Iran and Assassinations – Obaid

Published: December 9, 2011

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Edition 34 Volume 9 – November 24, 2011
Saudi-Iranian tension and the Washington assassination plot=

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A long pattern of brazen assassination
Nawaf Obaid

Since news of the Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States became public, many have reacted with disbelief, unable to comprehend why the Iranian regime would seek to carry out such an attack. However, the evidence against indicted co-conspirators Mansour Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri is overwhelming. And if one looks at Iran’s record of covert operations, it is clear that this latest scheme fits the Islamic Republic’s modus operandi.

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s leadership has been linked to several murderous plots against Saudi diplomats. These have almost always come on the heels of Iranian foreign policy setbacks and can best be seen as attempts to regain momentum in difficult circumstances. Thus, in the aftermath of Iran’s failed plan this spring to install an Islamist Shiite puppet regime in Bahrain, history suggests that some desperate act of sabotage was likely to follow.

The Tehran government’s strategy of targeted assassinations began at the end of the 1980s, a tumultuous decade for Iran. It fought a war of attrition with Iraq, but gained no territory. Its main objective to export its Islamic revolution to neighboring countries failed miserably. Faced with these strategic losses, it resorted to murder and terror.

In 1988, with the support of the Khomeini regime, angry mobs breached the walls of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and destroyed the premises. Several diplomats were badly beaten and the Saudi charge d’affaires leapt to his death in an effort to escape the fate he would have suffered at the hands of these thugs. That same year, Iranian proxies assassinated a Saudi diplomat in Istanbul. According to United States intelligence, the killing was most likely carried out by militants linked to Hizballah al-Hijaz, an Iranian-backed group that would later mastermind the deadly Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American soldiers. The next year, the same group was linked to the murder of Saleh al-Maliki, a third secretary at the Saudi Embassy in Thailand who was gunned down on a central street in Bangkok.

More recently, Iran has carried out killings through its Lebanese proxy Hizballah. In 2005, according to indictments from the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Hizballah operatives detonated explosives near the convoy of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, killing him and 22 others. Like its previous assassination attempts, Iran’s move against Hariri was a reaction to policy failures in the region. Hariri had special ties with the Saudi leadership and had called for a UN resolution mandating that Syria withdraw its forces from the country. Because Syria was Iran’s only Arab ally, however, the end of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon would have greatly reduced Iranian influence in the country. Therefore, the Hariri murder can best be interpreted as a case of Iran lashing out under pressure.

By the same token, Hizballah has also sought to target Saudi diplomats directly. The former Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdulaziz Khoja, was forced to flee on two occasions after Shiite militants targeted him in four failed assassination plots. The militants were linked to Hizballah and Amal, another militant Shiite movement that draws direct support from the Syrian regime.

Just months before the foiled Washington DC plot, the fingerprints of Iran’s leadership could be found on the murder of a Saudi diplomat in Pakistan. In May of 2011, Hassan al-Qahtani, the security advisor at the Saudi consulate in Karachi, was killed outside his office in a drive-by shooting. Pakistani intelligence suggested that the gunmen belonged to a Pakistani Shiite dissident group known as Sapih Mohammed, with close ties to a certain Iranian general. Based on messages between members of the group and several Iranian officers, Pakistani officials believe that Iran’s intelligence ministry, Vavak, played a major logistics role in the attack.

Here too, the context helps explain the plot’s timing. By May, it had become clear that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s attempt to overthrow Bahrain’s monarchy and replace it with a radical Shiite clerical government had failed. With this failure, Iran’s dream of creating a network of theocratic proxy states across the Arab world’s so-called “Shiite crescent” suffered a critical setback. Targeting key Saudi diplomats in Pakistan was simply an attempt to regain momentum after another major policy failure.

The common operational thread in these plots has been a highly secretive “Saudi Arabia Actions Cell” within the Quds Force, the special operations branch of the Revolutionary Guards. The cell was founded by Ahmed Sharifi, a now retired Guards general who orchestrated the Khobar Tower bombings in 1996 and has been implicated in virtually all the recent assassination attempts against Saudi diplomats.

Given this history, the recently-foiled plot should not surprise anyone. A dramatic attack against a key Saudi diplomat in the heart of the US would have sent a powerful message to domestic and international opponents. The murder conspiracy was undoubtedly an effort to reestablish the credibility of Iran’s hard-line clerics and to demonstrate that, in spite of its recent failures in Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria, it still has the capability to project power.

Those who dismiss the allegations against Iran on the grounds that they are simply too “bizarre” to be true show a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of Iran’s covert operations. This latest plot is only one episode in a long pattern of brazen sabotage and assassination.-Published 24/11/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nawaf Obaid is senior fellow at King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

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Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.