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By Christian Christoefl Contributor November 21, 2011

As the details of the Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the United States unfold, one thing is clear. This event signifies a new and dangerous direction in Iranian covert action around the world.

It is a story more suitable to a Hollywood blockbuster than reality: the coordinated assassination of the Saudi ambassador and bombings of the Saudi and Israeli embassies in a joint operation of Iran’s covert Quds Force and Mexico’s Los Zetas cartel. While it is clear that the plot, in development from May to September 2011, was never in jeopardy of reaching fruition, the ramifications are significant for international security.

With exact details coming under widespread scrutiny, the central point of contention hinges on whether the operation was authorized by the highest levels of the Iranian regime. This debate is moot. Whether the attack was a rogue element of Iran’s Quds Force or an orchestrated plan from the Iranian leadership, it represents an evolution of the Iranian threat. Iran’s recent divergence from their traditional tactics, increased fragmentation within the Iranian government, and heightened tensions stemming from Iran’s unabated pursuit of nuclear capabilities all contribute to a new, emerging danger.

Iran has had an affinity for covert operations since its 1979 revolution. It has cultivated strong relationships with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian regions by providing necessary financial support, military hardware, and training. Furthermore, it has expanded its network into Europe and Latin America by strengthening economic ties and developing sleeper cells among Muslim populations. Iranian-sponsored operations have been characterized by discipline, organization, and rationality.

The September 2011 assassination plot symbolizes an evolution of Iran’s policy and a significant divergence from its own established covert operation tactics. Iran has traditionally utilized small hit squads that only carried out assassinations with a high probability of success. The targets of these attacks were not leaders of foreign states but Iranian dissidents that spoke out against the regime. In addition, while they have shown tremendous support for Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, they have not tasked these groups with assassinations in Western states. The details of the Saudi assassination do not line up with these traditional means of operation. If the plot was approved by the government then it demonstrates a new willingness to accept greater collateral damage and a desire for bolder demonstrations of Iranian power. If, however, the plot was the work of a rogue element in the Quds Force it exemplifies the ability of individual segments in the regime to orchestrate and implement grand terrorist plots outside the purview of their superiors.

The schism that is developing within the Iranian government between Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad make the circumstances of the plot all the more acute. Ahmadinejad has quietly been purging the bureaucracy and replacing key leadership positions with individuals loyal to him. In response, Khamenei has begun systematically firing Ahmadinejad’s base of support. While the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is still firmly under the command of Khamenei, government forces may use the situation to increase their own autonomy and become less wedded to the current chain of command. Additionally, the two factions may use extreme international action, such as assassination, to legitimize their side and demonstrate strength to their internal opposition. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi alluded to this division and lack of communication. Salehi was first unaware of the plot and then later admitted complicity.

Lastly, tensions are escalating as Iran refuses to capitulate to international pressure to end its alleged weapons programs and threatens severe consequences if any military action is taken. The United States continues to advocate for harsher economic sanctions, while Israel has responded with serious consideration of using military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. The swelling tensions within this environment may either increase the division between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, or solidify and embolden the Iranian leadership to collectively pursue more brazen actions. Both cases allude to more extreme terrorist activity and exacerbate the growing security threat posed to the United States. As this nuclear crisis heightens, any form of radical terrorist activity, whether authorized by the regime or not, would lead the international community to a point of no return.

The debate over whether the upper level of Iran’s regime approved the plot is simply an argument of semantics. The simple fact is that there has been a unique transformation of operational conduct from previous Iranian covert operations. Whether this plot was a rogue operation by the Quds Force or a significant shift in foreign policy, it is clear that the Iranian threat has evolved. Coming to terms with a domestic power struggle and hostility on the international stage, the Iranian regime seems likely to resort to increasingly reckless measures.

Photo courtesy of Quigibo via Flickr.