and refocus US priorities in the Middle East.
Some of the analysis immediately following the official disclosure of the plot’s details has tended to focus primarily on the plausibility of the US charge that the plot was “conceived, sponsored and directed” from Iran. However, when read through the prism of the regional balance of power, particularly against the backdrop of the US posture of retrenchment, Iran’s power play appears less surprising.
It is worth revisiting the context of the plot. The published complaint states that that the conspiracy began “at least in or about the spring of 2011,” and according to US officials who spoke to The Daily Beast, President Barack Obama first learned of the plot in June. In other words, the operation was set in motion at a critical time in the region: The Saudis had displayed willingness to interfere militarily in order to block what they perceived as an Iranian attempt to undermine them in Bahrain. In addition, Tehran’s strategic Arab ally, the Assad regime in Syria, was being challenged by a popular uprising, which the Iranians blamed on the US and its regional allies.
By June, Iran was already making threats against US allies, namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia, over both Syria and Bahrain. These threats recently intensified and expanded to include other regional actors as well as US interests in the region.
Last week, the Iranian Fars News Agency website published a curious item relaying a threat allegedly made by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during the latter’s visit to Damascus in early August. Aside from the expected warning of targeting Israel, Assad reportedly threatened that, in the event of a NATO attack against Syria, “Iran will attack the US warships in the Persian Gulf, and the US and European interests will be targeted simultaneously.” In a direct reference to Saudi Arabia, Assad also reportedly said that Gulf Shia would be activated as suicide attack units.
That this threat involving Iranian intervention on behalf of its ally was reproduced on an official Iranian outlet is itself revealing. It was reinforced by a simultaneous report about the meeting between Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and the Qatari Crown Prince in which the Iranian diplomat warned Doha that foreign interference in Syria “will push the whole region into crisis.”
Tehran’s belligerent posture is directly related to the regional developments in which Iran sees a challenge to its plans for regional hegemony. In issuing these public threats to rival regional actors, the Iranians are announcing their willingness to use force to safeguard their alliance system and ensure that the regional balance of power remains in their favor and decidedly against the US.
What has been the US reaction to these public threats? Ironically, the Iranian effort has been largely effective in deterring the Obama administration, especially in Syria. For example, as The New York Times reported last month, administration officials have said that they do not want to give the Iranian government “an excuse to intervene” by appearing to be “orchestrating the outcome” in Syria.
This US posture of disinclination and reluctance has not been lost on anyone in the region. It is highly possible, therefore, that the Iranians wagered that they could push the envelope further—all the way to Washington. As some analysts have noted, it is reasonable to assume that the Iranians calculated that there would not be serious repercussions to their plan in DC. Specifically, the Iranians probably believed that there would be no military response, and therefore made a calculated risk to go on the offensive, putting to use the assets and networks the Qods Force and its Hezbollah surrogate have been developing for quite a while.
By targeting Saudi Arabia on US soil, the Iranians would be dealing a double blow. They would be striking at Washington’s primary Arab ally (especially as question marks currently surround Egypt), all while highlighting US weakness as a patron state, both in terms of its inability to protect its clients, and also in what Iran believes will be an impotent retaliation.
Iran is viewing the developments in the Arab world, including their own loss of power and prestige, in the stark terms of pure power politics. Accordingly, their response is raw force and terror. In contrast, the Obama administration has yet to account for the critical regional shifts and retailor its strategic framework to fit them. Furthermore, the White House has failed to press its strategic interests and objectives—which include destroying Iran’s alliance system and neutralizing Tehran's ability to project power.
It is now time for the US to make this clear to friend and foe alike.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article was first published on NOWLebanon.