The Obama administration’s charge that Iran’s elite Quds Force was behind a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C., has perplexed many analysts. At a time when Tehran is facing daunting challenges at home and in its region, why would the Iranian regime cross a clear, post-9/11 red line of launching terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and risk having it perceived as an act of war? Wouldn’t Iranian leaders have to be mad to so recklessly provoke a direct military retaliation with a bombing campaign in the U.S. capital?
The charges of an Iranian assassination plot, of course, have yet to be proven. The alleged operation, which seems uncharacteristically sloppy by Quds Force standards, could still prove the work of a low-level rogue element. But the tendency to project Western risk assessment and cost-benefit analyses onto Middle East autocrats—especially those that embrace revolutionary ideology—has profound drawbacks. Intelligence analysts call it “mirror imaging,” and it helps explain why it never occurred to many analysts that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was simply bluffing about weapons of mass destruction in order to save face with regional adversaries.
“This alleged Iranian plot is certainly in-your-face and brazen, but I would caution against making the classic analytic mistake of 'mirror imaging' this by assuming Iran’s Revolutionary Guard thinks like we do,” said Philip Mudd, a former senior counterterrorism expert with the CIA and on the National Security Council. The Quds Force has a history of very aggressively testing Western red lines, he notes, with plots that include the assassinations of high-profile Iranian dissidents in Europe in the 1990s; a bombing of an Israeli community center in Argentina in 1994 that killed 85 people; the 1996 truck bombing of the U.S. Air Force’s Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 service members; the kidnapping spree in Lebanon in the mid-1980s that led to the death-in-captivity of a CIA station chief and the Iran-contra arms-for-hostage scandal; and the truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 241 Marines. More recently, the Quds Force has been supplying weapons to extremists targeting American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, funneling weaponry and support to the terrorist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, bolstering Syrian forces in their bloody crackdown against protesters, and inciting Shiite protesters in U.S. ally Bahrain. “All of that provocation seems crazy from an American perspective,” said Mudd. “But if you’re a nervous Iranian leadership trying to reignite a revolutionary ideology, I’m not sure you see much of a downside to these actions.”
One expert who believes the Quds Force is perfectly capable of plotting the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington is Martin Indyk, director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, and a former senior director for the Near East and South Asia on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. “When I worked in the White House I was told that elements within the Iranian regime had put a contract out for my assassination, and I wasn’t the only senior Clinton administration official who was targeted and had to have Secret Service protection,” Indyk said in an interview. He similarly remembers trying to figure out why Iran directed the attack of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996. “And I never could come up with a good explanation other than Tehran wanted to send a shot across our bow not to mess with them,” said Indyk. “So Iran is quite capable of doing something that we regard as unbelievably brazen, and our assessment of whether an Iranian threat is credible or not shouldn’t be based on what seems rational to us. They operate according to different calculations.”
If the assassination plot is substantiated, the question of what prompted the Quds Force to launch such a risky and provocative operation may go back to the “Green Movement” uprisings of 2009, in which more than a million protesters took to the streets in Iranian cities to protest a fraudulent presidential election. In order to survive the crisis, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to cede unprecedented power and influence to the Revolutionary Guards to put down the protests domestically, and to its Quds Force paramilitary wing in terms of foreign policy influence. That may have given the Revolutionary Guards a freer hand to operate at a time when the entire Iranian leadership is increasingly frightened that democracy protests in neighboring Syria could topple a reliable ally and reignite the Green Movement inside Iran.
“The Revolutionary Guards are definitely more powerful, diverse, and fragmented today than just three years ago, and they are crossing many red lines both internationally and domestically,” said Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the National Security Network and director of the “Inside Iran” project. “When you look at all the Quds Force military activity in the region, and the Revolutionary Guards’ much deeper involvement in domestic Iranian politics, it’s pretty clear this is a transformed organization. And any time that happens, it’s not altogether clear how the traditional hierarchy of Iranian policymaking is operating, or who is calling the shots.”
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of The Iran Threat and a noted regime opponent. “The Supreme Leader’s reliance on the Revolutionary Guards Corps domestically and the Quds Force’s `extraterritorial activities’ has dramatically increased since the 2009 uprisings and Arab Spring,” he said in an interview. “If this alleged plot to launch terror attacks on U.S. soil turns out to be true, it may have been an attempt by a desperate and increasingly paranoid regime to reclaim the initiative and elevate the stature of a severely discredited leadership.”