Small Wars Journal

Iranian bomb plot blows up deterrence theory

Wed, 10/12/2011 - 10:18am

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.


Many intelligent individuals have questioned why Iran would use someone who would be so easily "pinged" on the FBI radar. I've read what many of you have written but some of you also seem to forget set ups like this are in our history:

Other governments do it/have done it too:
Reichstag Fire
Fake Invasion at Gleiwitz
British commandos dressed as Arabs and shooting Iraqis in Basra (

There are also past examples of people claiming they are part of some conspiracy with a group or government. But hey, at least the President didn't assassinate an American without official charges or evidence... oh wait, he did.

Edited to add a link: "Patrick Cockburn: This bizarre plot goes against all that is known of Iran's intelligence service"…


Fri, 10/14/2011 - 10:22am

An implicit assumption that is being made is that this plot was intended to be successful.
It has been puzzling me as to why a government (or subset of that government) which has the capability to execute an attack such as this with much more stealth and deniability would be so inept. What if this plot was intended to be discovered?
There are many reasons that this could be designed to fail and implicate Iran.
<li>Feint - Distract us from another operation</li>
<li>Probe - See what our response would be</li>
<li>Message - Your deterrence isn't working, or some other message</li>
<li>Increase internal instability - Related to my earlier post</li>
In particular #4 can occur whether or not the operation was successful. It has many aspects that play on our internal politics.
<li>Plays to enhance a fear of immigrants and US-Mexico border security.<ol>
<li>If individuals attack Iranian, Muslim or Latinos, Iran can use this to show how the US is intolerant of others.</li>
<li>Can cause the government to spend money
<li>Enhanced border security</li>
<li>Increase cost of enhanced defensive posture</li>
<li>Increase political division
<li>Hawks vs. Doves</li>
<li>Tea Party vs. OWS</li>
<li>Fiscal constraint vs. Deficit spending (e.g. increase or maintain defense spending while reducing deficit spending but cutting domestic programs)</li>


Sat, 10/15/2011 - 9:29am

In reply to by Dayuhan

I agree nothing will come out of this particular incident. Nobody is going to take what is either, an effort by Mr. Bean's assasination bureau or possibly the FBI creating something out of nothing, seriously enough for shooting to start.

What I was addressing was Mr. Haddick's question about having to ultimately impress the Iranian leaders. This won't be the time but that need still stands.

You're right, what I was thinking of would be a small war. But we fought a small naval war with Iran in the late 80s so the precedent is there. I think that it will, in the end, take a small war to impress them. The idea is to keep it mostly naval and electronic.


Sat, 10/15/2011 - 1:26am

In reply to by carl

Anti-ship missiles on mobile launchers may be difficult to locate and destroy, and if the Iranians have 3 functioning synapses they have them stashed in hardened locations or where a strike would cause an unacceptable level of collateral damage.

What you propose amounts to war, and that's a tricky business, especially since no attack actually occurred. How good is the evidence? I don't know, I haven't seen it. Will people believe it, or see it as a pretext? Ever since the whole Iraqi WMD fiasco we are a bit in the position of the boy who cried wolf.

I don't think there will be a military strike, and I'm not convinced that one would be appropriate. Of course there's risk in any course chosen.


Fri, 10/14/2011 - 6:14pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Wrecking their navy and coastal forces as a first priority would hopefully mitigate that to an extent. And if they did that, would a blockade of some type be in order? Then they couldn't take advantage of a rise in oil price and it would cost them as much or more than us. You are right though, it most likely wouldn't be all our own way. But that still leaves Mr. Haddick's question, what can we do to impress the Iranian leaders? This is what I could think of that would play to our strengths.


Fri, 10/14/2011 - 5:57pm

In reply to by carl

Carl, good to recall that the Iranians have a deterrent capacity as well. They have the ability to seriously interfere with tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz and potentially to impair production and loading at Gulf facilities. They couldn't do it permanently, but they could run oil prices up to $150 a barrel or so for a while. A unilateral American strike with that consequence would have sufficient domestic and international repercussions that most US governments would want to avoid the risk as anything but a last resort. Not exactly mutually assured destruction, but not something most would want to deal with either.

