Obama’s Iran Dilemma: How to Respond to a Plot Seemingly Designed to Provoke Escalation?

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An Iranian couple walks along a road near an anti-U.S. mural on the wall of a government building in central Tehran October 12, 2011. (Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters)

The fact that President Barack Obama on Thursday found himself insisting that the facts support his Administration’s efforts to hold Tehran accountable for a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington suggests that the world is not yet rushing to fall in line with his call for “the toughest sanctions” on Iran.

The “toughest sanctions”, of course, would mean an oil embargo and blockade preventing Iran from importing gasoline, although such moves are so unlikely to win support that the Administration may not press for it. A more plausible goal might be to target Iran’s central bank, in the hope of choking off the country’s ability to trade on international markets. Even that move — which some in Tehran say would be treated as an “act of war” — would require the support of other countries, and would  likely be opposed by  those such as Russia, China and Turkey which conduct significant trade with Iran, and which have opposed the U.S. efforts to escalate sanctions over the nuclear issue.

The plot allegations, in short, are unlikely to be a game changer in the long-running effort by the U.S. and its closest allies to isolate and pressure Iran over its nuclear program: Those already on board with that effort — such as Britain and France — are backing U.S. calls for action on the embassy plot; those skeptical or opposed to that effort appear less certain of just what the evidence presented thus far by the Administration actually means.

It should come as no surprise that a scheme whose spectacular hokeyness is difficult to square with everything that is known about Iran’s well-established methods for staging terror attacks — and for which it’s hard to provide a rational motive even in the context of Iran’s intense regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia — is proving difficult to pin on the Iranian government’s decision makers. 

Apparently acknowledging that problem, President Obama said Thursday, “We believe that even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity.” That seemed to leave open an adjustment in the narrative to one in which the scheme could be blamed on a rogue element within the power structure.

Still, Obama’s rhetoric was tough, insisting that Iran be made to “pay a price” the plot and warning that “no option would be taken off the table” in responding, which is code for the threat of military action.  Washington certainly seems to be scooping up everything it can find on alleged Iranian malfeasance to throw into the p.r. battle. U.S. and Saudi intelligence officials told the Washington Post that they believe that Iran was behind the May 16 killing of a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Saudi officials are even taking the opportunity to blame Iran’s Quds force for instigating the Bahrain democratic uprising — a claim that is more likely to undermine the credibility of the p.r. effort than it is to enhance it, with the Saudi-led crackdown in Bahrain enjoying limited sympathy beyond those who support Riyadh’s role as sectarian pugilist and enforcer of Arab autocracy.

U.S. military officials also told the New York Times that Quds-forced trained and funded militants had fired rockets at an American position in Iraq, Wednesday, wounding three G.I.s. Perhaps that’s just coincidence, but a case seems to be being made that Iran is on the offensive, requiring a response.

One bit of speculation that the Times reported was under consideration by U.S. officials as an explanation for why Iran’s leaders might undertake the Washington plot  was that it might have been conceived as retaliation for a series of assassinations of scientists in Iran, believed to have been undertaken by Israel with tacit U.S. support. Nobody’s standing firm behind that one, of course, but even putting that out there could be double-edged when it comes to winning support for an escalation of pressure on Tehran: Many of the governments that would be appalled by the assassination of a diplomat are unlikely to be all that much more forgiving of the assassination of  scientists as a strategy for dealing with Iran.

The revelation of the assassination plot has, from the outset, been closely tied  to the main strategic confrontation, over Iran’s nuclear program and its regional role. It’s been seized upon as an opportunity to strengthen the U.S. hand in the existing sanctions effort, although it also appears to signal a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, which had been antagonized by the Obama Administration’s ambivalent reaction to the rebellions against autocracy in Tunisia and Egypt. Now, however, the Administration appears to be once again getting strongly behind Riyadh’s regional cold war with Tehran. But while the Arab Spring has set back Iran’s direct regional influence, that hasn’t translated into strengthening Saudi influence — while it may be managing the counterrevolution quite effectively in Bahrain and Yemen, the Saudis are hardly likely to win the support of newly empowered Arab publics, or regimes — such as Egypt’s — more responsive to their citizenry.  Iran remains more influential than the U.S. or Saudi Arabia is in post-Saddam Iraq, and on its northwestern border, Turkey has challenged U.S. policy toward Tehran even as it competes with Iran for regional influence. Even if it were convinced of Obama’s claims on the assassination DC plot, it’s hard to see that being sufficient to change Ankara’s orientation.

The one new development as a result of the assassination plot, however, is that the U.S. and Iran appear to have opened up a new channel of communication. CBS is reporting that Obama’s UN Ambassador, Susan Rice, took the highly unusual step on Thursday of meeting with Iranian counterparts in New York. If they haven’t been talking, they are now, although the contents of that conversation remain unknown.

Regardless of the details of the authorship of the assassination plot, its revelation has put President Obama in a difficult position. He’s under growing pressure from Capitol Hill to take a tougher stand against Iran — legislation making its way through Congress, for example, would tie his hands on sanctions, imposing measures against foreign firms that do business with Iran’s energy sector that would antagonize U.S. partners and threaten the consensus around existing sanctions, potentially giving Iran a win.

Still, the tough talk about making Iran “pay a price”, keeping “all options” open and imposing the “toughest sanctions” paints Obama into a tricky corner, particularly if there’s no shift in Iran’s stance or demonstrable price paid. After all, if this was, in fact, a plot authorized by the Iranian leadership, then it was plainly meant to be discovered as such, and to provoke the U.S. into retaliation. That would mean its authors were not afraid of a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, but were actually courting one.