One day after the U.S. outlined an assassination plot allegedly linked to the Iranian military, a host of U.S. officials began making angry calls for tough action in response.
But what kind of action might that be? The U.S. has been imposing sanctions against Iran ever since U.S. diplomats were seized following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And analysts say they do not expect a U.S. military response.
Vice President Biden said Wednesday that Iran would be held accountable for the foiled plot, which envisioned killing Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. "Nothing has been taken off the table," Biden said on ABC's Good Morning America.
But if the U.S. opted for military action, such a move would probably lack international support and could trigger attacks from Iran.
"Iran has been very convincingly alleged to be involved in many terrorist actions around the world, from Argentina to the [Persian] Gulf to Western Europe," says Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "Never at those times did we see support for military action against Iran, even from countries that were victimized."
Still, the U.S. is certain to push for economic pressure through additional sanctions and will also seek to isolate Iran diplomatically. American diplomats are expected to lobby countries that have traditionally been skeptical about punishing Iran, including many of its neighbors.
"This presents us an opportunity to do things that have been hard to do before," says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
"It helps unite a lot of people in the Middle East and puts them on our side," Korb says. "They weren't going after some Westerner; they were going after the Saudis."
Hours after the criminal complaint was filed Tuesday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on five Iranian individuals — not just the two named as part of the plot, but three others as well, suggesting that U.S. officials have intelligence pointing to a wider conspiracy than it has outlined publicly.
On Wednesday, the Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on Mahan Air, an Iranian commercial airline, accusing it of "secretly ferrying operatives, weapons and funds" in support of terrorism.
Such moves, while earning initial applause on Capitol Hill, aren't likely to satisfy many members of Congress who believe Iran deserves stricter punishment. Several House Republicans issued statements calling the plot an "act of war."
In August, 92 senators signed a letter to President Obama calling for sanctions to be imposed on Iran's central bank — a potential action sometimes described as the "financial nuclear option."
On the Senate floor, Illinois Republican Mark Kirk reiterated the idea, saying it "would be an effective nonmilitary way to address what is clearly an utterly irresponsible and largely out of control IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] and MOIS [Iran's intelligence service], who were seeking to attack American targets."
In Search Of International Support
The plan to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir entailed planting a bomb at a Washington restaurant he dines at regularly, as do members of Congress. The fact that senators or their staff might have been killed in such an explosion will not soon be forgotten on the Hill, says Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
"I would suspect we're going to see a much more activist Congress, especially after the next election," Rubin says.
There's no political downside for members of Congress to criticize Iran, which has been the target of American ire since the taking of U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1979.
"Had there been a mass casualty attack and Iranian fingerprints were on it, I have no doubt there would be a military reaction, with support from both sides of the aisle," says Rajan Menon, who chairs the international relations department at Lehigh University.
However, the plot was foiled and the U.S. government has not offered evidence so far linking the plan to Iran's supreme leader, the president or other top political officials. Therefore, Menon and other observers say the U.S. will stop short of military action.
"I don't think you start preparing for military action with the evidence we have now," Menon says.
Winning Muslim Hearts And Minds
A strong U.S. reaction could also prompt an Iranian counterreaction. Having to enforce a blockage against Iranian gas imports, for instance, could put the U.S. on a "slippery slope to war," says Rubin, the American Enterprise Institute analyst.
Targeting Iran's oil exports or revenues would also mean breaching relationships with Iran's customers in China and India, which could create another set of complications.
But one avenue administration officials are certain to pursue is convincing countries in Iran's own neighborhood that the country is a regional threat.
The fact that Saudi Arabia was the main target of the alleged plot will help make this an easier sell, among both individual nations and organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the analysts say.
Such players matter, Menon says, because they are constituencies with which Iran has sought to ingratiate itself. To the extent that Iran is engaged in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia, regional political support or disapproval makes a difference.
Converting regional suspicions about Iran into real distrust will be central to the U.S. strategy of "trying to put Iran in a vise," Menon says.
"On the diplomatic front, Iranians are in a much more vulnerable position," he says. "At the end of the day, Iranians won't be surprised by European reaction, but they stand to be much more surprised by the reaction of the Islamic world."
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