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The One-Way War

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By LEE SMITH
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Last week, federal authorities arrested Mansoor 

Image of Iranian flag with the shadow of a gun

Arbabsiar for his involvement in a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies. Arbabsiar’s cousin, Gholam Shakuri, an official in the Quds Force, the military arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was also indicted and remains at large in Iran. While the White House has been careful to suggest that the operations may have been plotted without the knowledge of the Iranian regime’s highest officials—namely, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—it is highly improbable that a Quds Force project could go forward without sanction from the top.

It’s no wonder the Obama administration was reluctant at first to believe the evidence brought forth by the FBI and DEA. After all, engagement with the Islamic Republic has been Obama’s goal since before he assumed office. Even recently, Washington sought to establish a hotline with Tehran to prevent small episodes from blossoming into confrontation. Not surprisingly, the Iranians rejected the offer. Still, the notion that his potential dialogue partners plotted to kill an American ally in the nation’s capital, without any concern for American casualties, must be a bitter pill for the president to swallow.

Even as the administration has shown its evidence to U.S. lawmakers, foreign diplomats, and the press, however, a contrary theory has been building among former Western intelligence officials and policymakers as well as in various media and academic circles. It holds that the plot is too far-fetched to be true. The administration is playing wag the dog, say some. A tenured Ivy League academic hints that perhaps someone with an interest in seeing U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorate is behind the plot—by which he of course means Israel.

The Iranians, this perverse notion holds, are too “smart” to get tied up in a keystone cops scenario managed by a clumsy oaf with a prison record like Arbabsiar, a dual U.S.-Iranian national. Yet the belief that losers don’t run terrorist operations tends to ignore the evidence that those who employ terror as a political tool are by and large not the most clever or interesting people. And that belief is also based on a quasi-Orientalist fantasy that Iran’s leaders are way too skillful to get caught red-handed. After all, the Persians invented chess; as a culture of carpet weavers, they are the very exemplum of subtlety and patience, etc. And so, says one former U.S. intelligence official, Iran’s past terror projects “were very professional operations that used cutouts and had few Iranian fingerprints.”

Yet Iranian fingerprints were all over the arms shipments that the Israelis interdicted in 2002 when they stopped the Karine A from reaching Gaza, and in 2009 when they boarded the Syria and Hezbollah-bound Francorp. Most recently, it was the Turks who stopped passage of a plane loaded with Iranian weapons destined for Tehran’s allies. How “subtle” is that?

It is more accurate to say that many, including American intelligence officials, have tended to ignore the plentiful evidence of Iran’s handiwork. Happily, the authorities in Azerbaijan knew with whom they were dealing in 2008 when they captured Iranian and Hezbollah operatives before they were able to bomb the Israeli embassy in Baku. Same with the Turks and Egyptians, who in 2008 and 2009 rolled up Iranian and Hezbollah assets before they were able to avenge the assassination of Hezbollah’s liaison with the Quds Force, Imad Mugniyah.

Indeed the myth of the Islamic Republic’s genius has even lent its glow to Tehran’s allies, none more than Hezbollah. And yet over the span of some 30 years Iran has pumped billions of dollars into an organization now led by a man, Hassan Nasrallah, whose claims of a “divine victory” over Israel are belied by the fact that in the 2006 war Hezbollah lost perhaps a quarter of its frontline fighters, while the Shia community suffered so much damage that it fears nothing more than the prospect of another “divine victory.” Furthermore, by banking on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the Iranians are on the verge not only of losing their one Arab state ally, but also forfeiting Hezbollah’s supply line. Elsewhere in the region, the Iranians handed off a significant portion of their Iraq portfolio to Moktada al-Sadr, a man who has not served their interests well.

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