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Today’s papers are full of details of an alleged plot by the Iranian government to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US. If carried out, the assassination plot would have involved a bomb blast at a Washington, D.C., restaurant frequented by the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, and could have killed at least 100 bystanders.
The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock and Liz Sly write that the rivalry between the Saudi kingdom and Iran is part of a larger battle for regional hegemony that is rooted in the centuries-old schism between Islam’s two main branches, Sunni and Shia. Iran – the center of Shiite Islam – sees the Saudi ruling family as corrupt and inappropriate guardians of the holiest shrines of Islam. Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam, sees the Iranian regime as dangerous revolutionaries with nuclear-weapons aspirations.
Middle East experts predict the uncovered plot will destroy any chance of rapprochement between the two countries, and could lead to open conflict.
“Hell will break loose,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “I don’t expect war to break out tomorrow, but if there was any hope that Saudi-Iranian relations would improve, this will be the end of it.”
The Atlantic’s Max Fisher takes a more skeptical view, asking just how exactly Iran’s interests would be served by assassinating – or being caught trying to assassinate – a Saudi ambassador on US soil.
The Iranian leadership, for all their twisted human rights abuses and policies that often serve the regime at the cost of actual Iranians, are not idiots. Though they use terrorism as a foreign policy tool, the attacks in Iraq and Lebanon and elsewhere have clearly been driven by just that – a cool-headed pragmatic desire to further Iranian foreign policy interests. Unifying the U.S. and Saudi Arabia at a time when they are drifting apart with a plot that would galvanize American publics and policymakers to support Saudi Arabia, and all without actually doing much strategic damage to either country, would be monumentally stupid. They've made serious, ideology-driven mistakes before – as government often do – but this plot comes so far out of left field that it should raise more questions than accusations.
The New York Times’s Charlie Savage and Scott Shane (together with a half dozen other reporters) write a more straightforward piece about the investigation, and they note that even the FBI was skeptical about the plot, until they saw evidence that the Iranian co-accused Gholam Shakuri, had deposited $100,000 as a downpayment for the assassination. They quote an Iran expert, Rasool Nafisi, as saying it is possibly a plot by rogue officers within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to prevent the possibility of reconciliation between the US and Iran.
See also Sara Llana’s excellent piece for the Monitor about the unlikely linkup between Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Mexican drug cartels. As Ms. Llana writes, the drug cartels are a natural choice for hitmen, since the ranks of the cartels are full of former elite special forces commandos. But such an operation is highly out of character for the cartels, who are, after all, in the drug business to profit from their easy access to US consumers, and they don’t want to do anything spectacular that would prompt a US military reaction.
Less noticed, on a day full of assassination plots and Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swaps, is the very good news that Liberia’s elections – conducted yesterday – appear to be going well, with no reports of voting irregularities or violence. Liberia was rocked by years of two separate civil wars, the latest ending in 2003. Since that time, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has helped to put her country on a path toward reconciliation and economic reform, two feats that helped her earn this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Africa watchers should keep an eye on Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Associated Press for updates on the vote count. Preliminary results could be released as early as Friday. See also Paige McClanahan’s recent profile of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, re-posted on the Monitor’s website last week following her naming as Nobel Prize winner.