Focal Points Blog

Putting a Face on Iran Policies a Study in Frustration

Mark Hibbs, now of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a nuclear-journalism legend: no one tracked the AQ Khan-nuclear black market with more tenacity and in more depth. At Arms Control Wonk, he writes, regarding the difficulty determining exactly who makes the decisions about Iran’s nuclear program that it is far from

… clear who key personel [sic] in Iran–including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading scientist–are taking orders from. And it would appear that difficulties experienced by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] in assigning personal responsibility or authority for directing nuclear activities in Iran involving military-affiliated personnel and organizations–in particular the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)–may be similar to problems the U.S. government is currently facing in trying to establish a watertight connection between suspects it says were planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, and higher-ups at the top of the Iranian government. [Emphasis added.]

The line we heard from the U.S. last week that there was a direct connection between the alleged perpetrators of the foiled assassination plot and Iran’s top leadership has since been qualified by some U.S. officials who acknowledge that that relationship might not be so direct after all. In the IAEA’s nuclear investigation, similar forensic problems have arisen over the last five or six years.

In other words, just as it’s impossible to trace the assassination plot to the IRGC

… there’s no slam-dunk record on file showing that someone at the top of the Iranian regime authorized scientists or procurement agents to go for broke and steer the nuclear program in the direction of nuclear weapons.

Gaddafi Just Another Tyrant Who Painted Himself Into a Corner

Tyrants such as Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein seal their own fate. At Dictator Watch, using Burma’s ruling junta (turned civilians as of the last election) as an example, Roland Watson explains.

Imagine what the generals of Burma will face when the country goes free. First, they may be killed. In the turbulence of the transition itself, there is a good possibility that they will be attacked, either by their fellow officers, through a coup, or by the people. Secondly, if they are not killed they will be arrested. They will almost certainly be subjected to war crimes prosecution, and end up as inmates in facilities such as Insein Prison, where for decades they have held and tortured dissidents. Thirdly, they and their family and friends, will lose all or a large portion of their wealth. Not everything can be hidden in a bank in Singapore. The businesses that they think they own will be nationalized.

In short

… they will lose it all.

Or as Daniel Drezner at Foreign Policy writes:

Simply put, when leaders have expectations of a violent demise if they lose power, they have a more powerful incentive to use force to stay in power. So, congrats to Libya, but this is simply going to harden the hearts of Bashir Assad and others out there determined to stay in power through any means necessary — including instigating cross-border conflicts.

U.S. Tries to Prop up Iran Assassination Case With Misinformation

In an article on October 13, Gareth Porter of IPS News wrote that the alleged Iran plot to assassinate Saudi Arabian Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir might have been the result of a domestic sting operation. He analyzed the case’s amended criminal complaint — the legal document describing evidence — against Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar.

Arbabsiar allegedly asked a woman with whom he was acquainted whether she could introduce him to someone who “knew explosives.” She connected him with her nephew, an undercover federal informant whose meetings with Arbabsiar were recorded. Overlooked by others but noted by Porter on the tapes

The fact that not a single quote from Arbabsiar shows that he agreed to assassinating the ambassador, much less proposed it, suggests that he was either non-committal or linking the issue to something else, such as the prospect of a major drug deal with the cartel.

In other words:

On May 24, when Arbabsiar first met with the DEA informant he thought was part of a Mexican drug cartel, it was not to hire a hit squad to kill the ambassador. Rather, there is reason to believe that the main purpose was to arrange a deal to sell large amounts of opium from Afghanistan.

In fact (emphasis added)

… the absence of any statement attributed to Arbabsiar impl[ies] that the Iranian-American said nothing about assassinating the Saudi ambassador except in response to suggestions by the informant, who was already part of an FBI undercover operation.

In his latest piece, U.S. Officials Peddle False Intel to Support Terror Plot Claims, Porter writes:

The primary objective of the FBI sting operation involving Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar and a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant that was started last June now appears to have been to use Arbabsiar to implicate [his cousin Abdul Reza] Shahlai in a terror plot.

