Iran and Saudi Arabia have a bitter rivalry that plays out on many fronts, and in a bombshell allegation by the U.S. government on Tuesday, it looks like that feud has come to the United States.
Iran's alleged assassination plot against Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi's ambassador to Washington, is not likely to prompt the Obama administration to take military action against Iran, according to analysts.
Still, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that further sanctions against Iran are in the offing. If top Iranian government officials knew about the plot — a charge Attorney General Eric Holder was careful not to level at a news conference Tuesday — stronger reprisals may follow.
"The fact that Iran is plotting against a Saudi official doesn't surprise me," says Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "What is surprising, if the plot is true, is that they were prepared to do it in the capital of the United States. This is a fairly unprecedented move."
Hitting Targets Abroad
Iran has not shied from hitting targets on foreign soil. The U.S. holds Iran partly responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen.
German prosecutors accused Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, of directing the 1992 killing of four Iranian dissidents in Berlin. In 1980, a former Iranian diplomat was killed in his suburban Washington home by an assassin who said he was in the pay of the Iranian government.
But the plot to bomb a top-level diplomat in Washington — and perhaps kill Americans as well — represents a "very, very dangerous development," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes civic engagement in the U.S.
"If any part of the Iranian government is involved in a terrorist plot on U.S. soil, it's such a provocative act that it doesn't matter what part was involved," he says.
Who Directed The Plot?
Holder said that the U.S. intends to hold the Iranian government accountable. He said that the plot involved the Quds force, a wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and was "directed by factions of the Iranian government."
Still, Holder declined to charge top Iranian officials with involvement in the plot. And the Iranian government has dismissed the entire criminal complaint as American "propaganda."
As the news broke Tuesday, there were many unanswered questions about complicity within in the Iranian government.
"There are instances where the Revolutionary Guard was freelancing, including in circumstances that were surprising," says Kenneth Pollack, director of Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution.
Pollack says that some analysts have concluded that the guard was acting on its own in 2007, when 15 British sailors were taken hostage in Iranian waters.
The scope of the plot suggested by the criminal complaint "does raise at least the possibility that this was a very badly structured rogue operation," says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But many are skeptical that the assassination plot, if true, could have been carried out without approval at the highest level. The Revolutionary Guards report to Khamenei.
"If this is proven to be an operation of the Quds brigade, targeting a high-level diplomat in Washington, D.C., then it had the approval of the supreme leader, and the essential leadership of that country knew about it, condoned it, facilitated it, approved it," Takeyh says.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia were already "at the boiling point," says Parsi, the author of a forthcoming book on U.S.-Iranian relations.
The two nations are engaged in competition throughout the Middle East, sponsoring rival groups in countries including Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon.
"All across the region, there is almost always a group being backed by the Iranians and a group backed by the Saudis," says Pollack, of the Brookings Institution.
In response to the alleged plot, Pollack says, the Saudis may launch a covert action — perhaps an assassination attempt of their own — to signal to Iran "that you can't do this with impunity."
But the first thing the Saudis are likely to do, Pollack suggests, "is to come to us to ask for a military reaction." A document published by WikiLeaks last year suggested that the Saudis have already called on the U.S. to attack Iran.
Military Reprisal Unlikely
The alleged Iranian plotters may have been drawn to the idea of killing Jabeir on American soil because he is considered an effective diplomat and the main conduit between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
"You have to believe [that] by striking at him, what they were doing is going after the U.S.-Saudi relationship," Pollack says.
A mass killing involving not just a diplomat but scores of innocent Americans "would have been perceived as a truly major event," says Cordesman, the defense analyst.
Still, observers such as Cordesman and Pollack do not believe that the U.S. will launch a military attack as a reprisal.
And the administration would not welcome the idea of becoming engaged in combat against yet another Muslim country. U.S. officials may instead use the plot as leverage to further isolate Iran at the United Nations, or otherwise apply increased diplomatic and economic pressure.
Long Reach Of Proxy Fights
But pressure could build to respond with force if the attack was found to be condoned by leaders of the Iranian government, analysts said.
"Almost anything that has to do with the U.S., within the Iranian government, tends to go through the highest levels," says Parsi, of the National Iranian American Council. "That is the pattern we have seen in the past."
He worries that the plot and its foiling may trigger a series of retaliatory acts. With relations among Iran and the Saudis and the U.S. already badly strained, any such series could potentially escalate into more open conflict.
At the news conference announcing the alleged plot, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said, "We will not let other countries use our soil as their battleground."
Yet some feel it's already happening.
"There's a proxy war going on between the Saudis and Iranians already," Parsi says. "If these allegations are true, that proxy war has reached U.S. soil."