I know an October surprise is meant to happen weeks — not a full year — before a presidential election, but if one considers the different players affected by the alleged Iranian assassination and bombing plot, President Obama is the only who comes out with a clear advantage.
Today’s news might not herald another war, but a year of increasing tension between the US and Iran could serve the interests of a president whose strongest card has turned out to be national security. With no relief in sight on the economic front, the campaign may end up turning on who we are supposed to be more comfortable with in handling an international crisis — the seasoned incumbent or a novice? At least, that’s a scenario that might look appealing to the Obama 2012 campaign right now.
“We see this as a chance to go out to capitals around the world and talk to allies and partners about what the Iranians tried to do,” a White House official tells David Ignatius. “We’re not going to tolerate targeting a diplomat in Washington. We’re going to try to use this to isolate them to the maximum extent possible.”
Meanwhile, James Traub describes how far removed such issues are from the GOP primary campaign:
The world beyond America’s borders just doesn’t figure in the 2012 campaign. In the 2008 Republican debates, candidates regularly crossed swords on the war in Iraq, the nuclear showdown with Iran, and the proper conduct of the war on terror. At this year’s first real debate, held in Manchester, New Hampshire, the rest of the world wasn’t even mentioned until more than 90 minutes into the two-hour event. “Given the focus on economic issues, it’s difficult to get the candidates interested in foreign policy,” laments Jamie Fly, head of the Foreign Policy Initiative, which acts as a transmission belt between conservative intellectuals and politicians. Audiences seem similarly apathetic. The heartiest applause often goes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul when he calls for as little foreign policy as possible, as he did recently in Iowa during a discussion of the Middle East. His prescription: “Stay out of their internal business. Don’t get involved in these wars. And just bring our troops home.”
To the extent that the Republicans cleave to this domestic-issues-only line, an international crisis in the run up to 2012 could clearly assist Obama.
Whatever Messrs Arbabsiar and Shakuri were up to, one element has become surprisingly predictable in this type of story: each time the Justice Department announces a stunning breakthrough in preventing an act of terrorism, it turns out that federal agents were involved in the plot from early in its conception. In these undercover operations the line between investigation and instigation gets repeatedly blurred.
If the Iranian government had the serious intent to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and to do so by bombing a restaurant in Washington DC, one wonders why the breaking news was not about a plot being stymied and not instead about a horrific explosion.
The idea that Iran would outsource such an operation to a Mexican drug cartel is being viewed with appropriate skepticism.
Tim Padgett writes:
If Iranian government operatives really did try to contract a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., as the Obama Administration alleges today, then they weren’t just being diabolical. They were being fairly stupid.
Granted, the Zetas – the drug mafia that Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar allegedly thought he was dealing with on behalf of Tehran – is certainly Mexico’s most bloodthirsty: they are the narcos that brought beheadings and wholesale massacres of innocent civilians to the nightmarish drug war scene south of the border. But even the Zetas, founded more than a decade ago by former Mexican army commandos, know better than to venture north of the border and invite the kind of U.S. law enforcement heat that a political assassination of this magnitude would have brought on them. They’re more than willing to murder high and low inside Mexico – the Zetas are the chief suspects, for example, in last year’s assassination of Tamaulipas state gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre – but they’ve rarely if ever directed that kind of mayhem inside the U.S.
And for good reason: they’ve experienced the vast difference between cops, prosecutors and judges in Mexico, whom they can buy off or kill with impunity, and the U.S. judicial system. In 2005 and 2006, for example, Zetas murdered at least five rival gangsters in Laredo, Texas, just across the border from one of their strongholds, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. A number of Zetas were arrested and prosecuted as a result and sent away to U.S. prisons – which are a lot harder to break out of than Mexican penitentiaries are, and where you can’t live the comfortable life that drug lords make for themselves inside Mexican lockups. Zeta leaders like Heriberto Lazcano, aka El Verdugo, or The Executioner, learned fairly quickly that the world across the Rio Grande was a different ballgame – and that if they didn’t want to jeopardize their lucrative drug distribution networks in the U.S., it was best to avoid bloodshed there as well.
And then there is the most basic question: how could Iran possibly benefit if this plot had been carried out?
Max Fisher writes:
What would it really mean for Iran if the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. were killed in a terrorist attack in Washington? The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been bad and getting worse since the start of the Arab Spring, with the Saudi monarchy working increasingly against the democratic movements that the U.S. supports. A senior member of the royal family even threatened to cut off the close U.S.-Saudi relationship if Obama opposed the Palestinian statehood bid, which he did. If the U.S. and Saudi Arabia really broke off their seven-decade, oil-soaked romance, it would be terrific news for Iran. Saudi Arabia depends on the U.S. selling it arms, helping it with intelligence, and overlooking its domestic and regional (see: Bahrain) abuses.
If the U.S.-Saudi alliance fell apart, the Shia-majority Islamic Republic of Iran would have an easier time pushing its regional influence against Saudi Arabia, especially in some of the crucial states between the two: Iraq, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran would be able to reverse its increasing regional isolation and perhaps flip some Arab leaders from the U.S.-Saudi sphere toward its own. The best part of this, for Iran, is that it probably wouldn’t even have to do anything: the U.S.-Saudi special relationship, if it collapses, would do so without Iran having to lift a finger. The dumbest thing that Iran could possibly do, then, would be stop the collapse, to find some way to bring the U.S. and Saudi Arabia back together. For example, by attempting to blow up the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American
The Iranian leadership, for all their twisted human rights abuses and policies that often serve the regime at the cost of actual Iranians, are not idiots.