Relations between the United States and Iran have reached another all-time low with senior Washington officials having accused Tehran of being involved in a bizarre conspiracy to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States.
Two Iranian men with links to the notorious Revolutionary Guards have been charged in the plot, with one man, Manssor Arbabsiar, under custody in New York
While officials of the Iranian government have denied the allegations, U.S. government figures have threatened to impose more penalties and sanctions on Iran.
International Business Times spoke to an expert on the Middle East to get his take on this ongoing development.
Dilshod Achilov is a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University. in Johnson City, Tenn.,
IB TIMES: Do you believe this bizarre murder plot -- that Iranian agents contacted an undercover DEA official to kill the Saudi envoy to the U.S.?
ACHILOV: The devil is always in the details. Before making any generalizations, it is critical to get as much nuanced information as possible. We have too few details at this moment to scrutinize this odd case.
U.S. officials claim that they have hard evidence to prove this allegation. Unfortunately, the White House also has a bad reputation in showing “reliable evidence” on foreign illicit activities. The credibility of U.S. intelligence became questionable (at best) after the “evidence” for Saddam’s weapons of mass-destruction (WMD) turned out to be a bogus. To avoid another “credibility” fiasco, the Obama administration must ensure that the evidence presented can hold water.
The “extent” of Iranian involvement will also be important to discern. The scope and the strength of Iran’s links to this alleged plot will have to be fleshed out. In the meantime, the White House is offering briefings on the details of this plot to Russia, China and Turkey (and other interested states).
It is really hard to believe that Iran would choose to take this risk unless the assassination was too important for Iranian national security. Yet, there is little logic behind “why” Iran would choose to kill a Saudi diplomat on the U.S. soil.
I do not think that this whole murder-plot case is as simplistic as it sounds (i.e., that Iran wanted to assassinate a Saudi ambassador to the U.S.).
For Iran to undertake such a risk, the issue had to be bigger with wider implications. At this time, there are more questions than the answers to this puzzle.
IB TIMES: The U.S. has threatened to apply more sanctions and penalties against Iran. But isn’t Iran already under heavy sanctions from the U.S. and Europe anyway? What more can the Americans do to penalize Iran?
ACHILOV: The Iranian economy is already under big stress from international sanctions. An exhaustive list of economic sanctions is already in place for Iran. More sanctions might include penalties on the Iranian central bank; imposing tighter sanctions on international companies that do business with the Iranian regime; and applying pressure to the states that have strong trade agreements with Iran (e.g., Turkey, China, and Russia).
Yet it is important to highlight that the financial sanctions have very little pay-off rate. While the imposed sanctions greatly crippled the Iranian economy thus far (sanctions have taken a heavy toll from Iran’s middle class, for example), there has been no meaningful concessions from the Tehran government.
IB TIMES: Saudi Arabia said it will hold Iran “accountable” over the plot to kill their ambassador. Is this just saber-rattling, or are the Saudis serious about taking some kind of action against Tehran?
ACHILOV: Tension, rivalry and hostility have long characterized the bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Even without this incident, both states have a laundry list of unresolved issues, which keeps the tension at all-time highs in the Persian Gulf.
The current Saudi stance is more of a verbal warning, than a call for an immediate action against Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran realize that it would be a major disaster if there was a direct military conflict. The status quo is more about “containment” and “deterrence” than a direct engagement.
IB TIMES: Why would senior Iran officials want to kill the Saudi envoy to U.S.? What would be gained?
ACHILOV: There is really not a lot to justify Iran’s motive to kill a Saudi official on the U.S. soil. Iran may have many reasons to target Saudi rivals, but why on the U.S. territory? The math is just not adding up. We know that there have been multiple assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists to which Iran vowed to avenge (against the U.S. and Israel).
But why a Saudi ambassador in the U.S.? This leads to an interesting question: could Iran be blaming the assassinations in Tehran partly to a possible Saudi collaboration with the U.S. in targeting Iranian nuclear scientists? Or more generally, could Saudi Arabia be playing a role in Tehran assassinations? I believe that time will shed more light on these issues in the near future.
IB TIMES: Could Iran and Saudi Arabia possibly engage in a war?
ACHILOV: It is always a possibility when you have two vicious rivals who are trying to “contain” one another. However, both rivals realize that the costs would be too high on both ends. Thus, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia would want to go to war with one another. Yet a conflict could be triggered by a miscalculation and/or miscommunication by either party (a leading cause of military conflicts).
Without a doubt, a military conflict between two countries would devastate the world economy (oil prices would skyrocket beyond reason).
Right now, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in Bahrain. The Sunni ruling minority of Bahrain is now under Saudi military protection (troops were sent by the Saudi King last spring to safeguard Bahrain’s Sunni regime).
On the other side, Iran is supporting Bahrain’s Shi’a majority to end the Sunni minority rule in the country. Bahrain is a buffer zone for Saudi Arabia (against Iran) and a home for U.S. naval forces in the region. At any cost, Saudi Arabia is expected to o everything to keep Iranian influence away from Bahrain.
IB TIMES: Beyond the conflicting views of Islam, what is the hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia really about?
ACHILOV: Beyond religion, the hostilities can be explained by: a competition for regional influence, the balance of power (including nuclear arms concerns), the issue of Hezbollah, the new Shi’a-dominated Iraq, the future of Bahrain and the future of security concerns in the Persian Gulf.
IB TIMES: How does Iran get along with China and Russia – two nations that seem to always go against the western powers?
ACHILOV: China and Russia have been two key allies of Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Iran is one of the main suppliers of oil to China. Russia is the main contractor for building Iran’s nuclear facilities. In short, Iran is highly dependent on these two world powers as it finds itself isolated from the international community.
Iran has an observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – aka “NATO of the EAST” - in which Russia and China are the two main power players.
IB TIMES: Relations between Iran and the Saudis have been deteriorating since 1979. What was the relationship like before under the Shah?
ACHILOV: It was not so great even during the rule of the Shah. However, when the Shah was in power, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were U.S. allies. The differences were significantly milder and incomparably less hostile than it is today. The U.S. was there to mediate and resolve differences if any.
After the Iranian revolution, the cards in the Middle East changed dramatically. Iran joined China and Russia while Saudi Arabia remained a key regional American ally in the later phase of the Cold War era.
IB TIMES: What is your near-term outlook for Iran-Saudi relations?
ACHILOV: No so bright, unfortunately. The zero-sum game between Iran and Saudi Arabia is likely to continue into the near future. Looking ahead, the bilateral tension is expected to rise with no signs of improvement on the horizon (any time soon). The U.S. has recently authorized the sales of complex, high- profile, and sophisticated arms to Saudi Arabia (and other Arab Gulf states) which has been irritating Tehran. Unfortunately, this tension is a big concern which can trigger a larger conflict in the region.