Friday, October 14, 2011

Money is the End Game With Iran and Saudi Arabia

By now everyone is familiar with and has likely read many discussions regarding the remarkable claims made this week regarding the Iranian Quds Force assassination plot to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States on US soil. If you aren't in part skeptical, you may not be very well informed.

I truly believe everyone should be very skeptical but not quite dismissive of the claims being made by the US government.

My short take is that the US government appears to have been initially skeptical like the public is today, but when they got a better sense of who the backers from Iran were, red flags went up. My thoughts on this are also that the US government must have accumulated some very credible evidence for the President to be this vocal in support of the Justice Departments case. Politically, the President's own base is more likely to be the most skeptical of the claims being made because the case fits almost perfectly into one of former UN ambassador John Bolton's wild conspiracy theories - which is nothing short of the most politically ironic turn of events in foreign policy I've witnessed in awhile. Honestly, isn't this scenario akin to the political equivalent of Dick Chaney joining Code Pink?

With the case now in the hands of the US Justice Department, presumably there will eventually be evidence made public. I'd like to reserve the right to be skeptical until I see this evidence.

The best media source covering this story, in my opinion, has been the New York Times. The NYT Lede Blog, for example, is part of the NYTs award winning coverage to completely own this story, and I found their coverage of Gary Sick's The Gulf/2000 Project messageboard traffic to be very useful in seeing what the experts were saying. I want to highlight one point made by Kenneth Katzman, a very brilliant Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service, who made one comment that has been repeated many times that I'm not quite sure really works anymore.

There is simply no precedent — or even reasonable rationale — for Iran working any plot, no matter where located, through a non-Muslim proxy such as Mexican drug gangs. No one high up in the Quds, the I.R.G.C. command, the Supreme National Security Committee, or anywhere else in the Iranian chain of command would possibly trust that such a plot could be kept secret or carried out properly by the Mexican drug people. They absolutely would not trust such a thing to them, given Iran’s undoubted assumption that the Mexicans are penetrated by the D.E.A. and F.B.I. and A.T.F., etc — and indeed this plot was revealed by just such a U.S. informant.
Ten or so years ago, I think this would be 100% accurate, but I'm not sure that is true anymore, or maybe I would suggest this may not be 100% accurate anymore. I don't want to give the impression that Kenneth Katzman is inaccurate, only that he (and others) might be overstating the IRGC precedent a bit.

I note that the US government now says that the IRGC is the primary government agent for Iran in developing Iran's nuclear technology and other military technology like ballistic missiles, which is business done with non-Muslim nations. We also know the Quds Force has developed ties globally - including in South America - through their illegal smuggling (arms trafficking, etc) operations with non-Muslim organizations. That doesn't make me less skeptical, but the trend lines for the Quds Force point towards working more and more with non-Muslim groups over the last decade in virtually every other area of responsibility for the organization - and this has in part been due to necessity to circumvent economic sanctions. If assassination was reinstated as an IRGC policy option recently as some monitoring sources have suggested, using a non-Muslim proxy inside the US might be the preferred way to take action as to misdirect accusations away from Iran. After all, if the plot had succeeded as outlined in the accusations, would anyone believe any US President who claimed the Iranian Quds Force was the agent behind the a bombing that would be specifically linked to a Mexican drug cartel? I think that would be a very difficult story to believe as well.
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None of this makes me less skeptical though, only that I note both Gary Sick and Kenneth Katzman have both previously noted other IRGC operations with non-Muslim proxies - in particular the illegal smuggling activities, so it is a bit of a stretch to suggest there is "no precedent" regarding IRGC activities involving non-Muslim proxies. No non-Muslim proxies for assassination plots? Absolutely right, but the development of a nuclear weapons program is to me a much more serious plot than an assassination plot on an ambassador, and even the hesitant UN people claim Iran has been supposedly getting help from non-Muslims for that activity.

I'd also note that shadowy government organizations like the IRGC don't have a track record of applying "reasonable rationale" for the actions and plots they hatch. Seriously... organizations like the CIA and Mossad, or the KGB during the cold war... many of the ideas these organizations float and sometimes act on do not always apply "rational" thinking in the way you or I might apply the term. We know, for example, Iranian nuclear scientists keep getting killed. Are you more or less skeptical of Iranian government claims that the CIA or Mossad is behind those killings than you are of this US government claim? Uh...

With all of that said, I'm still skeptical of the US governments claims, because despite all the suggestions for actions that could be taken against Iran in response to this alleged plot, I believe it is fairly clear where this is really going.

We have been hearing for months now about the impending gigantic defense deal between the US and Saudi Arabia that is supposedly close to being finalized. Latest reports put the defense deal at somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 billion. A $90 billion defense export sale by the Obama administration to Saudi Arabia is going to shatter all previous peacetime defense export sales records in size, scope, and money.

For context comparison, that agreement will be worth ~75% of the entire nation of China's total military budget for 2010, and Saudi Arabia intends to spend that money buying US military equipment and the training to use that equipment. Most of the equipment that has been discussed in media for that defense deal that Saudi Arabia wants to buy, like AEGIS, is very high end military equipment. This deal, if it happens, is not just a big deal - it's shaping up to be the single biggest US military defense deal since the Lend-Lease Act.

If you are President Barack Obama, and you don't want to urinate all over one's own political base who is exhausted with US wars in the Middle East and frustrated with US foreign policy in the Middle East (that always seems to lead with combat boots), it is good politics to have high tensions between the buyer (Saudi Arabia) and a useful scapegoat like Iran if one is going to sell that much military hardware to a single country and avoid political blow back.

With all of this rhetoric that includes phrases like "Act of War" as a backdrop, including the implied threat of military action against Iran as a response, I think the US action in this case is going to be the impending US-Saudi Arabian defense deal. This plot accusation is not exactly 90 billion reasons why we are selling top US military kit to Saudi Arabia, but at least the justification for the sale will have some positive political spin potential with this plot part of the background noise. Also, for the record, if half of that $90 billion goes directly towards building 'stuff' like ships, planes, and vehicles - that is going to be a legitimate economic stimulus directly from a government export deal that the administration can take full credit for.

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