In the interim, reports had arisen that Shahlai, identified as a deputy commander in the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had planned the infamous 2007 Mahdi Army attack on U.S. troops in Karbala, Iraq. Porter again:

Officials of the Barack Obama administration have aggressively leaked information supposedly based on classified intelligence in recent days to bolster its allegation that [Shahlai and another Revolutionary Guard Corpsman were] involved in a plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.

In short order

Michael Issikof of NBC News reported the same day that Shahlai “had previously been accused of plotting a highly sophisticated attack [Karbala] that killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq, according to U.S. government officials and documents made public Tuesday afternoon.” … On Saturday, the Washington Post published a report closely paralleling the Issikof story but going even further in claiming. … that Shahlai “was known as the guiding hand behind an elite militia of the cleric Moqtada al Sadr”, which had carried [the Karbala attack].

When, in fact

… U.S. officials acknowledged in the months after the Karbala attack that they had found no evidence of any Iranian involvement in the operation. … Gen. David Petraeus conceded that [no evidence showed that an] Iranian official was linked to the planning of the Karbala operation. “[We] do not have a direct link to Iran involvement in that particular case.” [Also] Gen. Kevin Bergner confirmed that the attack in Karbala had been authorised by the Iraqi chief of the militia in question, Kais Khazali, not by any Iranian official.

Piling on untruths doesn’t make a plot already staggering under the weight of its credibility problems any more believable.

UN Origins Project Part 7: Forging a Lasting Peace

War and Peace AimsWorld War II ushered in the age of globalization. While the proliferation of information-technology has increased the speed of globalization to breakneck pace in the last two decades, the foundations of the tightly interconnected world we live in now were laid in the early days of World War II by leaders hoping to prevent the next Great War.

Having lived through two cataclysmic world wars, the overriding concern for leaders of the day was engineering an international system that would increase state interdependence, both in an effort to limit conflict and encourage cooperation in the face of crises.

In many ways, the discussions about how to order the international system at the end of World War II reflect the discussions currently under way in the debt-ridden Euro-zone. Then, as now, the largest and most powerful states faced a choice: recognize that a new era of global interdependence required strong and resolute action to stave off future disaster, and that truly we are all in this together, or retreat back towards a policy of isolationism and disengagement and blithely hope that when the storm comes it does not reach your shores.

As in 1944, we cannot allow ourselves to be seduced through fear or greed by the short, narrow and selfish view.

The following was taken from remarks made by the British Minister of State Richard Law at London’s Caxton Hall on October 28, 1943. This passage was published in War and Peace Aims: Extracts from Statements of United Nations Leaders, Special Supplement No. 3 to the United Nations Review, April 30, 1944.

We and our Allies are completely interdependent. This is a world war, and the peace, which will follow will have to be a world peace. Neither we nor any of our Allies can fight this war single-handed. Neither we nor any of our Allies can make peace single-handed. This is the lesson, which by this time, I hope, we shall have thoroughly learned. We shall have learned it through the mistakes of the past and through the triumphs of the present and future.

We shall have to create international institutions or codes of rules, which will sustain the enormously complicated and delicate structure of international security. It is true that we must never again find ourselves in the positions, in which we found ourselves at the time, for example, of the Munich agreement, when there was no collective organization for peace on which we could rely and when we had not the physical strength to defend ourselves. That was a shameful period in our history, a period of blindness and folly, and we must never repeat it. But we must realize that, no matter how strong we may be ourselves, we shall still need the strength of international organizations to buttress political and military security.

I think that is generally recognized not only in this country, but elsewhere. Recent debates in both Houses of Congress show how generally recognized it is in the United States. But there is another aspect of international security, which is not, I think, recognized so widely. It is this. If we make political and military arrangements to secure the peace, and at the same time pursue economic policies which can only lead to war, you will get no peace, but war. Your political and military arrangements will break down.

Man does not live by bread alone, but bread is very important to him. When the war is over, not only this country, but everyone of our Allies will be faced with the same appallingly difficult problem of the demobilization of industry. Every country will be faced with the possibility of shortages or the hardships of unemployment during this period of transition, If we or any other country seek to solve the problem by means of economic warfare, if we seek to protect ourselves against the impact of unemployment by putting it on somebody else’s shoulders, we shall find we have taken the first sure, certain and irretrievable step towards the next war.

