Intelligence Analyst Pollack on Assassination Plot: 'The Evidence They Claim To Have Seems To Be Fairly Impressive'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Middle East intelligence expertáKennetháPollack discusses the situation behind Iran's alleged murder plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The weakened US economy and troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan may have emboldened Iran's leadership to strike, he says.

Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei has called US allegations 'meaningless.' Zoom
REUTERS

Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei has called US allegations 'meaningless.'

SPIEGEL: All of Washington is shaking their heads over the alleged Iranian murder conspiracy against the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. Even US officials said it seems like a Hollywood film. Does the scenario make sense to you?

Pollack: It seems quite remarkable, even outlandish. Given the graveness of the charges and the outlandishness of the story, we want to view it with some skepticism. We should also keep in mind that the Iranian government gets blamed for lots of things, not all of which it does, and the United States government makes lots of claims, not all of which prove to be accurate.

SPIEGEL: President Barack Obama doesn't seem at all uncertain. On the contrary, he seems rather determined in his efforts to punish Iran with tough sanctions. He has also said that all options are on the table, which is an indirect military threat.

Pollack: This is the Obama administration, not the Bush administration, and they realized that the whole world was going to be skeptical after the revelations about the alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. They're doing this from a law enforcement perspective, so these are not intelligence claims. These are American law enforcement officials saying, 'We have evidence,' and the evidence that they claim to have seems to be fairly impressive.

SPIEGEL: Still a number of questions remain unanswered. Does the US government know more than the rest of the world?

Pollack: Probably. We have not seen the records of the wire transfer, and I'm certainly not privy to whatever they have in terms of the phone calls. They're just saying that they have these things, and again, I don't doubt that they do. They don't make these claims unless they have evidence that will stand up in a court of law.

SPIEGEL: Tehran has rejected the accusations as a smear campaign. Meanwhile Western intelligence experts have said that Iran has never planned an attack on American soil in the past, and certainly hasn't previously worked with such dubious figures as the Mexican drug bosses and Texan used-car dealer from this case.

Pollack: But there's always a first time. With regard to the sloppiness, the Iranians tend to be very, very professional, but they can also be very amateurish. If this is the first time they operated on US soil, they probably don't have the assets or the network to do it the way they otherwise might.

SPIEGEL: But would the Iranian government really approve such a clumsy operation?

Pollack: Assuming this did come from the Iranian government, we don't know who in the government actually authorized it. We know that Iranian terrorist operations are sometimes authorized and sometimes they are not. In the case of the Mykonos restaurant assassinations in Berlin in 1992 (when three Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders and a translator were killed), it's clear that the government did authorize them. But in 2009, according to the information available, the Revolutionary Guard seized British sailors on its own. That, too, would be an operation where any Westerner would ask 'Why didn't they have the approval at the highest levels to do this?'

SPIEGEL: Whether it was authorized or not, what would the murder of the Saudi Arabian ambassador have brought Iran?

Pollack: We can speculate that this may have been someone looking to say to both the United States and Saudi Arabia, 'If you keep coming after us, we will come after you.' Remember, the Iranian perspective is that the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and to some extent the EU, are waging a kind of war against them. (Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei always calls it a 'soft war,' but there's the sanctions angle. Someone is killing Iranian nuclear scientists. Someone set the Stuxnet virus (in their nuclear facilities). I think the Iranians assume that the US was somehow involved. They probably assume that the Saudis were too, even if only indirectly. So this may be someone in the Iranian regime trying to send a signal to the US and Saudi Arabia that there will be consequences, a price to be paid for going after Iran in this way.

SPIEGEL: Could such plans signal that Iran felt emboldened to attack given the weakened domestic state in the US?

Pollack: Iran has one of the most fragmented political systems on earth. My guess is that different Iranian leaders feel differently. I certainly do believe that there are a number of Iranian leaders, in particular in the Revolutionary Guard, who believe they are already engaged in a form of war with the United States, with Saudi Arabia, and with Israel, and I believe that they want to push back. I'm also sure that they're concerned about Syria, and I'm sure that they're concerned about some other things in the Arab Spring. But what I also see from them is a sense of triumphalism. They read the Arab Spring as being anti-American, and they see that as being beneficial to them.

SPIEGEL: In his response to the allegations, Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei accused the US of trying to distract from its own problems, the economic crisis in particular.

Pollack: It could well be that the Iranians are looking at the Obama administration and how it is now focused inwardly and also pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan pretty quickly. There is clearly no sentiment for another war in the Middle East here in the United States. It may be that the Iranian leadership is thinking: 'The Americans don't seem like they're in a position to retaliate against us, and that gives us more freedom of action.'

SPIEGEL: Still, some have been suspicious about the timing of the Obama administration's accusations, saying that perhaps he wants to present himself as strong on foreign policy against inexperienced Republican challengers.

Pollack: That's absolute nonsense. The truth is the Republicans are going to use this to make Obama look weak because he's not going to retaliate militarily even when the Iranians try to mount a terrorist assassination attempt on American soil.

SPIEGEL: The president has pushed for tough sanctions. But Russia and China are likely to block such measures in the United Nations Security Council. Are more sanctions just an empty threat?

Pollack: If the administration can demonstrate to the international community that the government of Iran really was behind this then I certainly think that will help with reluctant countries. It's an open question right now as to what kind of sanctions because there's a lot of sanction fatigue out there. Sanctions on oil exports out of the country could become very painful for the Iranian populous, and that should be avoided. I'd like to see them applied in the area of investment in Iran.

SPIEGEL: Saudi Arabia has threatened to retaliate because of the murder plot. Prince Turki al-Faisal said "somebody in Iran will have to pay a price." Do you fear a new crisis in the region?

Pollack: It's certainly not going to help the situation in the Middle East. I suspect that the Saudis see this as an escalation against them, and I don't think that Saudis question that the Iranian government was behind this. I do think there will be an escalation of the Saudi efforts against Iran. They will doubtless put more money into anti-Iran groups they are supporting in the region, possibly even inside Iraq. The Middle East is already in turmoil, and the last thing that we need is two of the bigger, more important states in the region being at each other's throats more than they already are, but I do think this incident will push things in that direction.

Correction: The original headline in this interview, shortened by the editors of SPIEGEL International, omitted words in a way that incorrectly conveyed part of an important sentence in Kenneth Pollack's statements. The full sentence has been restored and the editors apologize for the mistake.

Interview conducted by Marc Hujer and Gregor Peter Schmitz

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About Kenneth Pollack
  • Kenneth Pollack, 45, is a former CIA analyst who specialized in Iran and Iraq military intelligence, and is now the current director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He also served on the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton. Pollack has authored several books, including his most recent title, "A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East."
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