News is breaking now that U.S. investigators have arrested suspected senior officials of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard/Quds force for an alleged plot to orchestrate the assassination of Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir.
As I write this, Attorney General Eric Holder is speaking to the press — and I am watching events from Abu Dhabi where I am attending the Global Council on Geopolitical Risk session of the World Economic Forum. Thus, my information is limited to that which I am hearing from U.S. Department of Justice officials.
What is listed in an official complaint filed by the U.S. government is that a bombing was allegedly planned, perhaps to take place in a Washington, DC, restaurant. The possibility that 100 to 150 people might be killed in the alleged plot was, according to FBI officials, waived off and of no concern to the Iranian interlocutor. According to statements at the news conference, $1.5 million was wired to the alleged perpetrators to finance the costs of the attack.
A couple of key things to consider as this story evolves.
First of all, Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir is not a member of the Saudi royal family, but he is widely considered to be the closest national security adviser and confidant to King Abdullah. Al-Jubeir is constantly flying to and from Riyadh and Washington and wherever the Saudi King is as the King constantly depends on him for counsel and advice — and thus al-Jubeir is far more than just an Ambassador.
Secondly, one of the key themes that has frequently emerged here at the Abu Dhabi meetings of the World Economic Forum this week is that a more intense proxy struggle is taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran throughout the Middle East as the perception of American strategic contraction grows.
This alleged assassination plot simultaneously may indicate both the intensity of anti-Saudi passion among Iran’s senior leaders and a greater aggressiveness by Iran against the U.S.
This is a serious situation — and this kind of assassination is the sort that could lead to an unexpected cascade of events that could draw the U.S. and other powers into a consequential conflagration in the Middle East.
If Iran was indeed willing to attack a Saudi Ambassador and close confidante of the Saudi King on U.S. soil and countenance the death of 100-150 Americans, then the U.S. has reached a point where it must take action.
The President’s National Security Council and intelligence teams led by Thomas Donilon must construct a response that is “more than reactive.” This is time for a significant strategic response to the Iran challenge in the Middle East and globally — and if the U.S. does not take action, then the Saudis will most likely retaliate in ways that will escalate the stakes and tensions with Iran throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies any government involvement in this plot — and there no doubt will be much more that surfaces in coming days. But Iran has officially denied any complicity in this plot and has accused the U.S. of fabricating these claims.
— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons