October 20, 2011

Dr. Vali Nasr is a professor at Tufts University, and a specialist on Middle East politics and political Islam. Born in Iran, he has worked extensively on political and social developments in the Muslim world, and is the author of a number of books, including The Shia Revival and Democracy in Iran. Between 2009 and 2011, Nasr served in the Obama administration as Senior Adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I spoke to Dr. Nasr on Tuesday about the recent allegations of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC.

Q: What are your thoughts on the plot as described by Attorney General Holder?

VALI NASR: I thought it was bizarre and surprising, both because of the nature of the case, but also because, if it’s true, the audacity of its ambitions. I thought that the nature of the case was difficult to put in a proper context largely because it was out of character from the way in which the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Brigade actually operate. Our experience with them is that they’re highly competent. They are aggressive, and they are often engaged in nefarious acts in the theater of conflict, but generally they are limited to areas of operation in and around Iran, into Lebanon, and all the way to Pakistan. But also we know that they’re a very sophisticated organizations, and they are quiet competent in intelligence and black operations. For them to have opted for a untrained amateur used car salesman , and in a manner where the money and phone calls could be so quickly traced back to them was not characteristic. So that part was surprising.

But then if, based on what the Attorney General said is true, and the case holds up — I have no reason to disbelieve it, because I haven’t seen the evidence — the audacity of such an act, would be also quite surprising. It would be a new chapter in US-Iran relations. It would challenge the impressions we have of Iran, that it would generally like a certain stability in its relations, that it would not want to overturn the whole apple cart with the international community, would not want to invite any more scrutiny or pressure of sanctions, or potentially military confrontation. The audacity of the act would defy all of these presuppositions that have guided our policy thus far. We have not assumed that Iran would be aching for a conflict. We’ve thought that Iran would like to get to a position of having nuclear capability, and therefore would like to keep things stable so it can progress along that ground.

But the part where this was about Saudi Arabia, that was not surprising to me. In fact, it was a vindication of what I’ve been arguing, which is that since Iraq, the two countries [Iran and Saudi Arabia] have been engaged in an intense regional rivalry, it first started over Iraq, then extended to Lebanon, and now more countries are in play. This is something we don’t focus on in the broader narrative of the Arab Spring.

Q: What would Iran would have to gain from an attack like this?

VN: We don’t know. Let’s make an assumption that it was actually an operation that was sanctioned from high up, and was actually a government decision — because the other scenarios, where you’re talking about a rogue element, you’re not talking about a country’s policy — but lets say if this was a case where the Iranian government decided to sanction this kind of audacious attack, you could think of it in multiple ways. Either they deliberately chose a plan that would be discovered, and therefore what they were after was only a limited crisis, and not a full blown terrorist attack that would have far more consequences. And why would they want to limit the crisis? I think they can see a certain value with escalating things with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia at this time, they probably calculate that it benefits them in the Arab world to move attention away from issues that Iran has problems with, and to focus it on a conflict that they believe would still pay dividends on the Arab Street for them.

An escalation of the conflict can also divert attention from some serious domestic problems in Iran. The political fight between the supreme leader and the president, a serious economic crisis, these are all there. So there are scenarios in which you can see that Iran may have thought that it would get advantage by changing the status quo in a negative way.

Q: Some have called for a military response, claiming that this plot shows that we need to re-establish deterrence against Iran. Is this a good idea?

VN: You have to put Iranian actions in a context where we are significantly reducing our footprint in Iraq, and the Iranians think that our campaign in Afghanistan is failing, that we don’t have a strategy, and we’ll be leaving Afghanistan as well. So we’re withdrawing from two important theaters of war, and there’s going to be a vacuum in this region, and Iran is preparing itself for stepping into that vacuum. The question is how do we manage and deter the Iranians in this kind of a context? The whole reason Iran is acting aggressively is because we’re withdrawing, and we’re withdrawing because we don’t see any point in these large-scale military operations that are extremely expensive, and we no longer can afford them. Neither in the case of Iraq, nor in the case of Afghanistan have they produced a really clear cut victory, of obtaining our objectives.

