How will US retaliate against Iran for alleged assassination plot?

Military reprisal is justified, some analysts say. But initially the US is likely to take a diplomatic course, trying to further isolate Iran after its alleged role in an assassination plot on US soil.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Attorney General Eric Holder, left, accompanied by FBI Director Robert Mueller, speaks at a news conference in Washington Tuesday. Holder announced that two individuals have been charged in New York for their alleged participation in a plot directed by elements of the Iranian government to murder the Saudi ambassador to the United States with explosives while the ambassador was in the United States.

Revelations Tuesday of an alleged Iranian-directed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States on American soil will plunge already-confrontational US-Iran relations to new depths.

The initial US response is likely to be to reinforce efforts to isolate Iran in global affairs.

The US accusations portray an Iran willing to carry out by proxy an attack not only on US territory but in the heart of Washington, and they are likely to move to center stage international efforts at corralling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which have sat in the wings for months.

The alleged plot is enough to justify some form of retaliatory military action by the United States, say some national security experts. Others say the US is likely to limit itself to reinforced diplomatic efforts against Iran while the legal case against two accused plotters makes its way through the American justice system.

“At a minimum, this is something that will be used in diplomatic channels to further US efforts to isolate Iran,” says Matthew Levitt, director of the intelligence and counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t know if the administration will want to do much more than that while this remains at the level of allegations.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the State Department Tuesday afternoon that the US is already consulting with allies and partners in the international community on “how we can send a very strong message that this kind of action that violates international norms” will not be tolerated.

The US plans to take up the plot at the United Nations Security Council, according to one US official. That course of action suggests not only that the Obama administration assigns a high level of seriousness to the plot and its ramifications, but also that the US will favor a diplomatic response, at least initially.

The allegations, spelled out by US Attorney General Eric Holder at a Washington press conference Tuesday, point the finger at officials in Iran’s Al Quds Force, which US and Western intelligence experts consider to be the militant wing of the Iranian military. By tying the plot to “factions of the Iranian government,” Mr. Holder underscored the US position that the Iranian regime was behind the plan.

Iran will be held “accountable,” Holder said, before specifying that retaliatory actions would be announced shortly by the White House, State Department, and Treasury.

The alleged plot – which Justice Department officials claim never got past early planning stages, based on telephone and informant conversations –envisioned planting a bomb in a favorite Washington restaurant of Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. Other ideas allegedly discussed included attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington.

Representatives of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quickly reacted to the allegations, calling them “a frabrication.”

The Al Quds Force, also known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, is known to spearhead an expansionist vision of Iranian influence in the broader Middle East region. US officials peg Al Quds as the instigator of attacks on US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, many regional experts assert that Al Quds’ leaders consider that battle for influence to put Iran in direct conflict with Saudi Arabia and its monarchy. Not only is Ambassador Jubeir an influential presence in the Washington diplomatic corps, but he is considered a close intimate of Saudi King Abdullah.

The Saudi Embassy issued a statement calling the “attempted plot” a “despicable violation of international norms,” and thanking US government agencies for “preventing a criminal act.”

Iran is on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Al Quds is perhaps the chief purveyor of Iranian terrorist acts, either directly or through proxies, many terrorism experts say. Iran cannot claim to be separate from what any of its “factions” undertake, these experts add.

“We hear about factions in the Iranian government, but Iran is responsible for them and their actions, and that’s the end of it,” says James Carafano, director of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Either they disband this group [Al Quds] or they are accountable for it.”

Dr. Carafano calls the plot “a belligerent act against the US,” and says that “as such would call for a proportional military response.”

The exposed plot “really demands that [President] Obama finally give up the hands of friendship he extended to Iran and make a full reappraisal of our approach to Iran," he adds. We have never really taken a hard line with them, and this is the blowback from that.”

The Washington Institute’s Dr. Levitt says the fact the Justice Department is coming out only now with formal charges on a plot Mr. Obama was informed about in June may indicate that the US wanted to firm up the plot's links to Iran.

The involvement of Iranian officials would suggest Iran was stepping up its “traditional modus operandi” in terms of using terrorism to further its goals, he says, but the US could make the case to the world only with firm evidence. “I’d say they didn’t want to go forward with the case until they’d dotted the i's and crossed the t's,” Levitt says.

Noting that Iran has either directly or indirectly attacked US interests in the past – the Marine barracks attack in Beirut, the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia – Levitt says an attack on US soil would have been “a complete break from past experience.”

That, he adds, suggests that Iranian officials are feeling more “desperate” under existing international pressure – and that they may have been willing to risk tremendous repercussions in the name of retaliation.

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