Time to Chill Out about Iran

From today’s WaPo:

In congressional testimony Tuesday, U.S. intelligence officials indicated that Iran has crossed a threshold in its adversarial relationship with the United States. While Iran has long been linked to attacks on American targets overseas, U.S. officials said they see troubling significance in Tehran’s alleged role in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington last year.

U.S. officials said they have seen no intelligence to indicate that Iran is actively plotting attacks on U.S. soil. But Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said the thwarted plot “shows that some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”

Read the bolded part again if you must. Look, I don’t know what to make the alleged plot against the Saudi ambassador. But I have to admit, I’m a little skeptical of it. This is the plot, you will recall, that involved the following:

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.

Like many foiled “terrorist plots,” you had an “informant” involved very early on shaping the plot, and indeed perhaps giving it what little life it ever had. The reality is that most of the plots we’ve foiled in the United States since 9/11 have not been real plots at all. They have been a handful of crackpots with lots of talk and little action who happen to get on the radar of law-enforcement and then are gradually strung along until they can be charged with something. But I am absolutely certain that in the vast majority of these cases, absent the assist from the U.S. government nothing would have happened.

Do you really believe that if the government of Iran wanted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, they would go about doing it as a contract hit through some Mexican drug cartel? Why? How is that even deniable? Why would a Mexican drug cartel want to kill the Saudi ambassador in the first place? I mean, the thing would inevitably unravel, if it ever came to fruition. No, if the Iranians wanted to do it, and they wanted to use a bomb, my guess is that they would use state resources to train a bomber, to procure false papers, and so on. Look at the 1994 Argentina bombings for example. I’m not saying they can’t change their MO, but it is not like the Iranians don’t know how to run a competent bombing operation.

What this plot looks like is an entrapment operation by the U.S. government that somehow managed to con some over-eager Iranian official — a Persian Ollie North — into diverting $100,000 to this plot. But I don’t know for sure. No one does. And suggesting that this half-assed operation demonstrates a “changed calculus” strikes me as analytical overreach.

Now, I know, I know, I don’t have access to all the information. If I only knew what they know. And so on. Except, you know, it turns out that what the intel community thinks it knows is not often the same thing as what it actually does know. A lot of secret information is of dubious validity, and precisely because it is sensitive it is both improperly vetted AND too easily accepted. That is the real paradox of secret information. The fewer people who see it the more trustworthy it is deemed to be, but the fewer people who see it, the less likely it is to be debunked if false.

Anyway, we clearly have an antagonistic relationship with Iran. They are likely pursuing nuclear weapons, although as a practical matter the evidence on that is also problematic, and I am sure they are playing various covert games around the world. So are we. But beating the drum continuously about the Iranian threat is not helpful, and in reality it probably fails to account for the very real limitations on Iranian capabilities.

Inflating the Iranian threat does nothing to make us more secure. So, my advice to people talking about Iran is, take a deep breath, focus on what we actually know rather than what we fear, and plan accordingly.

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