The strange story of a supposed Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States has stirred up a lot of noise, but not much clarity, on both sides of the Atlantic. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the bungled scheme a "flagrant violation of international and United States law" as well as a "threat to international peace and security." According to Vice President Joe Biden, the US is now "in the process of uniting world public opinion, continuing to isolate and condemn (Iran's) behavior." He ominously added that "nothing has been taken off the table."
That's strong language for a plot that a New York Times writer describes as "a rejected Quentin Tarantino script." US officials announced on Wednesday that they had caught a member of Iran's secretive Quds Force in the act of utilizing a used-car dealer in Texas named Manssor Arbabsiar as an intelligence asset for the special foreign actions unit. Arbabsiar, in turn, was allegedly trying to hire a member of a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC. Arbabsiar was reportedly arrested late last month.
"The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?" Clinton said this week in an interview with the Associated Press. Perhaps not, but experts wary of war talk from Washington say it's also uncharacteristically amateurish behavior for Iranian intelligence.
'Departs from All Known Procedures'
Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute, writes that the plot "departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures," and Juan Cole at the University of Michigan argues that the plot looks more like an attempt at revenge by an Iranian drug cartel, with flimsy Quds Force cover, than a serious operation by Tehran.
Still, Tehran is now under scrutiny, and by Wednesday night the US decided to sanction at least one Iranian airline. Mahan Air is barred from American airports, officials say, because it regularly carries operatives from the Quds Force and Hezbollah around the Middle East. American officials below the cabinet rank have been careful to say there was plenty of room to raise pressure on Tehran without forcing new decisions at the UN Security Council.
But German commentators on Thursday seem in favor of action by President Barack Obama.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"If the US government succeeds in proving -- beyond a doubt -- that Tehran was involved in preparations for such a terrorist act, which would be a flagrant violation of international law, tensions with the mullah regime would escalate to a new stage. Then it would be obvious that Iran has excused itself from the international community."
"There would also be implications at the Security Council. For years the UN has debated tough sanctions against Tehran over suspicions about its domestic nuclear program. Countries that have stood in the way of stiffer sanctions at the Security Council will now find it harder to make their case."
The left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Clearly, this scheme wasn't hatched by Tehran's best and brightest. It does seem certain, however, that there were sponsors in influential circles in Iran. This is what makes the case so interesting. The plans could mean the Iranian regime is eroding from within. That's relevant because parts of the world with minimal government control -- certain restless border regions come to mind -- risk becoming breeding grounds for terrorism. Think about the ties between the Pakistani intelligence service and the Taliban."
"America's case for retaliation has received a significant boost. The debate surrounding Iran's nuclear program has quieted down. Finally, Washington can expose its nemesis Tehran on the international stage. Even the way this case has been presented by the US isn't without apparent ulterior motives. Americans were never in real danger, yet Washington has everything to gain from a major scandal."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The Obama government will show the world evidence of the thwarted attacks, and will demand the strengthening of draconian trade hurdles and frozen bank accounts for leaders of the Tehran regime. No one in the West knows for certain how these sanctions and power struggles influence Iran on the inside. But for now that is a secondary concern, at least for a practical politician like Obama. If the president fails to punish the enemy in the Middle East, he himself would become the political victim of the planned attack."
"Obama is in a tight spot. Since Tuesday Republicans have been accusing Obama of having encouraged the terror plans all the way to the Potomac with his weak approach to the dark forces in Iran. This is absurd, of course, but the accusation threatens to catch on. And the president knows full well that Tehran can spoil his chances at re-election. Obama promised to bring home thousands of soldiers by election day from two of Iran's neigbhors -- Iraq and Afghanistan. With the help of allied networks Tehran can easily destabilize both countries. Iran's script is treacherous, but real."
The conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"It's long been known that Iran is the world's most important sponsor of terrorism. The mullah regime has mounted or sponsored attacks on a number of American targets in the past. The list runs from the hostages taken (in 1979) at the US embassy in Tehran, to bomb attacks against US Marines and the American embassy in Beirut, to aid for extremists in Iraq. But attacks against foreign diplomats on American soil would be a broad escalation of Iran's longstanding war against Western interests."
"The most important question is: How reliable is America's information? In any case the revelation demands a reaction from the president. This may be one reason why his government held it under wraps for so long. Barack Obama has enough problems at the moment. An escalation of tension with Iran is not quite what this government needs."
The business daily Handelsblatt argues:
"Attorney General Eric Holder says the US intends to hold Iran accountable for its actions. The only question is how. A military response can be ruled out. The US will not throw itself into a third war in the Middle East which could destabilize the entire region. That leaves sanctions. But so far, that approach has not caused the Iranian regime to give ground. Despite all the efforts of the US and the Europeans, Tehran is pushing forward with its nuclear program undeterred, and can rely on the fact that Russia and China will prevent any overly tough punishment."
-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff
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