I was fortunate to be traveling or otherwise indisposed when the plot involving the used car salesman from Texas hit the airwaves; I felt no obligation to join in the inevitable, and mostly useless, instant short-order spasm of speculation as to what this implausible story is all about. Now that a couple of days of reactions have transpired, the reactions themselves are interesting to analyze. Most of them fit into already established patterns.
The incident is red meat, of course, for those hankering to keep the U.S.-Iranian relationship as acrimonious as possible and even to start a war with Iran. But the anti-Iranian agitators have had to display additional sophistic agility in the face of the reasons, which numerous skeptics have pointed out, to doubt that official Iran was responsible for this plot. The chief reason was the patent ineptitude of the plotters, which was at odds with the level of skill associated with the Iranian Quds force. So the agitators have had to argue that Iran may be a stumblebum but that stumblebums can still be dangerous.
Besides the matter of operational technique is the issue of motivation. If this affair were the work of the Iranian leadership, what did those leaders hope to accomplish? The early days of commentary have yet to come up with a plausible answer to that. The anti-Iran activists, in displaying another well-established pattern, fall back on the practice of dividing the world into terrorists and non-terrorists, pretending that the labeling of Iran as a terrorist state, and citing some of its past terrorist actions, are all that is needed. But states don't just do terrorism because it is somehow in their nature. If they perform a terrorist act it is to accomplish some identifiable purpose. Iran conducted assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s to eliminate expatriate Iranian dissidents. The terrorist acts it supported or sponsored against the United States were responses to U.S. military deployments. The terrorist operations in Argentina in the 1990s by its client Hezbollah were responses to specific Israeli acts in the Middle East.
The jumping immediately to recommendations to apply still more pressure on Iran, despite doubts about what Iran did or did not do, is also consistent with past agitation on the subject. This type of response is especially strange when the doubts and the reasons for them are acknowledged. The lead editorial in Thursday's Washington Post, for example, admits that “perhaps the doubters are right” but nonetheless calls for strong “countermeasures.” This treats the possibility that someone has performed an act as if it were the certainty that some portion of the act was performed. It is equivalent to reacting to a hung jury in a capital criminal case by saying that although we are not permitted to execute the defendant, some of the jurors thought he was guilty so let's put him in prison for a few years instead. This type of response is not only bizarre but also harmful in that it can lead others to regard the United States as a manipulative liar.
The agitators nevertheless, in another established pattern, charge ahead with calls for pressure and more pressure on Iran without even thinking about the consequences. A common explanation, heard within the last couple of days, of presumed Iranian motives for instigating a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador is that Iran already has been pinched by existing western sanctions and is striking back out of pain and frustration. If this is true, what should we expect from inflicting still more pain and frustration on the Iranians? More striking back.
Another salient feature of the plot as detailed by the Justice Department is that it appears to have been designed with the intention of being discovered. This is related to the overall inept tradecraft but in particular to the sending of traceable quantities of money into the United States and the spilling of beans about supposed Iranian government involvement in open telephone calls to untrustworthy foreigners. If the plot was intended to be discovered, then presumably the motive of whoever concocted it was to escalate further the tension between Iran and the United States. A couple of possible instigators outside Iran come to mind; the most plausible ones inside Iran would be rogue elements. Whoever the instigator was, for the United States to respond by pressuring Iran more, and thus raising further the tension in the relationship, would be playing right into the intentions of whoever put the plot together.
Perhaps the most disturbing response is that of the Obama administration. Analyzing what this government is up to is as useful in understanding what this episode is all about as analyzing what the Iranian government is up to. The administration's hyping of this strange case fits one more established pattern; it is operating in a reelection mode. Being in that mode means being determined to look just as tough on Iran as the next guy. This is similar to the determination to look just as friendly to Israel as the next guy—which is very much related to the need to look tough on Iran. The president certainly was talking tough about Iran on Thursday. However sympathetic one might be to the president's reelection bid, the administration is playing a hazardous game. First, by offering up this kind of red meat, it risks enabling the meat eaters to push the administration into even more dangerous actions toward Iran. Second, it lowers further the possibilities of improving the relationship and reaching deals with Iran. This is especially so if the Iranian leadership was not involved in this plot, in which case that leadership would have good and understandable reasons to consider the United States to be a liar. Third, it risks a big embarrassment and loss of U.S. credibility if further evidence turns up showing that the Iranian leadership was not involved.