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The Scoop
October 12, 2011

Did the snake decide to bite?

by
Houriya Ahmed

In 2008 the Saudis asked the US to attack Iran and stop it from developing nuclear weapons. According to one WikiLeaks revelation, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States relayed King Abdullah’s message to the Americans: ‘He told you to cut off the head of the snake’.

It has now emerged that the snake wanted this very same ambassador dead.

According to the Americans, an elite faction of the Iranian revolutionary guards, the Quds Force, allegedly plotted to assassinate Adel Al-Jubei in a Washington, DC restaurant and blow up the Saudi embassy. The plot was foiled by US authorities, but had it succeeded, civilians would have died. Two Iranians with links to the Quds faction have been charged. They apparently tried to hire assassins from Mexican drug cartels to carry out the operation, and according to the US, members of the Iranian government paid £1.5mn for the assassination.

The story sounds like it was scripted for Hollywood. But let’s assume for a second that the Iranian government was actually involved. From their perspective, the Saudis asked the Americans, whom they hate with a vengeance, to bomb their home. So to do the same to them, on American soil, would ostensibly be an act of retaliation.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a cold war for quite a while now, with the former competing with Saudis for regional dominance. Proxies like the Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda are used by the Iranians to stir trouble in neighbouring countries and extend their influence. The Saudis see this as the Shia’s meddling in internal Sunni-Arab affairs they have no business associating with. They mainly see Iran as a menace and a destabilising force within the region.

To make matters worse, the uncertainties created by the Arab Spring haven’t placated Saudi apprehension and have instead heightened the ensuing tensions between the two. The Iranians have created spheres of influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and in Gaza, but have none in the Gulf region. As such, King Abdullah was quick to quash the Shia uprisings in Bahrain, and even in his own country last week, for fear that Iran would use the Shias within Gulf States to expand their reach and influence. The Iranians, of course, wouldn’t miss such an opportunity.

Despite their animosity, would the Iranians risk provoking war with Saudi Arabia, with the Americans on their side, by sanctioning the assassination attempt on US soil?

Analysts find it surprising that Iran would provoke such a measure now, especially with the nuclear programme under international scrutiny. They also find it odd and uncharacteristic that the elite Quds Force, who report directly to Ayatollah Khameini, would implicate themselves so publicly in the plot. A piece in the New York Times highlights that international attacks conducted by the Quds halted in 1997 after President Khatami reined the force in, so that Iran would not face increasing isolation. Since, the Quds have traditionally worked through proxies in the Middle East so that their meddling is untraceable.

So was the plot directed by rogue elements with the Quds? Analysts suggest that this is the most likely scenario.

Houriya Ahmed

About Houriya Ahmed

Houriya Ahmed is a Non-Resident Associate Fellow at the HJS.

Full profile  |  See all of Houriya Ahmed's work