I have been made very conscious of the danger in various international discussions covering the economic field in which I have taken part during the past twelve months. I learned from these talks that if we act carefully, if we can show some measure of restraint, if we can look a little bit beyond our noses, there are enough riches in the world greatly to improve the conditions of all of us.

Taking the long view, there is no reason to doubt that we shall be able in this country and others enormously to raise the standards of living and improve the whole condition of the people.

It is the short view I am afraid of. I am fearful lest the short, narrow, selfish view should prevail during the immediate postwar period. That is the time when we shall have to keep an eye on ourselves. That is the time when we must avoid the temptation, which will be very strong, to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We have got to realize, and other nations have got to realize it too, that international co-operation is just as important, perhaps even more important, in the economic field than in the political and military field.

Greg Chaffin is a research assistant for the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.

Iran Assassination Plot Has Earmarks of FBI Care and Feeding

ObamaMLKLast weekend the Martin Luther King memorial was unveiled in Washington, evoking his speech “I have a dream.” I was having a dream too, but mine wandered between nightmare and “déjà vu all over again.” Unlike many on the left in the USA, when I see President Obama I see a fundamentally decent person reading a script written by others — which in this dream is like Colin Powell reciting his fundamentally flawed brief at the UN about Iraqi weapons.

The taurine faecal evidence of an Iranian plot to kill a Saudi envoy in the US has all the conviction of Hitler describing Polish infiltration into German territory in 1939 — and all the humiliation of seeing a decent person’s integrity being abused.

The “plot” recalls how much of American governmental behavior evokes the unreformed eighteenth century British polity on which it is based. Apart from the overtly corrupt electoral system gerrymandered into an American version of rotten boroughs and the Gradgrindish attitudes to public welfare, that is no more apparent than in the legal system.

Maybe they no longer hang people for pickpocketing any item worth more than a shilling, but they do execute quite a few on dubiously assembled evidence that relies on paid informants and, especially in the case of the FBI, on paid instigators.

So one does not have to join the Iranian Ayatollah Fan Club to be skeptical of the latest allegations. It is a sad fact that almost every terrorist plot the FBI has unearthed for many years — even before 9-11 — has also been planted and nurtured by the FBI. Even in the long-forgotten first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 it was an Egyptian officer who was also a paid FBI informant who seems to have instigated the completely inept plot, for which arch-enemy of the Mubarak regime Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman is still serving a life sentence — or not, since the actual charges of conspiracy and sedition are reminiscent of days of repression in Britain around the time of the Peterloo massacre that moved Shelley to stirring verses, rarely taught in English Lit classes.

It does not take a close shave with Occam’s razor to question whether Teheran really sent a wire transfer of a $100,000 to the USA to secure the assassination of the Saudi Ambassador. Firstly, every transfer of more than $10,000 has to be registered, and rings alarms bells for money laundering, and secondly, sadly, among Mexican cartels, that sum buys a wholesale massacre, not a retail murder.

Then there is the old question, Cui Bono? Who would benefit? One can never totally discount the stupidity of the Iranian regime, but this goes beyond expectations. Iran would gain little from offing a Saudi diplomat — but lose lots. The FBI gets itself yet another (contrived) terrorist plot to justify its huge spending and the intrusions into civil liberties it has been allowed under the so-called “war on terror.” Its previous record of getting informants and instigators who are paid and pardoned of other crimes to set up the weak and gullible to be arrested with a fanfare certainly fits the script here: an arrested drug smuggler paid to suborn an Iranian immigrant second hand car salesman struggling under a huge debt load.

But Israel wants an excuse to attack Iran — and hitherto even a complaisant Washington has warned against that. Obama might not support, but if persuaded by these amateur theatricals, like Colin Powell, he might not oppose an assault very vigorously. And there are many in his administration for whom the question “Is it good for Israel?” outweighs whether it is good for Obama, let alone America.

