Intelligence, Rationality, and the Iranian Terror Plot

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was the target of an assassination plot allegedly planned by Iran.

This week the Obama adminstration  accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.  A Washington Post article described the bizarre plot as follows:

“The Justice Department unsealed charges against two Iranians — one of them a U.S. citizen — accusing them of orchestrating an elaborate murder-for-hire plot that targeted Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi envoy to Washington and a key adviser to King Abdullah. The Iranians planned to employ Mexican drug traffickers to kill Jubeir with a bomb as he ate at a restaurant, U.S. officials said.”

The incident has raised tensions between the U.S. and Iran and it isn’t clear where all of this is headed.  But for students of world politics, these events have already illustrated several important policymaking challenges.

1) The importance (and difficulty) of obtaining good intelligence. A number of experts are questioning the administration’s allegations against Iran, saying the plot doesn’t fit what we know about the way Iran or its Quds Force operates. The skeptics include prominent realist Stephen Walt, Middle East specialist Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at Johns Hopkins, and other respected analysts.  As we learned from the Iraq WMD case, intelligence failures can have serious consequences, and a number of observers have already noted that the Obama administration’s accusations and increasingly heated rhetoric could strengthen hardliners in the U.S. and paint Obama into a corner.  If the plot ends up not to be Iranian in origin, these claims could damage the credibility of an administration that defined itself in opposition to the allegedly careless and rash Bush administration.

2) The limits of the “rational actor” model (and the powerful temptation to employ it nonetheless).  Political scientist Robert Jervis has highlighted the tendency for policymakers to assume that the behavior of other actors is more coordinated and centrally planned than it actually is.  Iran is not a unitary actor and one explanation for this uncharacteristically clumsy plot is that a rogue element of Iran’s Quds Force was “freelancing” rather than taking orders from Iran’s president or Supreme Leader.  Yet the Obama administration has assumed (as leaders frequently do) that any behavior linked to a certain state–Iran, in this instance–must have been planned and directed from the highest levels.

 3) The complexity of Middle East politics.  One expert notes that the most believable aspect of the entire plot is the Iran would target Saudi Arabia’s officials and regime in some way.  While many in the West view the Muslim world as monolithic, the Sunni-Shi’a divide has led to serious conflict not only within states, such as Iraq and Bahrain, but between countries dominated by different sects of Islam.  Saudi Arabia is a powerful Sunni leader in the region, while Iran’s population is largely Shi’a, and the “cold war” between these countries goes back decades.

What do you think?  Does the evidence linking Iran to this plot seem compelling?  Is the Obama administration succumbing to the unitary actor illusion?  What will be the ramifications if the allegations prove false?  If they prove true?

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