Several years ago in researching a book on how a nuclear-armed Iran might affect American interests in the Middle East, an intelligence expert I interviewed assessed that the U.S. and Israel weren’t seriously concerned about the Iranian nuclear program. “If it were,” they said, “Iranian scientists would be dying in traffic accidents.”
That is, our intelligence services would be engaged in a covert campaign to deny Iran the talent necessary to advance their nuclear ambitions, and that campaign would be designed to look innocuous so that we had plausible deniability of our involvement. The Iranian government would surely suspect us, might even have information that constituted proof to experts of our involvement.
But the burden of proof would be on them to show we had been involved, and in making the public case, they would have to reveal much of their ability to track our activity. We would gain valuable insight into their sources and methods, as well as an overall picture of how well their intelligence apparatus links to their political decision-makers.
Such a campaign would, in the view of the person I interviewed, be much more menacing to Iran than overt threats to attack their nuclear program. It would be less costly to us, and therefore more likely chosen. It would demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of their nuclear program and its key personnel. It would showcase our ability to conduct clandestine operations inside their country.
During the Berlin crisis in 1958, President Eisenhower chose a similar program of “quiet military measures” that the Soviet Union would see as preparations for war but that were subtle enough not to alarm the West German populace. And, coincidentally or not, in the past couple of years, Iranian nuclear scientists have been dying in traffic accidents.
Iran’s Ambassador to the UN made the connection to killings of nuclear scientists in his denunciation of the U.S. accusation. Iran expert Kenneth Pollack has a terrific piece up on the Daily Beast persuasively arguing the Iranian government considers itself already at war with the United States. Implicit in his argument is that Iran knows it cannot win an actual war against us -- in fact, about the only time in the past decade the Iranian government has offered to give up its nuclear program was just after our invasion of Iraq. It would make sense the Iranian regime instead attempted to encourage terrorism, as they have in Lebanon and Palestine, rather than confront us.
My guess is that the oddly amateurish plot to use Mexican drug cartels as the means of assassinating the Saudi Ambassador in Washington proceeded along those lines. Strategy generally approved by high political leadership, tactics probably left to the Quuds force to determine, believing they could use America’s “vulnerabilities” (Iranian-American connections, unsecured border with Mexico, drug cartels wanting to show their power, weak domestic law enforcement) to advantage. And since it constitutes a significant escalation to strike on American soil, that would explain the greater distance the Quuds kept compared to other proxy attacks.
Their imperfect understanding of American civil society and underestimation of our intelligence community prevented the plot succeeding. But they probably gained a significantly improved understanding of how our system works that will benefit future plots. The Iranian government has the satisfaction of vehemently denying any complicity and smugly demanding we prove it (which the Obama Administration has not done). They have created a media victory with stories questioning our allegations (like this one in the New York Times, rolling out the usual European critics (Volker Perthes of a German think tank) questioning U.S. intelligence and relitigating the Iraq war. And they may even provoke our government into a foolish reaction that aggravates relations with Mexico or makes America seem hostile to immigrants.
(photo credit: The_bosshog)