Even if this were just Keystone Cops stuff from a xenophobically insular FBI, without thought for the international consequences, it could have profound international consequences. Quite apart from the sanguinary consequences to Israel itself, not to mention to Iran and the region, of any solid manifestation of Netanyahu’s bellicosity, a closure of the Gulf and removal of a huge portion of the world’s oil supplies would be all that is needed to bring the whole house of cards, dollar and Euros, tumbling down.

And to return to Martin Luther King, let us remember, despite official American media amnesia. King was a democratic socialist, who was assassinated while being tailed by the FBI, as he supported a strike by a municipal workers’ union. He knew the FBI well — he would be properly skeptical of any claim they made. And he would be occupying Wall St, not calling for war on Iran.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world. He is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the UN for all the US’s ills. For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.

Paving Over the Money Pit of Nuclear-Weapons Spending

To conform to the requirements of the congressional supercommittee, the House of Representatives is debating whether to cut hundreds of billions from nuclear weapons programs over the next 10 years.

At the Atlantic, Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Funds writes::

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to the 12 members of the supercommittee … signed by 65 lawmakers.” Even though the Cold War ended, Markey wrote, “We continue to spend over $50 billion a year on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. … We are robbing the future to pay for the unneeded weapons of the past.”

The House Appropriations Committee cut funding for nuclear warheads and weapons material production by almost 7 percent from the President’s request, or $498 million. [Meanwhile, the] Senate subcommittee cut just a tad less — $440 million — from the same programs. Members are increasingly troubled by rising costs, slipping schedules and questionable need for new weapons production plants. “The Committee is concerned about the escalating costs for two new nuclear facilities to handle plutonium and uranium,” the Senate report noted.

One of these two new nuclear facilities is the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. On the grounds that a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), instead of just a supplemental EIS, was required because of, among other things, seismic issues (such as a 3.8 earthquake nearby on October 16) the Los Alamos Study Group sought to halt the project.

In his latest press release, LASG executive director Greg Mello writes that, on October 13, “the National Nuclear Security Administration … issued an ‘amended’ ‘Record of Decision’ to build the [CMRR-NF] expected to cost $4 to $6 billion. … as much as the total constant-dollar [adjusted for inflation] cost of all the buildings and programs in Los Alamos for the first decade and a half, from 1943 to 1957.” During the Manhattan Project, that is.

The Record of Decision, Mello explains, “is the formal completion of the most recent environmental review of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act.”

But, just as it looked like it was green-lighted, “We do not anticipate that this project will succeed, in the end,” writes Mello. “We are now in a kind of fiscal ‘Indian Summer;’ the real frosts of deficit reduction have not started to hit. … Many decision makers know there isn’t enough money to build CMRR simultaneously with a more important project in Tennessee unless both are slowed and made much more expensive in the process.” Ironic as that sounds.

He concludes that the United States can’t “afford to maintain such a huge nuclear arsenal in the first place, since the delivery systems are wearing out and very expensive to replace.” As usual, Mello not only looks at the costs, but the wider implications for the real-world economy. The CMRR-NF, like nuclear weapons in general for the most part, “also makes no economically useful infrastructure, attracts no private capital, trains nobody in anything useful for our economy, and produces no goods and services for sale (we hope). … At $1,000,000 per job created, it’s an economic disaster in waiting.”

Remember the movies and Broadway play Little Shop of Horrors? Our nuclear-weapons program is like Audrey II, the carnivorous plant screaming “Feed me.” Time to, in the words of conservatives, starve the beast.

Burma’s Junta: Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes?

Than Shwe

Than Shwe

Since at least the fake elections of November 2010, the Burmese junta has floated the fiction that it is now a “civilian government” with a real parliamentary process in place at the Potemkin capital of Naypyidaw, or “The Seat of the King.” Senior General Than Shwe, who “retired” in 2010, and his wife are said to have a Burmese royalty fetish, with only two chairs in their reception room. Visitors, it is said, must sit or grovel on the floor and use the “royal language” of the old pre-1886 Burmese court when addressing them. This may be apocryphal, but “Naypyidaw” does mean what it means, and the parade ground there features the three great conqueror kings of Burmese history.

