Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Iran Terror Plot Crisis: Big Trouble for Obama

Doc's Talk
by Barry Rubin
Remember that Hillary Clinton ad about it being the early morning hours and the phone’s ringing in the White House? Well it’s arrived in real life and the phone is—or isn’t—going to be answered by Barack Obama. That doesn’t mean the dramatic announcement of an Iranian plot to attack targets in Washington DC has brought a crisis It’s up to Obama to decide whether or not it is a crisis. And that’s the point.

True, it’s a bizarre story about Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Mexican drug lords. But, after all, the United States was impelled a step toward entering World War One by the Zimmerman Note in which German agents sought to entice Mexico to go to war against the United States. Vice-President Joe Biden has said this is a really serious response. The Saudis, who are famous for keeping a low profile and trying to avoid problems—often through money—are openly livid. They’re basically saying something along the lines of, “We told you so.” They tried and gave up.

Is This Story True?
There are some points that would make one question this whole garish tale. Most important:
–This does not match past Iranian practice. Many “experts” think this is the clincher but precedent is not always a reliable guide. Things change. Be careful on this point.
–Why should some Iranian-American businessman in Texas be a key Iranian agent? It’s called secret agent work for a reason. A sleeper cell should not be obvious. And he did have a relative in the Revolutionary Guards.

–Why didn’t Iran use its own assets? I think this is a stronger argument. The whole thing is amateurish. Even if Iran was going to do this it would have developed these contacts and not immediately entrusted some drug gang official who one of their guys barely knew. Wouldn’t they have preferred to use Middle Easterners and Muslims?
–What was the Iranian goal? Certainly, Iran has been threatening the United States with dire consequences for a while. But why the sudden decision to escalate? Revenge for sanctions? And what was their plan for concealing Iranian involvement if the attack did happen? One can explain such a change but one cannot explain it very well. This raises questions but again is not a definitive answer.

All that’s important is this: If the U.S. government has persuasive evidence then it happened.
Might this blow up in the Obama’s Administration’s face?
Absolutely yes. If they were fooled by a fabricator, if revealing the case too soon (to stave off criticism of Attorney-General Holder over the gun-smuggling case) damaged the chance of success in uncovering the terrorist network, or if the government’s response is not equal to the crisis they’ve developed, then the Obama Administration will look worse.

This whole affair is extremely dangerous for the White House. Any idea that this is an easy win for the administration—see how good we are at protecting America—is dead wrong.
I am not arguing and do not believe that they created this plot but this would not be the first time that U.S. officials have been fooled by Iranians with an agenda to fool them.

What Will the Administration Do about it?
The response is fraught with peril. The immediate reaction—we’ll mobilize world opinion!—makes the administration look buffoonish. If this is true it is an act of war by Iran, at least by elements in the Iranian government (you know, the kind of people who could one day give nuclear weapons to terrorists).

Response A: Do Nothing
Wow, can you see that in the presidential debates in 2012? An enemy chose to attack the very capital city and the Obama Administration could only respond with press releases and Biden growling!
Response B: The “Sunni Strategy”
This really scares me. This Administration is quite capable of saying: Iran is the enemy so what we must do is work with our good Muslim friends, you know the Muslim Brotherhood? We need to win over Hamas and Hizballah from Iran by proving we are nice to them. Oh, and we need to work closely with that wonderful Turkish government, like letting them organize the political succession in Syria!
And so on. Do not underestimate the stupidity, incompetence, and ignorance of this Administration regarding the Middle East.
Response C: A United Front against Revolutionary Islamism

The U.S. government takes the lead in organizing and supporting Europe, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, Israel, and Jordan into a cooperative alignment. Back the oppositions in Iran, Turkey, and Lebanon. Punish friends and reward enemies.

The point is not to go to war with Iran but to oppose Iranian interests and allies everywhere, including the use of covert operations. Challenge Iranian agents of influence in Lebanon and Iraq. Containment is not just about nuclear weapons for Tehran but about the spreading influence of that regime.

That also means the United States must seem like a strong and determined leader. It must have very serious credibility. And it will have to identify revolutionary Islamism as the enemy.

Look, this is the Obama Administration we are talking about. I don’t think they can do it. Hopefully, the next president can do so. There better be a next president in sight because there are a lot more crises on the way. 

As I said at the start, I do not think this is some brilliant maneuver that will end up being to the Obama Administration’s advantage. They have either made a huge mistake that’s going to be exposed or presented themselves with a challenge they cannot meet.
Ring! Ring! It’s your telephone, Mr. President.

Professor Barry Rubin, Director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center
The Rubin Report blog
He is a featured columnist at PJM
Editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal
Editor Turkish Studies,