Even though an alleged co-conspirator has confessed to U.S. authorities about the plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States by blowing him up in a Washington restaurant, there are still significant unresolved questions.
The whole plot has a Keystone Kops quality, but so do many of the violent schemes cooked up by Iran’s rival and frequently feuding intelligence services. With any number of its own assassins under deep cover, the elite Quds Force instead elected to hire a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million to kill Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. The cartels, unquestionably murderous among their own people, are both treacherous and unreliable.
Unfortunately for the plot, Quds operative Mansour Arbabsiar — a 56-year-old, Iranian-born U.S. citizen — went to Mexico and chose an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as his conduit to the cartels. Arbabiar was barred from Mexico on a subsequent trip, redirected to New York and into the arms of U.S. authorities.
He reportedly confessed that the whole plot had been conceived, directed and supported by the Iranian government. Charged with him was Gholam Shakuri, an Iranian-based operative for Quds allegedly still in Iran.
The Quds Force is an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Force, one of those well-equipped paramilitaries that dictatorships tend to establish when they don’t trust the regular military, particularly when it comes to carrying out operations against its own people.
Relations between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, never good, are at one of their periodic lows. Iran was largely shut out of the Arab Spring, its closest ally, Syria, is in the throes of an anti-government uprising, its costly military buildup has not brought it anything like the respect it believes it deserves and meanwhile Saudi Arabia maintains a productive and close relationship with the United States.
Iran, through its own doing, has no relations with the United States, while al-Jubeir, educated at North Texas State and Georgetown, has become one of the most popular, respected and influential envoys in Washington.
Though the Iranians might have found it emotionally satisfying to kill al-Jubeir and his fellow American diners, the act would have been reckless beyond belief, all but an act of war with one nation that has debated forcibly taking out Iran’s nuclear capacity and another nation that has regularly urged the U.S. to do so.
The implications are alarming, not because Iran has undertaken overseas assassinations — it has done so in the past, including within the United States — but because it shows that Iran’s clerical dictatorship, deeply unpopular with its own people and internally divided, may be becoming dangerously unstable.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.