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Was the Iran Plot Real? It Barely Matters.

U.S., Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of trying to kill ambassadors

Marc Tracy
October 18, 2011
The Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., last week. It is right across the street from the Watergate complex.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., last week. It is right across the street from the Watergate complex.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s been a full week since the sensational allegations of an assassination plot on U.S. soil launched by an elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards emerged, and still few know for sure what to make of them. The problem is how sloppy Iran’s planning apparently was—basically, it comes down to entrusting a divorced used-car salesman to send operatives from a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador by bombing the embassy in Washington, D.C. Oh, and there may have been targets against the Israeli embassies, too—the one in D.C., and also the one in Buenos Aires (and the Saudi one there, too; and, also, there was opium-smuggling involved, maybe, or something … you see the problem). Iran has categorically rejected the charges, even as it has also seeemed amenable to a probe, which is something less than outright denial.

On its face, it’s hard to believe all this; however, it becomes easier. Frequent Tablet Magazine contributor Yossi Melman, whose Israeli intelligence sources are more or less unparalleled, began incredulous: “It’s hard to believe that Iran, who has significant intelligence capabilities and has carried out sophisticated terror attacks in the past, would assign such an important task to an Iranian-American whose favorite drink is whiskey,” he quips. Yet he concludes that the charges are more believable than not: Iran does actively hatch such plots; the Saudis genuinely buy this one, and know that their ambassador, who has made a point of cultivating the U.S. Jewish community, is particularly loathed by the mullahs; and the plan “conforms to the Iranian strategy of proving to its bitter enemies that there is no place where they are safe.” Ultimately, Melman argues, “It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. Attorney General, the head of the CIA and most of all U.S. president Barack Obama would risk their reputations by publishing such unequivocal dramatic announcements” if they weren’t sure. His guess is that the administration is privy to covert communications that the rest of us aren’t.

Yet, true or not—and Iran denies it—the allegations are proving a political reality as the Obama administration and its allies step up an already fast-moving diplomatic offensive against the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia would like the matter to be taken up by the U.N. Security Council (and tomorrow, the U.N. will release an extremely damning report on the human rights situation inside Iran). Israeli ambassador Michael Oren said it was “definitely an escalation.” The administration spent the weekend calling on international nuclear inspectors to make public new evidence indicating Iran’s illicit weapons program. If nothing else, the whole event is bringing Saudi Arabia closer to the United States and Israel—this after last month, in which a prominent Saudi official said the U.S. alliance was jeopardized by American opposition to Palestinian U.N. membership. It is doing so if only by heating up the Iranian-Saudi and Iranian-American proxy wars.

An Iranian official, meanwhile, observed that making trumped-up charges is just the type of thing Hitler did. Gee, it’s like they’re trying to push our buttons.

Which, actually, is part of the point. Laura Secor, a top reporter on Iran, notes that, to an absurd degree, it is in everyone’s interests for tensions to be ratcheted up:

The Iranian regime wants its people to believe the Americans will attack, because it believes this will help it hang on to power. The U.S. government wants the Iranians to believe it just might attack, because otherwise the United States has very little leverage in nuclear negotiations. The Israelis want the Iranians to fear an American attack, because they believe this will deter Iranian moves against Israeli interests. The Saudis, too, would like to use a bellicose American ally as leverage against Iran, their regional rival. Then, there’s American domestic politics. The Republicans bluster against Iran to prove that they are tough and that the Democrats are appeasers; the Democrats bluster against Iran to prove that they are no such thing. The neoconservative right encourages the conclusion that the only solution is military; the anti-imperialist left forever argues that the neoconservatives are secretly steering America toward war.

As to the last, cue Bill Kristol calling for military action and Glenn Greenwald accusing the government of wagging the dog. Secor ultimately disbelieves the plot, but the real point, it seems to me, is that it hardly matters: everyone will act as though it were real.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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