In the Arena

Iranamok Redux

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Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

Iranian women walk past an anti-U.S. mural on the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, Oct. 12, 2011.

Back in the 1980s, The New Republic coined a lovely neologism to describe Ronald Reagan’s foolishly convoluted and entirely illegal attempt to trade arms for hostages: Iranamok. The reference was to Reagan’s silly staff having run amok trying to give the Iranians weapons in return for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, and a side deal sending proceeds from the sale of weapons to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua.

This time, it’s the Iranians have run amok. The plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington is something new and weird. Not that the Iranians haven’t been wandering the world assassinating opponents ever since the 1979 revolution…

Indeed, Roya Hakakian’s new book Assassins of the Turquoise Palace recounts in stunning detail a successful massacre by Iranian agents in the heart of Berlin. There have also been Hizballah attacks on the U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia, and several Jewish communities in Argentina. Some of these were strangely trivial: Were the Iranians that threatened by the Kurdish exiles they slaughtered in Berlin? What was the point of killing Jews…in Argentina? But they were always carried out by Iranian agents or their Hizballah proxies.

The Washington plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir differs from past assassinations in two significant ways: First, it would have been an indiscriminate bombing attack on American soil, which would have occasioned some sort of forceful U.S. response–which is the last thing Iran wants. Second, it would have been carried out by a third party, a Mexican drug cartel called Los Zetas, rather than by the Iranians themselves, with the promise of a payment in opium tonnage. This does not sound like the work of the Iranian hierarchy to me. As the CIA has found in the past, the Iranian leaders respond to international pressure, and even the Quds Force, the most radical element of the Iranian military, have had a strong sense of how far they can go when it comes to violence against Americans–they’ve walked a fine line, supporting anti-American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, arming our enemies but never quite joining in the fighting.

But it would be careless to merely write this off as a rogue Quds element gone berserk. Something else is happening here: Iran’s economy and alliances are failing simultaneously. The economic sanctions, imposed by the United Nations, haven’t brought the regime to its knees. But the country, and especially Iran’s powerful business community, is clearly suffering. Worse, Iran’s most important ally in the region, Syria, has become an international pariah and is on the verge of collapse.

Part of the collateral damage of the Arab Spring has been an increase in the tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the region. Iran has been on the short end of this struggle. The Saudis marched into Shi’ite Bahrain and put down the rebellion there with impunity. The Assad regime in Syria, run by the crypto-Shi’ite Alewite minority–is in imminent danger of overthrow by Syria’s Sunni majority, a development the Saudis would welcome. (The muddled situation in Iraq–a pro-Shi’ite, but anti-Persian majority–compounds the uncertainty.) I would guess–and it’s just a guess–that the assassination plot against Saudi Arabia’s most important diplomat was blind vengeance of the most dangerous kind, the kind that comes from escalating anger, frustration and confusion at levels well below the highest leaders in Iran–the kind of assassination attempt that launched World War I.

Revolutions are often followed by nationalist wars of aggression–look at France at the turn of the 19th century, look at the Ayatollah Khomeini’s war against Iraq in 1980. This happens for a reason: The euphoria of a revolution dissipates fairly quickly, the work of building a new society is hard, the temptation to revive the euphoria by finding enemies in the near-abroad is irresistible.

All of which is to say: The attempt to kill Adel al-Jubeir may have been a one-off by a rogue element of the Al-Quds Force, but it is also a clear sign of escalating tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the region. Those tensions will only increase now. A Saudi response is not improbable. A collapse of the Assad government in Syria could precipitate a regional sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which could become chaotic very quickly–involving Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, to say nothing of the destruction of the Iranian and Saudi oil fields.

It would be nice if cooler heads in Iran and Saudi prevailed, but that’s always been something of a long shot in the Middle East.