The US Treasury Department placed five Iranians, including the two men charged, under sanctions for their alleged involvement in the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US.
The two accused were named as Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalized US citizen with dual Iranian and US passports, and Gholam Shakuri, based in Iran and said to be a member of Iran’s Quds Force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Host Marco Werman speaks with Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, about the Iran’s Quds Force.
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Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman. This is The World. U.S. and Saudi officials are talking about holding Iran accountable and Iranian officials are accusing Washington of warmongering. And that’s just the start of the fallout from yesterday’s US announcement of an alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. American diplomats are now pressing US allies to further isolate Tehran, perhaps through a new round of sanctions. US officials say the foiled plot was the work of one specific part of the Iranian government, the Quds Force. Today White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was clear that senior members of the Force were involved. Vali Nasr is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Professor Nasr, what is the Quds Force?
Vali Nasr: It is an elite branch of Iran’s revolutionary guards that was a product of the Iran-Iraq war and also Iran’s involvement in Lebanon. It is given the task of managing Iran’s various military assets and proxies and Iran’s strategic interests across the Middle East in every area now in which Iran is militarily involved.
Werman: So, do the current accusations against the Quds Force seem plausible to you?
Nasr: Well, there is a connection alleged to the Quds Force, but that has to be vetted and to see how serious that connection was. The plot to kill the Ambassador is not typical of Quds Force’s operations. The Quds Force usually operates within the Middle East. It manages proxies like Shia militias in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon. It carries acts of terror within that context, using car bombs, assassinations and the like. But it usually has not operated outside of the Middle East and it has not engaged in these kinds of high visibility targeted assassinations, particularly, in the West. So if this proves to be true, it is a new chapter for the Quds Force.
Werman: I am wondering how you think the dynamic of the Arab Spring might be affecting any of this. Do you think it has influenced some of the feistier elements in Iran, in the Quds Force?
Nasr: Yes, definitely. The Arab Spring is a challenge to the Quds Force. First of all, because in a country like Bahrain, more than likely the radical Shia elements will be tied to the Quds Force and will look to the Quds Force for support, training and arms. But most important is what is happening in Syria, because Syria is pivotal to Iran’s relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon which is the Quds Force’s largest client and most important proxy in the region. So, the instability in Syria is clearly creating certain challenges for Quds Force and already there are reports that Quds Force has been used in suppression of the demonstrators in Syria.
Werman: So, if the accusations are true and the plot represents a new chapter in al-Quds operations, what does that mean for the future of US-Iranian relations?
Nasr: Well, US-Iranian relations entered the new phase when the Attorney General announced the complaint, because Iran went from being a nuclear issue for the United States to being a war on terror issue. And therefore, the previous system of sanctions and punishments that the United States had devised to change Iran’s behavior on the nuclear issue have now to be amended with a new set of measures to contain this aggressive side of Iranian behavior.
Werman: Vali Nasr, what most puzzles you about this story?
Nasr: Well, first of all, the amateurism of the story. You know, Quds Force is an elite and very competent force in what it does. It has many operatives in Latin America, in Venezuela, in Argentina. For it to go to an amateur secondhand car salesman to carry out this attack is a bit baffling. Secondly, it is still very difficult to see what Iran thought it would gain by bringing the United States into the middle of its rivalry with Saudi Arabia. Iran has targeted Saudi leaders in the past, has targeted Saudi Arabia with terrorism, but the rivalry between the two had remained contained within the Middle East. With this act, if proven true, Iran is deliberately bringing its international nemesis into its major regional conflict.
Werman: You seem to see this as an especially sensitive moment for US-Iranian relations, Vali Nasr. What advice would you have for the White House as they move forward?
Nasr: Well, we have to approach this cautiously. There is no doubt that if these charges are proven true the United States and also Saudi Arabia would have to react to it. But this act has been so brazen as to make the potential for a direct and unintended conflict far more likely. But the key issue for the United States also is that in order, particularly, to convince the region of the degree to which Iran has endangered the region and is escalating tensions, to present as much of the information regarding this case as possible, to be as transparent as possible and to make a very strong case for the complaint that it has put forward. It would be perhaps the most important and effective step the United States can take at this stage in order to control the way in which this story is going to be played out in the region.
Werman: Vali Nasr at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy thanks very much for your time.
Nasr: Thank you.
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