How to Punish Iran, not Iranians

By Jamsheed K. Choksy and Carol E. B. Choksy

This past week an Iranian-American dual citizen was charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with attempting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington and then blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies. He was allegedly working with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) elite Quds Force. The Quds Force, a group tasked with exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution, reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

U.S. president Barack Obama emphasized that the American government will ensure that Iran will “pay a price.” 

One thing is clear: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and America are angry. Forgiveness is out of the question, and the Iranian regimes tactless response has been anything but mollifying. Nevertheless, Obama’s statement that Iran should “pay a price” should be considered carefully. Military action will hand the mullahs and generals a winning card, because they will use such retaliation to divert Iranians’ attention from much-needed political, social, religious, and economic reform. Unlike the fundamentalist mullahs and hardline politicians, most of Iran’s population detests the theocracy’s stifling ways and yearns for engagement with the West. Making the citizenry pay for their tyrannical leaders’ actions would turn them back to the theocracy, reinvigorating rather than weakening the Islamic regime. The Iranian regime is dictatorial and not actually representative of the people. Iranian politicians have not reacted with any kind of tact to these claims and their words should not be taken as reflecting the viewpoints of ordinary Iranians. 

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at loggerheads for years, most recently regarding the Arab Spring and its impact upon politically restless Shiites in Bahrain and the eastern Arabian provinces. The Saudi monarchy, its own totalitarianism notwithstanding, has been pushing for regime change in Tehran and for an end to Iran’s Syrian crony Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. has spearheaded decades of sanctions against Iran for its nuclear quest. Israel in conjunction with the U.S. is believed to have been the source of the Stuxnet computer worm that disabled centrifuges in that atomic program. So directing an attack, even an amateurish one, against diplomats and embassies on American soil is plausible.

But Iranian politicians have snuffed allegations, responding with a range of accusatory counter-theories while failing to address charges with any kind of seriousness. Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi claimed it was just another “anti-Iran campaign by Americans aimed at sowing discord in the region.” Iran’s Representative to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaei wrote to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressing “outrage” at “American warmongering.”

The Chairman of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaoddin Boroujerdi, came up with an even more farfetched explanation “this is a new American-Zionist plot to divert the public’s opinion from the popular uprising known as the Wall Street protests.” Even the usually level-headed Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani could not contain himself, declaring that: “The West seeks to make a new crisis in the region to cover its own problems.” 

It would serve the Islamic Republic of Iran well on the world stage to take the charges against its IRGC officers seriously. Offering to launch an internal inquiry and provide all the results to American and Saudi authorities would have calmed international tensions. Tehran’s leaders have not displayed such prudence. By blustering rather than addressing the facts, Iran’s leaders missed an important opportunity to portray their theocracy in anything less than a lurid light. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute indicates Iran’s standing among other Muslims in the Middle East has been falling precipitously. Less than 40 percent of Arabs now have favorable opinions of the Islamic Republic.

American officials believe the IRGC has resumed foreign attacks after a multi-year hiatus and that swift action must be implemented to stop such activity. They are hot on the trail of those who gave the go ahead, attempting to determine if the attack was conceived and executed by rogue officers in the IRGC or if the orders came from the Supreme Leader. Saudi sources contend that both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the go ahead—but the Arabian monarchy has its own axe to grind against Iranian politicians, and their claims should be taken with a grain of salt.

While some Middle East foreign and foreign affairs analysts have questioned the validity of the charges, it should be kept in mind that the President of the United States, who is privy to far more information, has himself pointed the finger of guilt at the Iranian government. Ultimately, of course, the validity of the charges will be decided impartially in a U.S. court of law. So far the general consensus among American officials and Iran experts is that Iranian President Ahmadinejad and his appointees were probably not privy to the plot. They have been seeking a nuclear deal with the West for years, but xenophobic hardliners within the government’s other branches sabotaged the attempts. Senior commanders in the IRGC are appointed by, report to, and display loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The President and the Supreme Ruler do not always agree. The attacks were likely associated with the Supreme Ruler and the Quds Force. President Ahmadinejad, while still controversial, has been slightly more open to easing relations with the West. Unlike the IRGC’s rank-and-file and even middle-level officers, many of its generals—like those in the Quds Force—are hostile to the president’s attempts to reorient Iran’s internal and foreign policies. In that context, the assassination and bombing plot can be regarded as yet another way to impede the opening of Iranian society to the West.

The U.S. may be tempted to teach the Quds Force a lesson by targeting its facilities in Iran for missile strikes. The White House has made clear, “we take no options off the table.” Representative Peter King, Republican Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee added sternly “Basically, this would have been an act of war. It has raised this relationship, between the United States and Iran, to a very precipitous level.”

Yet for now the Obama administration is focusing on “working through economic measures, sanctions to isolate Iran.” The U.S. government is also considering additional diplomatic action against Iran, such as taking the current charges to the U.N. Security Council.

Unlike the Obama administration, authorities in Jerusalem and Riyadh may not show as much restraint since they are considering the launch of military operations. The Saudi government, like the American one, regards the plot as a flagrant violation of global conventions. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned, “We hold them [Iran] accountable for any action they take against us.”  Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren has warned Tehran, “We [Israel] are always fighting against Iranian terror at our borders and beyond our borders.” Nonetheless, the House of Saud is unlikely to undertake armed retaliation without assurances for protection from U.S. forces in the region. The same is likely of the Israeli cabinet, though it has been known to act independently. 

The US response is imperative. Military actions could isolate and hurt the Iranian people and more moderate politicians, who are western friendly and oppressed by the clerical Iranian regime. Right now, many believe that Iran is poised to become the next country to join the Arab Spring. Over 50 percent of Iranians were born after the Islamic revolution of 1979. They also make up 40 percent of voters, and right now, 15 percent of the population is unemployed. The graffiti in malls, subways, and other public places denounce the mullahs’ power. Young activists circumvent government censorship through the Internet. Many women minimize and even reject the hijab and the conservative dress code. Men and women sport the latest western fashions in clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. They flock to rock, punk, and rave concerts despite the threat of arrest. They embrace globalization as a central aspect of protest, especially as the state condemns it as un-Islamic. Their push for social liberalization has merged with their quest for political freedom. This group should not “pay a price” for the actions of extremists.

The Islamic Republic’s downfall cannot be accomplished through foreign missiles and Western troops. Though regime change may take time, it will come from Iran’s citizenry as witnessed in North Africa during the Arab Spring. When the theocracy begins to topple, the U.S. must swiftly assist Iranians seeking liberty.

For now the U.S. should pursue its investigation vigorously and, if Iranians at the highest levels are found complicit, should take the charges not only to American courts but to the Security Council and even the International Criminal Court. Washington must bear in mind the lessons learned from other interventions of the past decade. Ground and drone wars, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives did not bring Osama bin Laden to justice—diligent intelligence and covert operations did. The same techniques, perhaps even culminating in the form of a precise and well-planned mission, can ensure that those in Iran behind the recent terror scheme are held fully accountable.


Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, Islamic, and International studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. 

Carol E. B. Choksy is adjunct lecturer in Strategic Intelligence and Information Management at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc.

The views expressed are their own.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user kamshots]

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