October 18, 2011
Ever since the discovery of an Iranian plot to use Mexican gangsters to kill the Saudi ambassador, apologists for Iran have been claiming two things: that such a scheme was too amateurish for the supposedly professional Iranian intelligence service, and that there is no way senior Iranian leaders would have approved such a high-risk operation. Neither excuse stands up to much scrutiny.
Iranian fingerprints are all over this operation. U.S. officials have revealed that $100,000 was sent from a bank account associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to finance the killing. Admittedly, the use of an Iranian-born ne’er-do-well living in Texas — a reported hard drinker and drug user who had failed at one business after another — exposed the Iranians to ridicule. But that is simply a reflection of the fact that the Quds Force, which is responsible for external operations against the Iranian revolution’s enemies, does not have a professional proxy force akin to Hezbollah in the United States.
No doubt they would have preferred to turn to a hardened terrorist such as the late Imad Mughniyeh, for decades their man in Lebanon — but, lacking such an operative in the U.S., they had to make do with a former used-car salesman. It is actually not at all unusual for a foreign intelligence service to employ such a marginal character; upstanding members of the community don’t usually carry out killings for hire.
Given the close degree of control that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei exercises over the Iranian security services, it is implausible that the Quds Force would have done something so dangerous without his approval. Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force for the past 11 years, would not have lasted long in his job if he made a habit of defying the supreme leader. The fact that he is still in office despite the public discovery of the plot is a good indication that Iran’s clerical rulers approve of his machinations.
So if the Iranian government in fact connived at the murder of a foreign diplomat on American soil, the question becomes: What are we going to do about it? President Obama talked tough, vowing that Iran “will pay a price.” But such bravado fools no one. American presidents have been denouncing Iranian misdeeds ever since the dark days of 1979, the start of the Iranian revolution, when our embassy was seized and our diplomats held hostage — but seldom if ever have we backed up those words with commensurate actions.
Jimmy Carter chose to treat an act of war as an opportunity for negotiations. Ever since, U.S. presidents have hesitated to get tough with the Iranians, even as they (or more accurately their proxies) bombed our embassy and the Marine barracks in Lebanon, seized hostages there, bombed the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and killed countless American troops in Iraq (and probably also in Afghanistan) over the past decade. Even the discovery of links between al Qaeda and the Iranian government — first disclosed by the 9/11 commission — and the discovery of Iran’s nuclear weapons program have not changed the American habit of turning the other cheek in response to Iranian transgressions.
We have occasionally taken effective action against Iran — for instance, arresting Iranian operatives in Iraq, imposing sanctions on Iran and working with the Israelis on covert operations to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program by, allegedly, spreading the Stuxnet computer virus and killing Iranian nuclear scientists. But none of these responses has been appropriate to the size of the threat we face, and their deterrent effect has been so small, apparently, that the Iranians do not hesitate to plot terrorism on our soil.
The problem is that a more effective response — for instance, embargoing Iranian oil imports and exports, or bombing its nuclear installations and military sites — risks disrupting world oil markets and provoking an Iranian terrorist response. That is something we have hesitated to do, for understandable reasons. But the result of our hesitation has been that Iran continues to grow more dangerous. If it acts so recklessly while it is without nuclear weapons, imagine how it will behave if it becomes a nuclear-armed state. It is still not too late to head off such an eventuality, but it will require us to drop all illusions about the possibility of “moderate” mullahs coming to the fore or of a diplomatic breakthrough. The only thing the regime in Tehran understands is superior force, despite Khamenei’s show of bravado on Sunday. Unless we can induce some healthy fear in Tehran, expect more outrages and provocations in the future.