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Alleged Iranian Plot Raises Questions About Possible Motive

Suspect Manssor Arbabsiar is shown in a courtroom sketch during an appearance in a Manhattan courtroom in New York, October 11, 2011.

Suspect Manssor Arbabsiar is shown in a courtroom sketch during an appearance in a Manhattan courtroom in New York, October 11, 2011.

The U.S. government's allegation that Iranian agents tried to hire Mexican drug runners to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador in a Washington restaurant has some Middle East experts puzzled over why Iran would carry out such an attack.

It allegedly is a murder-for-hire scheme targeting Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. And U.S. officials say there also were plans to attack the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

One suspect, Iranian American Mansour Arbabsiar, already has appeared in court to face charges.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said a second suspect may be in Iran.

"In addition to holding these individual conspirators accountable for their alleged role in this plot, the United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions," said Holder.

Holder said the Iran-based suspect belongs to the Quds force, a part of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Quds force already is suspected of involvement in attacks against U.S.-led forces in Iraq, and aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Ali Reza Nader, a senior analyst with the Rand Corporation, said, "First of all the Iranian security services, including the Revolutionary Guards, like to work through proxies, so other groups, whether they are Hezbollah or Hamas or Shia insurgents in Iraq, or the Taliban in Afghanistan. They like to maintain some kind of plausible deniability, not necessarily be tied to spectacular terrorist plots."

Iran is widely suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. And it has assassinated dissidents abroad.

But Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Iranian intelligence lately has avoided such brazen plots because of the international fallout.

"I’m not surprised it was the Quds force involved, if these allegations are true, because the people from the Ministry of Intelligence are really too bright and understand the world too well to agree to such a hare-brained scheme," said Clawson. "Whereas many of the people in the Quds force are really quite uninformed about the world outside of Iran and might have thought that they could have gotten away with such a thing, and that if they pulled it off that it would somehow help Iran."

He said if the allegations are proven, it will strengthen the case for sanctions against Iran, and will make it easier for Washington to convince other countries to take the Iranian threat seriously.