Yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States by bombing a restaurant in Washington. Holder’s description of the plot – which allegedly involved a bungled attempt by Mansour Arbabsiar, a dual citizen, to recruit the notorious Zeta cartel from Mexico – appeared simultaneously brazen and inept. What should worry policymakers the most is how this incident undermines the theory of deterrence, which some hope to use against Iran after it acquires nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. If Iranian policy cannot be checked with Cold War-style deterrence, the prospect of an inevitable shooting war against Iran will go up.
Holder alleged that Arbabsiar was acting under instructions from officers in Iran’s Quds Force, Iran’s covert action agency. There are at least two explanations for the motivation to execute this bomb attack, neither of which is good for the future employment of deterrence theory against Iran.
First, the operation may have been authorized by the highest level of the Iranian government. This would indicate that top-level Iranian officials are not concerned with the possible retaliatory consequences of a mass casualty attack in downtown Washington, DC. Iran’s leaders would come to that conclusion either because they perceive the U.S. government to be self-constrained or because they perceive the maximum likely U.S. retaliation against Iran to be inconsequential to their interests. Either way, U.S. retaliation against Iran lacks credibility, something the U.S. government will have to fix if it is to usefully employ deterrence theory in the future.
Second, intermediate-level Quds Force officers may have initiated the operation without authority from top-level decision-makers. If so, this too would undermine deterrence theory. Deterrence is not useful if those to be deterred don’t have complete control over their weapons, an assumption U.S. and Soviet leaders both correctly made during the Cold War. Alternatively, the organizational culture inside the Quds Force may reward mid-level officers who “freelance” their own operations. Once again, not a comforting conclusion for deterrence theory.
The U.S. government is responding to this incident with more financial and travel sanctions on Iranian individuals. It also hopes to gain increased cooperation on sanctions from international partners.
In light of yesterday’s news, it is hard to believe that there is some attainable level of financial and travel sanctions, even with the best possible international cooperation, that will change the behavior of either top-level Iranian leaders or officers inside the Quds Force. The U.S. is thus left with a deterrent strategy against Iran that lacks credibility and in any case may be unsuitable for the situation.
Washington should expect more provocations and thus more pressure to eventually display a retaliatory response that will impress Iranian leaders. What kind of display would impress Iranian leaders is a subject many in Washington would prefer to avoid.