My colleague at The Atlantic Max Fisher has written a thoughtful essay questioning why Iran would consider assassinating Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel Al-Jubeir on US soil when, as he argues, it would re-energize a weakening US-Saudi alliance, animate weak Arab states in the region to more strongly oppose Iran's pretensions as a regional hegemon, and open Iran to the possibility of full frontal attack from the US, Saudi Arabia and potentially other allies.
Fisher is careful to point out that Attorney General Eric Holder's action against alleged agents of Iran may prove to be true -- but the story's weird points -- like the recklessness of wiring funds cross border into a US bank, talking about the plot on cell phones, and working through a Mexican drug cartel raise red flags about the solvency of the Justice Department's case. It's just hard for some to believe that Iranian agents would operate so unprofessionally or trigger events that could seriously harm Iran's regional and global position rather than enhance it.
A couple of quick reactions.
To measure "stupid" in the covert intel business and to give Iran a proper foil, folks should re-read the last couple of chapters of James Risen's excellent book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Risen, despite revealing the details of the Bush administration's authorization to intelligence agencies to spy en masse on the communications of US citizens then shares, first, a case in which the US bungled a covert attempt to get the Iranians to absorb a mis-design embedded in nuclear warhead blueprints that the US was hoping to get Iran to believe were real -- and second, the accidental machine readable disclosure of all of America's intelligence network operatives inside Iran. Of course, the Iranians quickly "rolled up" that entire US-supporting intelligence network. Talk about movies.
But on the more earnest side of the question, let me suggest to Max Fisher that Iran's "isolation" in the region is more a figment of America's hopes than is actually real. When I was recently in Kabul, there was quite a bit of discussion about Iran's rising influence not only in Western Afghanistan but throughout the country. We heard about cases in which Herat engineers who would attempt to manage the waterflow from Afghanistan to Iran would be assassinated -- until the parties on either side of the boundary could come to terms. According to both Karzai adherents and also a former Taliban commander we met with, Iran's agents are present in Afghanistan and are increasingly influential. The same is true in Iraq -- and some would argue that many of the Muslim Brotherhood networks have been financed by Iran over the years and are a key part of the Arab spring and tide of change in the region.
Iran doesn't feel isolated. It feels as if it is in the ascendancy as the US stumbles through strategic contraction -- leaving allies dumbfounded and vulnerable with more burdens on key states like Saudi Arabia to fend for themselves and alter their strategies. Saudi Arabia and the broader Sunni coalition it has through the region are being hit both from social-network driven revolutions from within but also are in a serious struggle with what many call the Iran-led Shia Crescent in the region. As the perception of American weakness has strengthened, the Saudis have complained bitterly to the US to turn things around and get ahead of the trends, to get ahead on the Israel-Palestine divide which animates passions in the Arab street, and to get serious about Iran and its machinations throughout the region.
Iran sees the US stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan and still to some degree, tied down by Iraq -- whose temperature is more controlled by Tehran than Washington. The US financial crisis, a frustrated American population that wants to deal with issues at home rather than abroad, and diminishing returns to the US from playing global cop have factored in to Iran's probably incorrect assessment that the US is weak and could be hit hard now.
Bottom line is that Iran is feeling its oats and could see some value in striking right into the heart of the US-Saudi relationship on US soil as a sign of its strength. From their viewpoint, the Iranians may feel that Saudis may be more angry at the US for having failed to prevent the assassination rather than becoming best friends again. The US options for responding to Iran would be as constrained after the assassination as before.
An assassination of an official like Adel Al-Jubeir who was both Ambassador and close confident of King Abdullah would be calculated so as not to kill a royal -- but rather someone who mattered more than any other to the King's strategic gamble at the moment.
A combination of perceived American weakness combined with wanting to knock the Saudis off balance might have been enough to justify this strike, which I agree is highly unusual. The Iranians do not believe that they have a track forward with the US. They believe that China and Russia will not automatically line up with the US and Saudis even if they were able to align their actions after the assassination might have taken place.
This plot, if true and not just a badly executed plan by rogues or a fabrication by others, could have a logic in what it did to destabilize an anchor relationship at a key economic inflection point for the US and the world.
Fisher I think has more confidence than I do that the US-Saudi relationship would have been buoyed and strengthened after this attack. The big push Iran might have been making is to see whether the US has any real legs left given the current constraints, demands that overstretch the US military, and would have either exacerbated that over-extension of forces in response to Iran or underwhelmed the already frustrated Saudis who believe that the US has lost its will and capacity to constructively shape the international system and in particular, the Middle East.