Weighing U.S. Response to Iranian Plot

October 12, 2011

Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

Weighing U.S. Response to Iranian Plot - us-policy

Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

The news of an Iranian plot to commit an act of terror in Washington, DC should put Iran back at the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The indictment is for an elaborate conspiracy backed by the Quds Force–the part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards charged with acts of terrorism overseas. This appears to be a well-financed and official effort, not the action of one or two individuals disconnected from Tehran.

Iran has often seemed an afterthought in Washington recently. (In President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Iran got three sentences.) That must change now, in the face of this plot to kill the Saudi ambassador right in the heart of the nation’s capital. What is more, had the plotters used an explosive device as they planned, many others, including U.S. citizens, would likely have been killed or wounded.

The brazenness of this plan tells us that the ayatollahs are not afraid of the United States today. Clearly, they did not believe there would be serious repercussions if their role was discovered. The question now is, will there be? Conspiracy to commit murder and terrorism are among the crimes charged in the indictment, but this incident was closer to an act of war than to a criminal justice matter.

Crisis Guide: Iran

If the U.S. reaction is to simply call for a few more sanctions against Iran, Tehran will learn that even acts of terror within the United States may be undertaken with near impunity. The task facing policymakers now is to determine how to punish Iran in ways that will hurt the Quds force and persuade Iran’s leaders to veto any future plans for terrorism against Americans or in the United States. Perhaps this can be done by our forces in Iraq or perhaps through covert action, but the principle must be that such acts are intolerable. If this plot had succeeded, the necessary reaction would be much greater, but in the face of its failure we cannot shrug it off or turn it into a diplomatic issue–or we encourage the perpetrators to try again.

The planned act of terror in Washington may also be sending us a dire warning. If Iran is prepared to undertake terrorism on our soil now, when we have a mighty nuclear arsenal and they have no such weapons, will the possession of nuclear weapons not make them even bolder? If we cannot deter Iranian terrorism now, how will we deter it if we permit their nuclear program to reach its ultimate goal?

“It is unacceptable for Iran to get nuclear weapons” is the stated policy of the P5+1 (the United States, UK, Russia, China, Germany, and France) and of Israel. The question has long been whether we mean it and are truly prepared to enforce it, or have instead already begun to turn to concepts of containment and deterrence. Iran’s terrorist plot should put that question back on page one and inject it into the presidential campaign. The Iranian decision to commit murder in Washington makes what to do about Iran an inescapable national security priority.


Weigh in on this issue by emailing CFR.org.


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