Analysis: Iran is trying to start a war

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, October 19, 2011
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Iranian leaders, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calculate that Israel’s position in the Mid-East is deteriorating

Iranian leaders, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calculate that Israel’s position in the Mid-East is deteriorating

The news that Iran plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington DC by bombing a crowded restaurant is shocking - even more shocking if one factors in the stated intention to blow up the Israeli and Saudi embassies as well in the future.

Pundits find such an escalation so out of character with the calculating caution of Iran's leaders that many are already blaming "rogue" elements of the regime.

But there is nothing either reckless or miscalculating in launching an attack against Saudi and Israeli targets in the United States. And, instead of finding excuses behind which Iran can now hide or pretexts for inaction on the part of the US administration, a different question should be asked.

Why did Iran choose to escalate its decades-long confrontation with the United States in such a way? These attacks, if successful, could trigger a war with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, after all.

There are good reasons for that.

Tehran's view - one frequently voiced by Iranian politicians, clerics and military commanders - is that US influence in the region is waning.

The Middle East is changing in Iran's favour. Iran has weathered the Green Movement's storm - and the US failed to come to the rescue of the regime's beleaguered opposition. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons are within reach and the US will not launch a pre-emptive strike.

As the Arab Spring swept away Egypt's and Tunisia's secular, pro-Western rulers, the US failed to save its decades-old allies and unceremoniously threw them under the bus.

When revolt challenged Damascus - a proxy of Iran and an implacably hostile adversary of the West - the US had the strength only to offer rhetorical succour to Syria's rebels.

From Tehran, the US looks weak, its influence declining and its resolve to put up a fight lacking. So, launching an attack on US soil makes sense.

Iran loathes Israel for religious and ideological reasons. As with the US, Iran has good reasons to believe that Israel has been straitjacketed by the current Arab Spring: Israel's deterrence was weakened and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt may herald a new era in which Israel is no longer safe on any of its borders.

Iran may be wrong, but it looks to the Levant and sees the rope tightening around Israel's neck. Besides, it wishes to avenge the assassination of one of its favoured sons - Hizbollah's terrorist mastermind, Imad Moughniye. Blowing up an Israeli embassy - something Iranian agents already tried in the Caucasus and Central Asia last year - is the way forward.

With the Saudis, Iran has a history of animosity that was exacerbated by recent Saudi intervention in Bahrain. To kill a prominent Saudi in the heart of Washington serves two purposes - it harms Saudi Arabia, and tests US commitments to Riyadh, which recent events have severely strained.

In short, this is a risky business but a calculated one.

And the fact that, right now in Washington, both pundits and government officials seem bent on finding ways to exculpate Iran's top leadership by suggesting the rogue theory of responsibility, indicates that Iran's reading of the US's weakness may be spot on.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

    Last updated: 11:00am, October 19 2011