General Thein Sein, now changed into civilian clothes, is Burma’s nominal “Prime Minister.” He is supposed to be the “reformer” behind the so-called moderate group now said to be on the ascendant. Since anti-sanctions, pro-junta apologists have always been seeing “young Turks” in the Burmese army, I think it is little more than a good cop, bad cop routine. But two weeks ago the controversial Myitsone Dam in North Burma was halted in response to “the people’s wishes.”

The junta also announced it would free 6,359 prisoners. The hope was that Burma’s over 2,000 political prisoners would be included in this “amnesty,” but the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, Burma (AAPPB) has said that only 207 political prisoners have been released so far. Prominent leaders such as Min Ko Naing of 1988 fame; Ashin U Gambira, the monk who led the Saffron Revolution in 2007; and U Khun Htun Oo are not among the released.

Famous Burmese comic Zarganar, or “Tweezers,” is.

In an interview with the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, Zarganar—with the charming insouciance of the true comic genius who can’t help speaking the truth, even at possible detriment to himself—said. “Yes, thank you, my health has been good, but since before I got on the plane [and heard about] the possible reforms, I got a headache and my neck began to hurt.” (I did all the translations presented here).

He added, “I can’t say that I am seeing any significant reforms, just because I have been released.” He explained that he “was allowed to read newspapers and 12-13 journals, so I could keep up.”

Zarganar had been sentenced to 35 years, of which he had served only 3. “Up to yesterday [while still in prison],” he said, “I sort of believed there might really be reforms, but today, doubt has entered my mind. If it is true reform, then why aren’t all the [political] prisoners released? The number released is miniscule. Even former Lt. General Khin Nyunt [imprisoned in 2004 due to an internal junta purge and corruption charges] should be released. These weren’t arrested during the Thein Sein government. If it’s true reconciliation, please let everyone go…I’ll put up my life as security.”

Zarganar said in other interviews that he needed to consult with Aung San Suu Kyi and that he would be traveling to see other political prisoners and lend his support.

About his arrest and jail time he quipped, “Since I was arrested for giving alms to Buddhist monks, I might have to excommunicate myself from Buddhism.”

Long live Zarganar, and all the artists and jesters.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kyi May Kaung is a poet, an artist, and an analyst of Southeast Asian politics.

Personality Cult of Assads in Syria Usurped Their Own People, the Alawites

The Assads, father and son.

The Assads, father and son.

AlJazeera has been running a series of articles by Nir Rosen reporting from Syria. At great risk, he’s covering, for instance, the armed clashes between Syrian army defectors and state security forces. In his two latest pieces, he writes about the sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, the Alawites, which composes 10 percent of Syria’s population. From the first:

While Alawites identify as Muslims they have historically been rejected by mainstream Islam. To be accepted as leader, [Bashar’s father Hafez al-] Assad had to persuade Sunnis and Alawites alike that Alawites were, in fact, mainstream Muslims.


The regime denied any public space for Alawites to practice their religion. They did not recognise any Alawite council that could provide religious rulings [which] could have been a tool to clarify the Alawite religion to other sects and religions and to reduce suspicions over what many Syrians perceive as a mysterious faith.

… Alawites struck a bargain; they lost their independence and had to accept the myth that they were “good Muslims” so as to win Sunni acceptance. … Assadism then filled the gap left by the negation of traditional Alawite identity. … Denied the right to mobilise as Alawites, they look to the ruling family for leadership. But the regime does not act to further Alawite interests, it acts primarily to further its own interests.

It’s bitterly ironic that not only were Alawites and all of Syria saddled with a tyrant like Hafez, but that his ascension to power further marginalized his own people. Nor will it necessarily be better for the Alawites if his son, Bashar, is deposed. Rosen again.

The opposition has failed to articulate a vision for what will happen to the tens of thousands of Alawites in the security forces and the state. The demise of the regime will directly affect nearly every Alawite family.

What if Arbabsiar Was All About the Drugs, Not Terror?

