Washington Bombing Plot Is Out of Character for Iran's Professional Killers

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Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

Saudi ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubeir as he speaks to the press during the Middle East peace conference at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, November 27, 2007. US agents have foiled what has been called a "significant terrorist act" linked to Iran which would have included the assassination of the Saudi US ambassador.

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Just when you think the Middle Easy couldn't get any weirder, along comes an Iranian plot to assassinate the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Washington. The plot has was described by FBI Director Robert Muller as plucked right out of a Hollywood script — if so, it would be a truly awful Hollywood script. None of it measures up to Iran's unsurpassed skill in conducting assassinations. As for motives, there are no convincing ones.

According to the Department of Justice indictment, an Iranian-American used-car salesman attempted to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the hit. Other parts of the plan included bombing the Israeli embassy in Washington, as well as the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Argentina. The Iranian was willing to pay the cartel assassins $1.5 million to murder the Saudi ambassador. But the plot came undone when the man representing himself as a cartel operative turned out to be a paid informant of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The Iranian, who confessed after his arrest, is now behind bars. The other man in the plot, a member of the Quds Force, a secretive special forces unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, remains at large.

Before examining these claims, it's helpful to remember what we know about the Iranian unit implicated in the indictment: The Quds Force was responsible for the truck bombing the Marine barracks in Beirut. It was behind most of the kidnappings in Lebanon in the 1980s, including that of CIA station chief Bill Buckley. It organized the 1992 and1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and cultural centers in Buenos Aires, as well as Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. And most recently, it undoubtedly was behind the execution of five American soldiers in Karbala, Iraq in 2007. In other words, the Quds Force has been happy to target the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. But why so sloppy in this plot when their track record so clearly reflects a deadly professionalism?

In its 30-year history of attacking the West, the Quds Force went out of its way never to be caught with a smoking gun in hand. It always used well-vetted proxies, invariably Muslim believers devoted to Khomeini's revolution. And when the operation was particularly sensitive, they gave the job to Lebanon's militant Shi'ite Hizballah, organization the Iranians themselves had founded and which has an unsurpassed record in political murder. Hizballah has cells all over the world, including in the United States. But the point of it all was that if caught — and they were, more than once — Iran still enjoyed plausible deniability, a commodity in this business worth its weight in gold. So, if this plot was genuine, why didn't the Iranians use tried and tested Hizballah networks and keep Iranian nationals, much less unknown Mexican narcos, out of it?

The possible explanations are disturbing as the plot itself. One would be that the Iranian regime has lost control of the IRGC. In that scenario, the convoluted internal political calculus of Iran's internal power struggles would prompt the faction the plot to have Iranian fingerprints all over this, in order to provoke a confrontation with Washington — in their minds, such a confrontation would be the only way to reunify Iranians behind Khomeini's revolution.

Another possibility is that this is the work of the Iranian opposition, presumably intending to frame the regime, and draw the United States into conflict that would bring down the mullahs. The Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen e-Khalq, which remains on the U.S. list of international terror organizations despite a strenuous lobbying effort to get itself delisted, is perfectly capable of pulling something like this off.

No doubt, others will entertain all manner of theories about who might have been responsible and what agendas might have been served, by this plot and its exposure.

The space to watch now, however, is the White House. Attorney General Eric Holder implicated the Tehran regime in his Tuesday press statement, opening up the possibilities of serious retaliation. If the White House indeed makes the case that the Islamic Republic of Iran planned an act of war by assassinating the Saudi ambassador on its soil, it may not be able to restrict its response to escalating a sanctions regime that has proved ineffective in changing Iran's behavior. Regardless of the question-marks over the plot, it could well prompt a serious escalation in an already tense standoff.

Baer's suggestion that the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen e-Khalq "is perfectly capable of pulling something like this off" prompted Shahin Gobadi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran to deny the claim. A statement sent to TIME.com included the following:

"In the past 30 years, the Iranian regime has blamed the responsibility of numerous crimes that directly or indirectly had been involved in, on the MEK and the Iranian Resistance. The horrendous killings of Christian pastors, bombing of Shi'ite holy shrine in eastern city of Mashad in 1994, killings of Mecca pilgrims in 1987 and training women suicides bombers are a few examples. Disseminating such lies, which the terrorist ruling in Iran are its only beneficiary, takes place at a time that senior U.S. officials talk about the existence of numerous reliable documents collected after months of investigations, and underscore that there is no doubt that this ominous plan is the work of Khamenei's terrorist Quds Force."

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.