Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why the Arkenstone been on hiatus for the past month or so...

... It's because I've been conducting an independent research project at The Evergreen State College where I go to school; unfortunately this has detracted from my ability to continue independent projects for this blog. Fortunately this doesn't mean that I've lost interest in the Iranian military, the research project in question is about the modern political history of Iran, spanning from ~1900, to the modern day. Over the past couple weeks I've been reading and writing a great deal and have been thoroughly enjoying research on such topics like the ideological origins of the Islamic Revolution, and the operational lessons of US interaction with Iranian naval forces during the Tanker War of '87-'88 - topics both inspired by my previous writings on this blog and my interactions with other Iran-watchers.

- Galen Wright

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Foreign Policy as Domestic Policy within the Islamic Republic of Iran - Ruminations on the Attempted Assasination of Adel Al-Jubeir

I'm sure by now everyone is familiar with the supposed attempt by elements of the Quds force to assassinate Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel Al-Jubeir, and how it was foiled by US government forces including the DEA and FBI. But in case you're not, check out the US Department of Justice press release on the subject.

I say "supposed" because things are still very murky. There are still quite a few unanswered questions and Iran has, of course, vehemently denied these allegations. That being said, in the words of one of my favorite colunists for Foreign Policy Magazine, Stephen Walt: "I don't know if there was a genuine Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Let me repeat that: I don't know. And neither do you." But all the same, it still begs asking, what IF the plot genuinely originated in Iran and had the permission of at least some key figures? While hundreds of responses and opinion pieces have already been written and I'm sure many more will be, I wish to examine one particular possibility through the lens of the internal power struggles inside the Islamic Republic and the connection between foreign and domestic policy.

(on a side note, any proposals for a short, descriptive name for this incident so we can stop referring to it either as "the incident" or "the alleged assasination plot of the Saudi ambassador by Quds force agents") 


Part of the reason the 1990s continues to be my favorite decade (besides producing exceedingly good music) is that near the tail end there was so much promise for the eventual normalization of relations between the US and Iran, embodied in the attempts by then-President Khatami to launch a 'dialogue of civilizations', though in reality it was far more then that. Even the Bush administration in its early days was amenable to continued engagement. (1)

Then in 2002 the Karine-A freighter was seized by Israeli commandos in the Red Sea and was discovered to be carrying 50 tons of weaponry that had originated from Iran and was destined for the Gaza Strip. (2) Combined with a report on Iran's developing nuclear capability, the capture of the Karine-A effectively marked the beginning of the end for US-Iranian rapprochement. Only days later George Bush would add Iran to the "Axis of Evil". By 2003 the US severed bilateral talks with Iran, effectively ushering in the current period of hostility. (3)

On the surface this event was a disaster for Iran; Khatami was furious, believing it to be a deliberate attempt from within to undermine talks with Washington and provoke the eventual backlash that followed. As far as anyone knows, he was unable to ever determine who, if anyone, was behind the shipment as the national security council denied all knowledge of the incident. (4) In a similar vein analysts from RAND assert that:
"The Karine-A incident appears to be a clear example of a faction in the Iranian elite—one whose interest lay in U.S.-Iranian confrontation in the region—undermining a policy defined by a competing faction. Given the Supreme Leader’s perceived distrust of the United States, one could speculate that Khamenei had prior knowledge of the shipment or even that he instigated the crisis in an effort to forestall a potential imbalance among factions." (5)
Pay particular attention to the final sentence that explains Khamenei's reasoning for undermining US-Iranian reapproachment  - it was " an effort to forestall a potential imbalance among factions".