The extent of the skepticism with which the Iran assassination plot has been met from many different quarters may be unprecedented. It parallels the serious coverage by the mainstream media that the Occupy Wall Street movement is being accorded. (If only those who knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction were accorded the same respect.)

Among those taking strolling, instead of rushing, to judgment is the Council on Foreign Relations. It interviewed Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle East affairs for the Congressional Research Service, who, among other things, addresses the question if Iran’s leadership was in on the plot.

The main element that falls apart dramatically is that the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington was supposed to be carried out by Mexican drug cartel members. Iran has never used surrogates with whom they are unfamiliar. Non-Muslim proxy groups are never used. The Iranians have always used very well-known, familiar groups that are operationally trusted, well integrated into the Iranian strategy, like Hezbollah.


They would see the drug cartels as vulnerable to making a deal with the United States that would lead to the exposure of the plot, which indeed happened here when [Manssor] Arbabsiar thought he was contacting a member of a Mexican drug cartel, who was a double agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Then a rogue element of the Qods force was responsible, right? Not according to Washington officials, reports the Washington Post.

“We do not think it was a rogue operation, in any way,” [an] official said. But he added: “We don’t have specific knowledge that [Quds Force chief Qassem] Suleimani knew about specific” details of the plot.

Besides, according to a more recent Washington Post article, Arbabsiar’s Iranian cousin

… was Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior commander in Iran’s Quds Force, who. … was known as the guiding hand behind an elite group of gunmen from the feared militia of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. They had dressed as American and Iraqi soldiers and, in a convoy of white SUVs, stormed a provincial government building in Karbala on Jan. 20, 2007. Five Americans were killed and three were wounded in the attack, whose brazenness rattled the military.

Returning to the rogue theory, after addressing another reservation of many, Newsweek/the Daily Beast’s Babak Dehghanpisheh offers his view.

So what gives? Why would the Revolutionary Guards, known for running a tight ship, get involved in such a sloppy caper? The answer may have more to do with Iran’s convoluted domestic politics than their relations with Saudi Arabia and the United States. “There is a portion of the Revolutionary Guards who want to create an external crisis so they can consolidate their power and push to unite different groups inside Iran,” says Mohammad Reza Heydari, the former Iranian consul in Norway who defected last year. “Whether the attack was carried out or not it would have the same effect for this group. They want to scare people about an imminent attack from the West.”

Meanwhile, Arbabsiar allegedly asked a woman with whom he was acquainted whether she could introduce him to anyone who “knew explosives.” She connected him with her nephew, who turned out to be an undercover federal informant.

But, at IPS News, Gareth Porter, one of few commentators to have actually read the charges against Manssor Arbabsiar, reports, in the words of the title of his piece, that the FBI Account of “Terror Plot” Suggests Sting Operation.

Although the legal document, called an amended criminal complaint, implicates Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar and his cousin Ali Gholam Shakuri, an officer in the Iranian Quds Force, in a plan to assassinate Saudi Arabian Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, it also suggests that the idea originated with and was strongly pushed by a undercover DEA informant, at the direction of the FBI.

On May 24, when Arbabsiar first met with the DEA informant he thought was part of a Mexican drug cartel, it was not to hire a hit squad to kill the ambassador. Rather, there is reason to believe that the main purpose was to arrange a deal to sell large amounts of opium from Afghanistan.

In the complaint, the closest to a semblance of evidence that Arbabsiar sought help during that first meeting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador is the allegation, attributed to the DEA informant, that Arbabsiar said he was “interested in, among other things, attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia”.

Among the “other things” was almost certainly a deal on heroin controlled by officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Three Bloomberg reporters, citing a “federal law enforcement official”, wrote that Arbabsiar told the DEA informant he represented Iranians who “controlled drug smuggling and could provide tons of opium”.

But the FBI account of the contacts between Arbabsiar and the DEA informant does not reference any discussions of drugs.

Instead it claims (emphasis added)

… that the mission discussed included murdering the ambassador. But … the absence of any statement attributed to Arbabsiar impl[ies] that the Iranian- American said nothing about assassinating the Saudi ambassador except in response to suggestions by the informant, who was already part of an FBI undercover operation.

