Will the Washington Bomb Plot Force Obama into War with Iran?

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech under portraits of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, left, and the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, before the 22nd anniversary of Khomeini's death on June 3, 2011 (Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images)

“We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other,” outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month. “If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right — that there will be miscalculation, which could be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

Mullen’s warning of the perils arising from the two sides’ inability to communicate and understand each other’s intentions — “Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union” — seems especially prescient amid the fallout from the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, blamed by the U.S. on “elements of the Iranian government.” Claims that officials within the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps initiated a bizarre scheme via an Iranian-American used-car salesman — described by his former business partner as “a sort of hustler” — to enlist the services of a Mexican drug gang for a terrorism strike in the U.S. capital have been seized on by the Administration to press for tougher international action against Tehran.

“We see this as a chance to go out to capitals and around the world and talk to allies and partners about what the Iranians tried to do,” an unnamed official told the Washington Post. “We’re going to use this to isolate them to the maximum extent possible.” Vice President Joe Biden added, darkly, that when it came to responding to Iran’s behavior, “nothing has been taken off the table.”

U.S. officials fanned out on Wednesday to enlist the support of foreign governments for further sanctions. (The U.S. has banned Iran’s airline from operating in the U.S. and has frozen its assets.) And the Administration plans to approach the U.N. Security Council, seeking action to “hold Iran accountable” over the plot. While Britain and France have signaled support, it’s difficult to imagine that the revelations will persuade countries skeptical of the U.S.’s Iran policy to change their positions. As National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi tells TIME, “They have to be sure the evidence of involvement by the government of Iran is very solid, because they can’t afford another Colin Powell moment at the Security Council.” (The former Secretary of State briefed the council in February 2003 on U.S. claims about Iraq’s weapons programs, on which it justified its invasion, but the claims later proved to be unfounded.) “And the evidentiary bar is going to be set pretty high at the Security Council precisely because of the Colin Powell experience,” Parsi adds.

Accepting at face value the claim that this plot was the work of the Iranian government requires a suspension of disbelief. “This plot, if true, departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures,” wrote Gary Sick, a former National Security Council Iran aide now at Columbia University. Despite its animus toward the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Iran has always relied on trusted proxies like Hizballah to carry out assassinations, giving Tehran plausible deniability. “Iran has never conducted — or apparently even attempted — an assassination or a bombing inside the U.S.,” Sick noted. “And it is difficult to believe that they would rely on a non-Islamic criminal gang to carry out this most sensitive of all possible missions. In this instance, they allegedly relied on at least one amateur and a Mexican criminal drug gang that is known to be riddled with both Mexican and U.S. intelligence agents.”

Terrorism attacks have long been part of Iran’s playbook in its three-decade battle for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia, and that battle has intensified in recent years as the two sides have played out proxy wars in Iraq and Lebanon, while Tehran’s key Arab ally, Syria, has been in mortal danger, and the Saudis have flexed their muscles by cracking down violently on Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority and its own Shi’ite minority. Riyadh appears to be orchestrating events in Yemen too.

But Iran-Saudi tensions don’t explain the choice of Washington as the venue for an attack. The ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, is not a key player in the Saudi regime. And not only is the U.S. capital probably one of the world’s better-protected cities since 9/11, but an act of terrorism there would certainly provoke retaliation by the Americans. The Washington bomb plot makes sense only if the goal was, in fact, to provoke the U.S. into attacking Iran.

Some have suggested that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei might do just that, seeing a confrontation with the U.S. threat as a way of consolidating his regime. But the challenge of the Green Movement has been largely suppressed, for now, and even the uppity President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has had his wings clipped. It’s not hard to see why so many Iran watchers doubt that Khamenei would have signed off on such a harebrained scheme, even if some speculate that a rogue faction within the Quds Force may have been responsible.

But Tehran is not the only power center whose hard-liners might like to provoke an outbreak of hostilities between Iran and the U.S., prompting further speculation abroad over the nature and possible authorship of the plot.

Details of the scheme raise even more doubts: the deadly professionals of the Quds Force are said to have broken with the habit of using either their own disciplined professionals or trusted proxies like Hizballah, with plenty of cutouts and plausible deniability. Instead, they ostensibly turned to a used-car salesman to engage the services of a Mexican drug gang with no history of mounting attacks outside of Mexican borders. My colleague Tim Padgett has highlighted the absurdity of the idea that the Zetas, a multibillion-dollar criminal operation, would be willing to court the wrath of the U.S. through an act of war in Washington, and for a measly $1.5 million.

If the conception of the plot was hokey, the tradecraft — communications by phone, money wired from a Quds Force bank account — wasn’t worthy of the name.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But unfortunately, since the Iraq invasion, much of the international community is unlikely to easily accept claims made by Washington against rival states whose regimes it would like to be rid of.

Still, even though the plot was thwarted, it could yet provoke an escalation, or even a confrontation, between the U.S. and Iran. The poisoning of the atmosphere will, in all likelihood, further dim the already diminished hopes for any diplomatic progress on the nuclear standoff. And if the Administration fails to win support for a significant escalation of sanctions or other form of punishment for the Tehran regime after presenting evidence of the latest allegations of Iranian malfeasance, the ball will land back in Obama’s court. Having made the case that Iran crossed a red line, he will be under pressure to act — or risk entering a highly polarized election season haunted by a “soft on Iran” charge.