Mr. Haddick refers to the question of what kind of retaliatory display would impress Iranian leaders.

What do people around here think would work? What wouldn't? Why?

My own amatuar (sic) idea is to break things that can be fairly easily broken but are visibly warlike. For some reason or other, tyrants like their martial things, boats, airplanes, various types of fixed weapons and radar emplacements etc. The destruction of these things tends to get their attention and demonstrate that you are actually willing to do a little more than let the banker do it.

So something like a strike sinking every vessel the Iranian Navy has, destroying every coastal defense installation that can be found, kill as many of the F-14s still left as possible while simultaneously shutting down their air defence system remotely and maybe having a B-2 or two drop some leaflets on Tehran. I am guessing that targets like that could be struck from the sea or with cruise missiles thereby reducing our risk. They may also be remote enough that you can get the targets without offing too many civilians. A demonstration of that intent would be important in Iran and around the world.

An important consideration would be to do more rather than less at the start. Breaking a lot of things all quick and at once has a lot more psychological impact than breaking a few Boghammers, saying smugly "that'll teach 'em", then being surprised when it doesn't.


Fri, 10/14/2011 - 5:08am

In reply to by motorfirebox

I doubt that the US is behind what's happened to Iranian nuclear scientists. There are others, nearer and more at risk, who have the incentive... and they wouldn't ask for American approval or permission.


Fri, 10/14/2011 - 1:28am

It seems a little odd to blame this on the lacking deterrent power of trade and travel sanctions when Iranian nuke scientists keep dropping like flies. I'm not saying that knocking off Iran's nuclear scientists is a bad idea, but let's be real about what's going on, here. Though I suppose it <i>is</i> true that trade and travel sanctions are unlikely to deter a country from responding negatively to dead citizens...

A variation on first explanation is that the cost of the response to the United States will out weight the cost of the response to Iran. Considering Iran's recent statements on the Occupy Wall Street movement, the budget fight in Congress, the public's lack of appetite for any war, and the stress currently placed on our military by the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran could believe that the US will over-react and lead to a political and financial meltdown a la the Soviet Union during the 1980s pushed by Reagan's military build up and more aggressive stance.

Ali Soufan notes in his book, "The Black Banners," that Osama bin Ladin and Al Qaeda perceived little to no U.S. response to the USS Cole bombing. This informed their future actions. Analysts and historians should look to similar actions by Iran and its partners. For example, there was little to no response to the influx of Iranian explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) in Iraq. Similarly, the UK's response to Iran's capturing of fifteen Royal Navy sailors and marines in March 2007 was measured. US/UK response to these actions have already made an impression on Iranian policy makers, and "rogue" Al Quds Force officers alike. The U.S. response in this case must be on the mark in order to enhance our strategic deterrence.


Thu, 10/13/2011 - 12:26am

Do we know if a date had been set for when the bombing was supposed to take place?

If Iran felt that the USA would be unable to retaliate, then it may be because they are preparing to demonstrate a deterrent capacity of their own. i.e. Their 1st test of a nuclear device is imminent.


Wed, 10/12/2011 - 5:43pm

When Iran has enough bombs, they will obliterate Tel Aviv and possibly Riyad. They are jihadists and there simply is no deterrence with those willing to die. They will bomb first chance they have and will simply perish in the retaliation like good martyrs. The remaining Islamic world will be rid of Israel and Iran will be seen as magnificently heroic.
A lone bomber with a bomb-vest or a nation with nuclear weapons makes no difference except in numbers of martyrs.
So it goes.

That's the trouble with deterrence, you occasionally have to actually do something. That of course gives the people inside the beltway an advanced case of the vapors, as you noted.