WASHINGTON -- News of an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States represents a "huge deal" that would, had it not been foiled, have marked the first political killing by Iran on U.S. soil since 1980, according to an expert on the regime.
"This was one big f**k you to the West," said Michael Rubin, a Middle East analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has written extensively about Iran. "The scary thing is the Iranians or the Qods force" -- the U.S.-designated terrorist arm of the Iranian military U.S. officials say is implicated in the plot -- "believed they would get away with it."
But not all observers are convinced Iran was behind the alleged plot. Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, was skeptical Iran could pull off such an elaborate plan.
"Frankly, the entire case seems quite bizarre. Iran has not been in the business of foreign assassinations for some time, and in those cases the victims were Iranian dissidents," Slavin said.
According to the Department of Justice, one of the two suspects, Iranian-born U.S. citizen Manssor Arbabsiar, confessed to hiring Mexican narcotics traffickers to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in Washington. Court papers said the plan was to use plastic explosives to blow up the Saudi Embassy or an unnamed restaurant frequented by the ambassador and a number of U.S. senators.
When the hired assassin -- an undercover informant for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration -- told Arbabsiar that there could be mass casualties if the killing took place in the restaurant, the Iranian allegedly said, "They want that guy done -- if the hundred go with him f**k 'em."
According to a report by the Iran Human Rights Center, between the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and 2008, the senior leadership of Iran's ruling Islamic party has been linked to at least 162 killings of regime opponents in 19 countries.
The last assassination on U.S. soil was also in the Washington area, in the suburb of Bethesda, Md. On July 22, 1980, the former press attache for the Iranian Embassy, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, was shot dead at his home by an African-American convert to Islam, Daoud Salahuddin. The assassin later confessed to the killing and received a warm welcome upon fleeing to Tehran.
Rubin said the opaque nature of Iranian decision making makes it unlikely U.S. analysts will find the definitive "smoking gun" that links Iran's rulers to the alleged plot against the Saudi envoy.
"The big question we will face is whether this is a rogue action or whether we can hold the entire Iranian government culpable," Rubin said. He noted that while Iran has denied any involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85, one of the men wanted in the attack is now the country's defense minister.
Despite an alleged confession in this latest case with the Saudi ambassador, Slavin is among experts who are not convinced the plot was hatched at the highest levels of the Iranian regime.
"Given the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, this could be a case of deception perpetrated by the Saudis to discredit Iran," Slavin said, adding that based on the facts released "it appears that the DEA entrapped the defendants. I would want to see more of the evidence before giving credence to the charges."
In a later email to HuffPost after reading the indictment, Slavin added, "If Iran was really responsible, then it has certainly gone downhill in terms of tradecraft," Slavin noted. "Also, how was Iran able to transfer funds at a time when Iranians can barely send money home to their folks because of U.S. banking sanctions? How could the Iranians have believed that this would have been blamed on a Mexican drug cartel? It doesn't add up."
But the long-time enmity between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran has worsened in recent years, said Rubin, as each as jockeyed for influence in the volatile Middle East and to fill the power vacuum that will soon be left when most U.S. troops leave Iraq by year's end.