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A deeper analysis of U.S.-Iran relations

Last week, agents from the FBI and Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion (DEA) dis­rupted an alleged plot to commit a “sig­nif­i­cant ter­rorist act in the United States” tied to Iran. U.S. gov­ern­ment offi­cials stated that the plot included the assas­si­na­tion of Adel Al-​​Jubeir, the Saudi Ara­bian ambas­sador to the United States, as well as sub­se­quent attacks on Saudi and Israeli embassies. Offi­cials claimed that the plot was “con­ceived” in Iran by a unit of Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force. We asked Kim­berly Jones, a fac­ulty asso­ciate in North­eastern University’s Middle East Center for Peace, Cul­ture and Devel­op­ment, to explain how these alle­ga­tions may affect rela­tions among the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the larger global community.

Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph Biden has com­mented that the U.S. gov­ern­ment must “unite world opinion” against Iran. How have other nations reacted thus far in response to the alle­ga­tions? What will be the ulti­mate response of the global community?

I think Vice Pres­i­dent Biden has set a heck of a bar with his com­ments. There are far more ques­tions than answers about the alleged assas­si­na­tion plot at this point, as there should be. Inter­est­ingly (and unsur­pris­ingly) the spec­u­la­tion, espe­cially in the early hours, gar­nered far more ink than the crit­ical queries. Atten­tion needs to focus on sev­eral ques­tions: Why would Iran develop an attack on U.S. soil at this time? Why break common-​​sense pro­to­cols about com­mu­ni­ca­tion? Why con­nect with Mex­ican orga­nized crime, and how could the cartel make a cost/​benefit analysis that involving them­selves would weigh in their favor?

As one would expect, the inter­na­tional response has been varied. One U.K. state­ment called the Iranian plot a “major esca­la­tion, “ while Russia took the matter “seri­ously” and China pointed out that it was still an investigation.

As far as the long-​​term response of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity — the jury is still out — fig­u­ra­tively and lit­er­ally. At this point, there has been an indict­ment, but no one has been found guilty, other than in the court of public opinion.

I do think there are some who are more skep­tical of the United States in light of its war with Iran’s neighbor, Iraq, eight years ago. This is a dif­ferent sit­u­a­tion with a dif­ferent admin­is­tra­tion, but critics will want to better assess the veracity of the allegations.

What impact will these accu­sa­tions have on the already-​​tense rela­tion­ship between the U.S. and Iran?

The short answer is that time will tell — it depends how things play out.  The rhetoric has cer­tainly been ratch­eted up, and new U.S. sanc­tions (against an Iranian air­line) are in place.  Iran has essen­tially termed the alle­ga­tions a fairytale.

What has been the nature of the rela­tion­ship between Iran and Saudi Arabia his­tor­i­cally? Have there been any changes recently that may have been moti­va­tion for the alleged plot?

In the last few decades, there has been little love lost between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Some of this is couched in reli­gious rhetoric and real­i­ties (Saudi Arabia is Sunni and Iran is Shi’ite). How­ever, at base, the ten­sion between the two nations is about geopo­lit­ical posi­tioning and power over a range of issues in the region — sup­port for var­ious groups in the neigh­bor­hood, energy and the polit­ical reper­cus­sions from the “Year of Arab Discontent.”

Iran has a laundry list of real and rhetor­ical griev­ances — from Saudi sup­port for Iraq during the Iran-​​Iraq war, to what it has per­ceived as Saudi med­dling in Lebanon and Syria, to the recent Saudi inter­ven­tion in Bahrain on behalf of the minority Sunni monarchy against the protesting Shi’a majority.

Many regional observers, myself included, view Iran as a rational actor and are feeling hard-​​pressed, until more infor­ma­tion is avail­able, to see this as a strategic gambit that makes a lot of sense.

– by Lauren Dibble

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