Factionalism is one topic I've explored sevel times on this blog before and elsewhere. The political system in Iran can be conceived of as, in extremely basic terms, a contest for power between constantly changing political factions which in turn are composed of a loose-knit network of individuals and organizations, and are only very loosely comparable to conventional political parties. The Supreme Leader meanwhile has traditionally sat apart from the day-to-day running of government - embodying Khomeini's decree that "economics is for donkeys" and instead provides a 'guiding hand' for the overall course of the nation. Historically the Supreme Leader has encouraged inter-faction competition as it essentially imposes a balance of power, preventing one from gaining too much power over the other and radically altering the system or unseating the the Supreme Leader. (6)

It's a very real possibility that in the face of a powerful reformist bloc that had garnered nearly 80% of the vote in the 2001 presidential election, largely on the promise of reapproachment with the West, Khamenei feared an an upset of the careful balance he had worked to engineer and acted to prevent it. The above-mentioned RAND report goes on to quote Ali Ansari's observation that it was "remarkable that a regime hitherto experienced in shipping arms and munitions overseas should choose to do this particular delivery via slow boat journey around the Arabian Peninsula" implying that it was anything but an accident that the ship was revealed. (7)

Ali Ansari's statement eerily matches up with much of the rhetoric concerning the recent alleged assassination attempt by the Qods force. Robert Baer (author of The Devil we Know) has this to say:
"There are very few groups operationally better than Iran’s Quds Force. They know what they are doing. The only proxies they use are ones they’ve vetted. They don’t let their own citizens get involved. They send other people to do it for them from Hezbollah to Bosnian Muslims. It would be completely uncharacteristic for Iran to be caught red handed." "So why were they all of a sudden so sloppy?" (8)
Although Baer is implying that this was not a sanctioned Quds force operation the possibility exists that like the Karine-A, the plot was intended to be uncovered, or at the very least, its success or failure was of secondary importance to its affect on domestic factionalism.

Also like the Karine-A, this incident comes as a pivotal moment in time for the Iranian political landscape; one where the very concept of  Velayat-e Faqih is being called into question and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has challenged the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over the future of the Islamic Republic, a subject I wrote about here. It's possible that either of these factions (or maybe another one entirely, or perhaps some combination thereof) orchestrated this event

The question I'll end with is 'Who benefits?' and to be honest, I can't really say. Could Khamenei be hoping that Ahmadinejad, as president, takes the fall for foreign policy ups and downs as has been the case before? Does Khamenei believe that an increasingly hostile United States working even harder to isolate Iran will shore up Velayat-e Faqih internally? On the other hand, the IRGC was far from united when key officers chose to back Khamenei over Ahmadinejad in the recent spats which presents a plausible scenario for the formation of "rogue elements" acting out of self-interest (which would go some distance to explain the sloppy execution). But if that's the case, what would Ahmadinejad's faction stand to gain relative to Khamenei?

Even if the answer to all of this is an emphatic 'no', the question of how this incident, even if Iranian elements weren't behind it, will affect the internal power struggle is still valid.

Postscript: It should be heavily emphasized that this is only one possibility to explain the incident and I will freely admit that there is very little evidence to support this version of events at the moment. I don't even particularly believe that this is the actual course of events but I think it's definitely worth examining even if that examination negates it.

Works Cited and End Notes:
(1) "US-Iran Engagement Through Afghanistan" Mir H. Sadat, James P. Hughes. Middle East Policy Council.
(2) "How Iran Entered the Axis" PBS Frontline.
(3) Sadat and Hughes
(4) "Treacherous Alliance". Trita Parsi. Yale University Press. 2007. p. 234
(5) Mullahs, Guards and Bonyads. Thaler et al. RAND. 2010.
(6) Thaler et al
(7) It should be noted that the capture of additional shipments of Iranian arms in recent years puts an additional twist on this statement. Either Ansari is simply wrong and that this particular method isn't all that unusual for Iran or it could just be that this is a function of Iran's evolving arms shipment practices over time. It should also be noted that this is far from the only theory concerning the incident; the simplest of them being that it was just an Iranian arms shipment that was uncovered thanks to the work of Israeli intelligence. That being said, it's clear that this incident happened at the precise time required to sabotage US-Iranian reapproachment. Of course one must remember that there are plenty of others besides Khamenei who would have loved to see US-Iranian reapproachment fail. This has led some to address the possibility that the operation was orchestrated by Israel in order to garner support from the US during the Al Aqsa Intifada.
(8) "Questions about the alleged Iranian plot" CNN.