So it’s true that we should find a way to deter Iran and contain its behavior, but we have to very careful about not getting ourselves into the very same kind of military messes that we’re now trying to extricate ourselves from in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q: What do you think the best course is now for US policy on Iran? And does this mean that for the time being the US effort to engage Iran is dead?

VN: Well, we really didn’t have an engagement effort with Iran. We only talked to them about the nuclear issue, which is a topic of great importance to us, and I would assume that we will continue to do so, because if you withdraw from the table of nuclear negotiation talks, then those talks are going to go even more slowly than they are currently, and that would be self-defeating for us. We have a vested interest in expediting those talks, not slowing them down. So that’s not a threat to them, that’s a threat to us. But we really haven’t been engaged with Iran on anything else whatsoever. We don’t talk to them about Iraq, Afghanistan, regional issues, et cetera, and they don’t want to talk to us on those issues either. So there is no real engagement.

But, ironically, the escalation of tensions sometimes forces a certain clarity of thinking on both sides, and may open the door to conversations that may not have been conceivable before. But that remains to be seen.

Beyond this issue, we also have to keep in mind that, while this particular threat is a new threat that we are compelled to react to, for the longest time our top priority with Iran has been the nuclear issue. We have think about it, are we going to make managing Iran’s aggressive behavior our top priority? Or are we going to stick to the old game plan of having the nuclear issue as the top priority? This means, in very practical terms that, for instance, there are many members of Congress who are asking for severe sanctions on Iran, for sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran. OK, those suggestions may have merit, but we were reserving those kinds of measures as pressure points to compel an outcome in the nuclear negotiations. If you use them as a punitive measure against Iran in this case, then what would we have left in our toolbox to use when we need to pressure them on the nuclear issue? We are now so heavily vested in that issue, all of our punitive measures have been used on that issue, and we’re saving the rest of our punitive measure to use on that issue again.

Q: Not knowing exactly how exactly this plot is connected to the Iranian government, what do you think this plot tells us about the state of the regime?

VN: Until we know exactly whether or not this was a decision that was approved within the Iranian government at all, then its very difficult to make these speculations. If it was a decision that was actually made by the Quds Force, then that’s a decision made by the whole Iranian government, because it’s my belief that the Quds Force does not operate without the approval of the supreme leader, particularly on a sensitive operation such as this. I don’t believe in this [stuff about] factions within the Quds Force, I think it’s a highly disciplined and structured organization. There are other scenarios in which this may have been run from Iran but not from within the Iranian government, and then that can open the door to all sorts of speculating about issues within Iran.

There’s also [the possibility] that an attack like this may have been designed as retaliation against other attacks that have been taken against them., for instance the Stuxnet worm, or assassinations of their scientists.

Q: How would you grade the Obama administration’s Iran policy up until now?

VN: I think they’ve had a great deal of success in getting the rest of the international community to cooperate on policy measures that the U.S. has put forward, but we haven’t had a breakthrough with Iran. If the objective was to change Iranian behavior on the nuclear issue, we have not attained that in the past three years. What we’ve attained is success in getting the rest of the international community to sign up for sanctions.

I would add that it’s a question of time frame. Some of these policies may not necessarily work within the time frame before us. In other words, Iran, given the oil prices, given Iran’s size and profile and economic capability, will probably be able to withstand economic pressure for a while longer.

Q: What do you think people should keep in mind as this case progresses?

VN: It’s always possible that the intelligence is misinterpreted or misread. This wouldn’t be the first time that that’s happened. I think, going forward, it is very easy for this conversation about the Iranian plot to be just conducted within the United States, but in order for the United States to have support internationally, in the Middle East and in Europe, for a much tougher position on Iran and for deterring and containing Iran, it’s very important that it be able to have a convincing case about what Iran did in this particular plot. And that requires far more transparency than has been the case.

In other words, there’s a lot of doubt about many aspects of this case, and that makes it very difficult to get a lot of international cooperation in support of action, particularly if you’re going to try to deny Iran leverage on the Arab Street on this issue, then you have to make a convincing case about the evidence you have, and why you think it points where it does.

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