There has been lots of speculation about the recent strange Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to Washington. Iran is a world champion at long-distance strategic terror – as I’ve written before about the assassination campaign in Europe and the terrible 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires.
But this one seems strange. Wire transfers and cell-phone calls can be monitored and it was not done through a complex chain of cutout. The hallmark of previous Iranian terror is excellent tradecraft, and the reports so far do not show much sign of that.
Also, the idea of hiring a Mexican cartel to carry out an assassination is good Hollywood fodder. The Secretary of State is wrong when she says, “You can’t make this stuff up.” In fact it is the stock and trade of a decent screenwriter. But outsourcing terror is not an easy thing to do. First, why would a Mexican cartel want to get involved in something like this, they could easily makes millions a month on drug-trafficking – so why bother with a far-fetched plot for only $1.5 million? Further, a plot like this could potentially bring enormous, negative attention on them. On the Iranian side, they must know that criminals can be umm… unreliable.
Also, criminal gangs, just like terrorist groups, know that they are subject to infiltration and consequently are careful in whom they do business with and how they do it.
In the past I’ve speculated that Iran may have lost its long-range terror capability, which is one reason they haven’t avenged the death of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh.
An attempt to hire a Mexican cartel would further support this hypothesis, but I did not argue that they had lost their long-range terror abilities because they were stupid.
One possibility is that this “plot” was something of a rogue operation designed by one Iranian faction to embarrass another – possibly linked to efforts to improve relations to the US and/or Saudi Arabia. Under this scenario, even the plot’s failure is a success because now any quiet negotiations are quashed in their infancy. But I can’t speculate on who in Iran would be up to this – Iranian politics is a bit of a black box and, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt (discussing looking after his daughter Alice), “I can follow Iranian politics or I can have a life. I can’t do both.”