Another one of the few commentators to have read the criminal complaint, FireDogLake’s Marcy Wheeler writes about its status as “amended,” which, she explains, means

… there’s a previous complaint. But that complaint is not in the docket. Not only is it not in the docket, but the docket starts with the arrest on September 29 … but the numbering starts with the amended complaint (normally … the docket might start with the amended complaint but start with number 8 or something).

Two things might explain this. First, that there was an earlier unrelated complaint — say on drug charges. … Alternately, that Arbabsiar was charged with a bunch of things when he was arrested on September 29, but then, after at least 12 days of cooperation … he was charged with something else and the new complaint incorporated Ali Gholam Shakuri’s involvement. … Both of those scenarios suggest that what we see — the WMD and terror charges — might be totally different charges than what the original complaint included. … In any case, the presence of an original complaint, even putting the docket weirdness aside, makes it pretty likely that Arbabsiar decided to cooperate because of what was in that complaint.

Finally, the National Interest’s Paul Pillar, a former national intelligence officer, writes about how this plot surfaced at an opportune time for President Obama because it enables him to act even tougher on Iran leading up the election.

However sympathetic one might be to the president’s reelection bid, the administration is playing a hazardous game. First, by offering up this kind of red meat, it risks enabling the meat eaters to push the administration into even more dangerous actions toward Iran. Second, it lowers further the possibilities of improving the relationship and reaching deals with Iran. … Third, it risks a big embarrassment and loss of U.S. credibility if further evidence turns up showing that the Iranian leadership was not involved.

What War Between Iran and Saudi Arabia Might Look Like

Iran missilesSuspicion continues to swirl over the bizarre plot, allegedly by agents of the Iranian government, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and launch attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, DC. Most of the speculation focuses on the veracity of the Obama Administration’s claims and the possible responses. Some commentators have also mentioned the alleged “Cold War” in the Middle East, with Iran and its allies on one side, and Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other. Few observers, however, seem to have written of the likely outcomes if the war were to become “hot.”

While much talk focuses on Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon, some analysts point out that Iran’s military accelerated its missile program as a way to compensate for its inability to match the air power of potential rivals. As a result, Iran now possesses various models of various types (ballistic, cruise, et cetera) of missiles, most of which can reach well into Saudi Arabia and some of which are accurate enough to be used against military bases of various types. These missiles could also hit facilities of the Saudi oil and gas industry, as well as desalination plants, potentially dealing severe damage to the Saudi economy.

The Royal Saudi Air Force would have no choice but to eliminate Iran’s many missiles as quickly as possible. The Saudis would not necessarily know which of the missile sites are home to the high-priority missiles of higher accuracy, thus forcing them to attempt to neutralize them all. If the Iranians are smart, they have prepared (or will prepare) dummy missile sites, which can serve as decoys. The Serbs did this to great effect in 1999 during the attacks on their country by NATO. In any case, the Saudi planes will have to make numerous sorties against Iranian targets (real or dummy), exposing themselves to attack from Iran’s fighters and air defenses. All the while, the Iranians would launch as many missiles as possible, potentially eliminating much of the Saudi air force on the ground, and/or at least rendering bases unusable and forcing the Saudis to withdraw to bases further to the west. Saudi Arabia’s ships, leaving port to avoid incoming missiles, would actually be in greater danger than if they remained in port, but at least they might be able to take the fight to the Iranians.

Opinion is divided as to whether or not a war would unite much of the Iranian population in nationalistic enthusiasm, or whether the dissent of recent years would erupt again. If the Saudis struck first, the former scenario is more likely. As for the Saudis, King Abdullah is in his late 80s, Crown Prince Sultan is only slightly younger and in poor health, and the line of succession becomes contentious after that. The Kingdom’s restive Shi’a primarily live in oil-producing regions near Bahrain, and they (like most Saudis, only more so) do not share their government’s enmity towards Iran. Indiscriminate Iranian strikes could change that, and this may or may not figure into Teheran’s calculations. The upshot of all of this is that a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia could be a fairly even contest, one in which interested third parties might want to play a decisive role.

Scott Charney is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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