On Tuesday, the Obama administration dropped what amounts to a major bombshell when it announced that the FBI had successfully disrupted a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States being planned by the Qods Force, the paramilitary arm of Iran's clerical army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
On one level, the news isn't surprising at all. According to the State Department, Iran is the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism," and in that capacity sponsors a broad range of terrorist groups throughout the greater Middle East. Over the past decade, it also has emerged as a major source of instability in both Iraq and Afghanistan, bankrolling radical Shi'ite militias in their fight against the Coalition in the former, and supplying weapons and training to Taliban irregulars in the latter.
On another, however, the plot is deeply significant, insofar as it represents a sea-change in Iran's strategic posture. In the heady decade that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian regime gained worldwide notoriety for its support of global terror. During that period, it established the terrorist powerhouse Hezbollah in Lebanon, carried out repeated acts of subversion in the Persian Gulf, and was even implicated in waves of bombings in Western Europe. However, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Iranian strategy underwent a major metamorphosis. The Iranian regime became more circumspect in its approach, preferring to operate via proxies and asymmetric warfare. Now, Tehran seems again to be embracing a more aggressive foreign policy line, one which directly employs terrorism in and against the West.
The plot also marks a major escalation in the "cold war" taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In recent years, and particularly since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the strategic rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran has become a defining feature of Middle Eastern politics. The stakes in this struggle are enormous; they extend far beyond the future of Iraq, to the direction of the broader "Arab Spring" and the "hearts and minds" of hundreds of millions of Muslims. That Iran was willing to target a sitting Saudi official in a Western capital speaks volumes about just how seriously Tehran is taking this ideological and geopolitical contest – and how far it is willing to go in order to win it.
Finally, and most significantly, the foiled plot exposes a critical deficiency in current U.S. homeland security and counterterrorism policy. Over the past two decades, Iran has managed to establish a major beachhead in Latin America, aided by the region's large ungoverned spaces and widespread anti-Americanism. (The extensive strategic partnership between Iran and Venezuela is just the most visible fruit of that effort.) It has also helped Hezbollah, its principal terrorist proxy, set up shop south of the American border, with significant results. The Lebanese militia now boasts an extensive web of activity in our Hemisphere, stretching from Mexico to Argentina and encompassing everything from drug trafficking to recruitment to fundraising and training. And while the U.S. government may understand that these activities are both extensive and potentially threatening, policymakers in Washington so far have failed to focus on them in a serious or sustained way. That the Iranian plotters opted to use Mexico as a key hub for their activities, however, suggests that our government needs to do so without delay.