Iran — Crazy like a Fox

Iran tried to hire a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States and one of the closest confidantes of Saudi Arabia’s ruler, in Washington D.C.  It sounds crazy, and indeed commentators have had a hard time explaining why Iran would undertake such an outrageous plot.

Yet behind the outlandish plot was a shrewd scheme.  The plan was apparently hatched sometime in March, as the government of Bahrain, with tacit U.S. support and later overt Saudi intervention, was ruthlessly suppressing a peaceful revolt by  Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority.  Iran — a Shi’ite state with close ties to Shi’ites in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq — had hoped that the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain would gain power, as with the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.  But while the U.S. and the Persian Gulf states actively supported the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, they stood by or even supported the repression of popular protests in Bahrain.  Iran was outraged.  No doubt someone in the Iranian security forces posed the question – is there anything we can do to strike back, to hurt the U.S. and Saudis, and sunder their relationship?

“Yes – let us reach out to criminals in Mexico, and hire them to assassinate Ambassador Al-Jubeir in Washington.  If the deed is traced back to Mexico, the cartel can say they were teaching the U.S. to stay out of Mexico’s conflicts.  We (Iran) will not be blamed.  But the Saudis will lose one of their most important statesmen and a close friend of the King.  Moreover, the Saudis will likely blame the U.S. for their lack of security, which allowed an act of terror by Mexicans to kill an important Saudi right in the American capital.   We can thus strike a blow against both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., while undermining U.S.-Saudi cooperation.”  Or so I imagine a conversation might have taken place in the headquarters of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards.

The order was then given by Major General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force.  Suleimani rose to fame in the Iran-Iraq war.  Like many of his generation, he harbors a vicious hatred of the U.S. for its backing of Saddam Hussein and Iraq in that conflict.  He would not shrink from killing innocent Americans, even hundreds of them.

Did the entire higher command in Iran – the head of the Revolutionary Guards Mohammad Ali Jafari, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei –  know of the plot?   I think it unlikely.  The government of Iran is quite divided, even fragmented, and the Quds Force operates as a separate, autonomous unit reporting directly to the Supreme Leader.  The Quds Force has quite substantial economic assets of its own and could easily have financed such an operation, even one requiring one or two million dollars, out of its own funds.  The Quds leadership might have decided that involving the Supreme  Leader was too risky, for he should have ‘deniability’ in case things went wrong. Ironically, this plot could well have followed similar lines to the Iran-Contra scheme in the Reagan administration, where the upper levels of the U.S. national security apparatus undertook their own mission in pursuit of what they deemed the American national interest.

Nonetheless, this should not be taken as a rogue operation.  Rather it represents the goals and strategy of the highest levels of the security apparatus in Iran.  As such it should be treated with the utmost seriousness.  Rather than being dismissed as an ‘insane’ plot, it should be seen as what it would have been had it what it would have been had it succeeded in killing dozens or even hundreds of Americans on our soil – a potential act of war.

Some have said that this action was so risky and ‘amateurish’ that it could not be the work of the smart, cagey Iranian government security forces.  But in fact this is exactly the kind of over-reaching you can expect when one group of government officials grows overconfident and unconstrained by other elements in the government (as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards feel after suppressing Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ and gaining influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon).  It is no more ‘amateurish’ than when an executive clique in the U.S. government led us into Iraq, then disbanded the army and banned all Baath Party members, and still expected the country to function. Even major country governments can mislead themselves into doing things that, when they go badly, look extremely foolish.

It is fortunate that Iran’s Quds Force reached out to the wrong Mexican gang members.  Otherwise we could be dealing with the fallout of another major act of terrorism in our country.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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3 Responses to Iran — Crazy like a Fox

  1. Eric, read this comment from CNN by Frida Ghitas. She sees things much as I do. And those “pretty smart/adept” folks are just the ones likely to over-reach when they become overconfident from some successes that make them think they are really smart.

    • Eric Selbin says:

      I have to confess I am far more inclined to trust your analysis than CNN’s, but of you want to go down that route, I think the comments from Reza Sayah ( and Jeffrey Toobin (
      are equally compelling…I find this riff particularly worrisome:

      “The argument for the defense might go like this: “CS-1 — a crafty and duplicitous drug dealer — knew he had to land a big fish to work off his beef. So CS-1, not Arbabsiar, concocted this ludicrous scheme to enlist Mexican drug cartels in an assassination on American soil. Jurors should be outraged that the American government is lining up with, and paying American taxpayer dollars to, a crook like him.” And even according to the complaint, it was CS-1 (not Arbabsiar) who came up with the much-ballyhooed figure of $1.5 million as the price to the Iranians for the killing. ”

      I don’t know and we shall see, but something, somewhere about this just doesn’t add up to me…but as we both know, I’ve (often) been wrong before….

  2. Eric, read this take on CNN from Frida Ghitis — very similar to mine. And the “pretty smart/adept” folks are often the ones who over-reach when they get overconfident from some success.

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