The Arab awakening of 2011 has to a degree refocused international attention away from Iran. A number of current developments, most prominently the allegation that a high-level official in Tehran was involved in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, is now exposing Iran's regime to renewed scrutiny. The suspicion and hostility that marks the political relationship between Iran and the United States mean that this shift may have very serious implications.
The indictment issued on 11 October 2011 by a federal court in New York against two men - Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American (and US citizen, arrested on 29 September), and Gholam Shakuri, a senior figure in the elite Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] - states that the murder plan originated in Iran and got as far as approaching (and paying a first instalment to) a would-be assassin linked to a Mexican drug-cartel. The belief, drawing on the testimony of Arbabsiar, is that the perpetrators intended (inter alia) to explode a bomb in a restaurant where the target was dining, which would almost certainly have killed other people.
The Barack Obama administration has reacted to the news by calling for intensified United Nations sanctions against Iran, on top of those already imposed on account of Tehran's nuclear-energy programme and the uncertainties over its exact purpose. The secretary of state Hillary Clinton describes the operation as "a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government's longstanding use of political violence and sponsorship of terrorism". Iran strenuously denies any role in what it regards as based on a fiction concocted by the country's adversaries. The affair is thus already becoming another episode in an enduring pattern of enmity between the two states.
There is as yet little substantive detail on an investigation that US federal agencies had apparently been pursuing for four months. Some of the alleged plot elements are odd, not least an amateurish approach that is untypical of the IRGC - as in the supposed hiring of a drug-gang associate who turned out to be a federal informant (see Joby Warrick, "Investigators initially doubted plot had Iran ties", Washington Post 12 October 2011).
The logic of confrontation
Washington shows every degree of confidence that it can justify the charge of senior Iranian participation in an actual operation. If the available information proves to be accurate, this raises two questions: how senior were those in Tehran behind the plan, and what does this and their involvement reveal about the current political context in Iran?
Iran's power-structures are factional and rivalrous. There has for some years been regular jockeying for position and prestige, a situation that long preceded the presidential election of 2009 which gave rise to huge street-protests. The regime's crackdown on the reformist tendencies that came to prominence then has now been followed by a new phase of barely concealed intra-elite manouevring between the various camps (see Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: an elite at war", 27 May 2011).
The IRGC, which established its reputation during the destructive Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), is a vital part of the regime's armoury. It is close to being "a state within a state", in that it both has powerful and autonomous economic interests activities and is determined to present itself ideologically as the truest guardian of the revolution of 1979. This image is becoming harder to uphold in a situation where millions of young Iranians have little interest in distant heroics and are more concerned with the difficult realities of their present.
The Revolutionary Guards need an enemy to justify their purpose and project their legitimacy. The Americans filled this role with the abrasive rhetoric of the George W Bush administration against Iran following 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave Tehran no reason to change its attitude. A number of mini-crises in the years since, especially over Iran's nuclear plans, has always found the IRGC among the most combative of Iran's power-centres.
Yet the regional environment is changing, and with accelerating speed. Most US troops are now leaving Iraq; several Arab regimes hostile to Iran have collapsed in the face of largely non-violent uprisings, and others (including Iran's ally, Syria) are threatened; Iran's Shi'a co-religionists are at the forefront of protest (and the prime targets of repression) in Bahrain; of the Arab states only Saudi Arabia, now also determined to subdue dissent among the Shi'a of the eastern region, presents a strong diplomatic challenge to Iran (as does Turkey).
This combination - the IRGC's rooted sense of self-interest and destiny, and a new geopolitical context where many strategic calculations are under review - suggests that what may underlie the Washington plot is the desire of elements within the IRGC to justify its own continued importance and relevance. A serious crisis, one that might even spill over into war, would certainly satisfy that requirement.
The Washington plot may thus turn out to be a deliberate provocation intended to incite a US response. There is an echo here of the argument of some analysts that al-Qaida conducted the 9/11 attacks in order to lure the "far enemy" into Afghanistan, and then mire it in an unwinnable war (as the Soviet Union had been in the 1980s). How far ahead the IRGC has calculated, if this is indeed part of its logic, it is at present impossible to say.
The new ingredients
But irrespective of the validity of this analysis, three further substantial points need to be factored in. The first is that the more hawkish foreign-policy voices and figures in Washington have alighted on the assassination plot with enthusiasm, for two reasons. It confirms their critique of Iran as the leading regional foe of the US - the pivot of the "axis of evil"; and the timing is very good in electoral terms.
The presidential-election campaign for 2012 is gathering pace. There will be great pressure on Republican candidates to take a very hard line against Iran, and the contenders will be drawn to outbid each other over what robust action is needed. Indeed, a political sense of the need to appear patriotic and not be outflanked may well inform the Obama administration's reaction to the plot.
The second point, which applies to both sides in the domestic American debate, is the growing US concern over the independence of Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad. This does not automatically translate into excessive Iranian influence, for the Iraqis are conscious of their own distinct religious history and not amenable to manipulation (see Tim Arango, "Vacuum is Feared as U.S. Quits Iraq, but Iran's Deep Influence May Not Fill It", New York Times, 9 October 2011). But it is troubling to Washington that the Iraqi prime minister and his foreign-affairs officials have offered support to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, effectively siding with the Iranians on this issue (see Joby Warrick, "Iraq, siding with Iran, sends essential aid to Syria's Assad", Washington Post, 9 October 2011).
It is relevant here that a signal if unacknowledged aim of terminating the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 was to establish a pro-American order in Iraq in parallel with a similarly pliant government in Kabul. These, along with the US navy's fifth fleet, would (it was believed) constrain Iran. Instead, the overall outcome of the decade's intervention for Iran - for all the latter's internal problems - has been to strengthen rather than weaken its regional position. Iraq's support for al-Assad is a specific example.
The third point concerns Iran's nuclear programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has in recent weeks been more forthright in its concern over Iran's nuclear programme; the IAEA's former deputy director, Olli Neinonen, says that Iran could reach a state of "breakout" with enough highly enriched uranium by the end of 2012 (see "The Iranians 'Tricked and Misled Us'", Spiegel Online, 10 October 2011). This would not in itself entail a direct nuclear-weapons capability, but it would mean that the potential for that can be realised within months.
Neinonen does not advocate a military strike; neither, as far as can be judged, does the Obama administration. But other influential voices in Washington, and some senior figures in Israel, do (see "Israel vs Iran: the risk of war", 11 June 2010).
The next phase
The alignment of the murder plot, the nuclear issue, international sanctions, and the changing regional enviroment suggests that a move is underway towards another period of potential clash of arms with Iran.
In such periods, crises can quickly erupt and escalate in uncontrollable fashion. The possibility of a military confrontation between the United States (or Israel) and Iran is one such danger (see "The next Iran war" [16 February 2006]; "America and Iran: the spark of war" [20 September 2007]; and "Iran, America, Israel: the nuclear gamble" [2 October 2009]).
If a significant group within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps really has been preparing a violent and brutal attack within the United States, knowing that its action will make outright war a real prospect, then this danger will be harder than ever to contain. All the more reason for the US not to give the group what it wants. This will require astute and far-sighted leadership in Washington. In the event of a real crisis in the coming months, a persuasive argument for a constructive and peaceful resolution that avoids the catastrophe of a new war must be made at the highest level.