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Boring counterclaims about Iran

October 12, 2011

While it may be too early for me to confidently weigh in about the supposed Qods Force assassination attempt on the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US, it’s certainly not too early to pick apart of some of the insta-analysis news of that incident has produced.

One of the classic arguments about Iran is its supposed rationality or irrationality as a state. This argument, in the context of the nuclear issue, has become something of an ideological litmus test. For many critics of US policy towards Iran, the Iranian foreign policy is supposedly hyper-rational and coldly calculating – in contrast to a brash, bombastic and emotional US foreign policy. On the other side, there are many which believe Iran is a bloodthirsty, single-minded entity prepared for national suicide in the service of an inscrutable eschatology.

Both sides tend to miss important points. A glut of articles appeared wondering why the Iranian state would have the motive to launch a supposedly pointless attack, and do so in a sloppy manner. The sight of Qods Force affiliates haplessly bumbling around in Mexico and the US seems out of character with their deadly effective activities in Iraq, Lebanon, and Latin America. So too does the targeting of a Saudi Ambassador in the US capital seem out of character, even though Saudi Arabia and Iran are in the midst of a major proxy conflict and there has been a covert assassination campaign against people affiliated with the nuclear program raging in Iran for years.

That said, the lack of professionalism in the attempt does not make such an attack automatically illogical, and an attack being illogical does not make it impossible. In the annals of horrendously stupid or overambitious acts of aggression, the Iranian assassination of a Saudi Ambassador on US soil is not inconceivable (people have been assassinated on US soil before), and certainly not a new record for foolishness. Particularly if Iran feels confident that the United States cannot overthrow it, cannot tolerate yet another hot war in the Persian Gulf, and thought it could damage the US image and ability to harness the Arab Spring by forcing it back into bed with Saudi Arabia, the vanguard of the counterrevolution, it might feel the risks acceptable. It’s not that Iran would be right in thinking that, it’s that trying to rule out a country’s – or a rogue faction within it’s – involvement in an incident because we cannot come up with a compelling motive is not a very convincing line of reasoning. America is not the only country where ideological blinders, distorted perspectives, and the tumultuous nature of domestic politics can nudge individuals to advocate or pursue tremendously irrational actions abroad.

Of course, the most persuasive idea, at first glance, is that this incident is the product of extremely fractured decision-making by lower-level members of the IRGC and QF. However, in the long history of profoundly clownish cloak and dagger schemes, trying to use a drug cartel to kill an Ambassador is not that crazy. The CIA did, after all, try to hire mobsters to poison Castro.

That said, some of the takeaways from those believing Iran to be an undeterrable, uncontainable state are even more confusing. Two pieces here posit that because Iran was willing to undertake an assassination on US soil, deterrence will not work when it has nuclear arms, because either it will not be able to control its weapons or because it does not believe the US has a credible retaliatory capability.

This argument, quite frankly, is not borne out by the evidence. An Iranian strike against the US would prove that terrorism is not easily deterrable, which has been the case for a long time. It hardly proves war beyond covert action is inevitable, as Haddick states. Pakistan has aided and abetted terrorist groups which have conducted multiple mass casualty attacks against India, including against the Indian government itself. This has not significantly undermined conventional and nuclear deterrence. In fact, it’s the effectiveness of deterrence that has led Pakistan to shift its strategy from using conventional assaults on India to fidayeen and terror attacks by proxy – the famed stability-instability paradox.

Aggressive covert operations exist in parallel with a situation where deterrence prevents a major war – it is the expected choice of method, not a contradiction of its predictions. After all, the US and the Soviet Union waged aggressive covert wars against each other, even though direct attacks on the homeland were not undertaken. Nor does the recklessness of a country in its covert actions indicate a concurrent recklessness in its employment of nuclear arms. Aside from the superpowers, France, Israel and Pakistan have all backed robust covert warfare campaigns and support of armed groups, and these actions did not make them strategically undeterrable foes.

As for the notion that a QF-affiliated US citizen and one other apparently confirmed QF figure acting without direct authority from the Supreme Guide somehow means that Iran would not be able to control its nukes, this appears highly unlikely. The Pakistani ISI and other factions of the military are deeply involved in supporting terrorist and insurgent groups and often have officers acting with relative independence, especially from the civilian government and other branches, yet there has been no indication that its nuclear arms are subject to anywhere near as much independent authority.

Russia is another case of a country with an enormous amount of nuclear material to keep track of, a decrepit military and extremely corrupt state, and at least one incident of a Russian agent participating in a covert attack directed at the US Embassy in Tblisi. Yet there is no question Russia is a deterrable state, or that a rogue Major could somehow acquire a nuclear bomb simply because the highest levels of the Russian deep state may not have personally signed off on his venture.

So while there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about abstracting every single decision anyone in Iran’s government makes from this single incident, there’s also plenty of reasons to be skeptical that this decision must necessarily display the exact same discretion and supposed cold rationality that high-level officials may employ and projecting it onto the specific people on trial.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2011 10:08 am

    Very engaging and well-written post. Do you think that there is any correlation at all between military might and terrorism deterrence? I’m tempted to think that it is a negative correlation, in that the more a military tries to defeat terrorism aggressively, the more terrorism there will be.

    This seems to be supported by recent American history. Just since the September 11 attacks, we have killed thousands of terrorists and insurgents, but there have been huge numbers of attempted attacks on American soil in that time period. Most of these attempts have been thwarted or were poorly planned (think underwear bomber), but our FBI and CIA did most of the work to stop these threats.

    I’m curious what you think about our current counter-terrorism strategy. Most of the people I discuss this with know a lot less than you do about current foreign affairs.

    • October 14, 2011 2:28 pm

      Thanks for the comment. No, I don’t think there is a straightforward deterrence between military strength generally and terrorism generally. We can deter certain kinds of terrorism, and full-scale invasions and nation-building don’t deter it at all.

      That said, assassination and limited military strikes can be highly effective as part of a comprehensive strategy and intelligence that allows the simultaneous targeting of various critical nodes within the organization.

      US foreign policy shouldn’t be based around deterring terrorism, it should be based around making the US more resilient against it. This involves both limiting the economic costs and risks we take in counter-terrorism, as well as accepting that no US actions will eliminate terrorism. It also means we shouldn’t withdraw from commitments that are legitimately in our national interest just because it might provoke terrorism. There’s no such thing as complete security and any foreign policy, non-interventionist or interventionist, can avoid that fact.


  1. Eunomia » The Alleged Iranian Plot (III)

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