Shadow Government

Why is Iran conspiring with Mexican drug dealers?

Much of official Washington has been stunned by the Justice Department announcement this week that an Iranian-American, acting on behalf of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has been arrested for allegedly conspiring with an individual he believed was tied to a violent Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and carry out other possible terrorist activities.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for one, remarked, "The idea that [Iran] would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?"

But as outlandish as it may seem, it can also be seen as the fruits of Iran's steady expansion into Latin America and attempts to make common cause with transnational criminal operations in its global conflict with the United States.

Last week, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega and I co-authored a paper, The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America, for the American Enterprise Institute, in which we establish that, over the last several years, Iran, with its Hezbollah proxy in tow, has made a major diplomatic and economic push into the Western Hemisphere. Their goals are three-fold: to break down their international isolation and gain access to strategic resources; undermine U.S. influence in the region; and establish a new platform from which to wage their war against the United States.

That effort has been largely facilitated by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has served as the principal interlocutor on Iran's behalf with other like-minded governments in the region, primarily the Rafael Correa and Evo Morales governments in Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively, who themselves have established dubious networks with criminal groups.

Moreover, Iran and Hezbollah's ties to Mexican drug cartels are nothing new. For years, they have been involved in drug smuggling and people smuggling in Mexico and across the U.S. border.

What experts say is new, however, and indicative of a deepening relationship, is Mexican drug traffickers' increasing use of small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombs in waging their mayhem in Mexico, an expertise for which Hezbollah is particularly known; and, secondly, the ongoing discovery of increasingly sophisticated narco-tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border, which experts say ­resemble the type used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Frankly, from their own warped perspectives, it would be more surprising if there was no cooperation between Iran-Hezbollah and Mexican cartels, given the obvious benefits to both criminal enterprises. The cartels are able to access Hezbollah's smuggling and explosives expertise and links with drug trafficking networks in the Middle East and South Asia (the alleged Quds Force operative also reportedly offered opium shipments from the Middle East to Mexico). In turn, Iran and Hezbollah are able to establish a presence and develop assets in a lawless environment with ready access to the U.S. border that can go operational when the need arises -- as it apparently did in this case.

To be sure, trying to arrange the assassination of a foreign diplomat on U.S. soil represents an ominous turn in Iranian strategy against the United States. In any case, the stakes are clear. In a May 2011 visit to Bolivia, Iranian Defense Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi proclaimed that in the event of any military confrontation between Iran and the United States, "The strong Iran is ready for enemy-crushing and tough response in case of any illogical and violent behavior by the U.S." It seems we now have a pretty good idea on how Iran will rely on its new-found friends in the Western Hemisphere to carry out that threat.

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The Iran plot: How should the U.S. retaliate?

Yesterday's news of the Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir is stunning. Among other things, following on the recent case of the Iranian pastor facing execution only for his Christian faith, this plot provides further evidence of the multifaceted malevolence of the Iranian regime. The details of the plot also display the Iranian strategic game in its brazenness and morbid sophistication. In this case the plan involved an unprecedented targeting of American soil, a simultaneous blow against two of Iran's enemies, the United States and Saudi Arabia, and further heightening of tensions with our troubled southern neighbor, Mexico.

The Obama administration has announced retaliatory sanctions, and is weighing options for a further U.S. measures. America's response should have at least two dimensions: an effective tactical retaliation and a strategic countermove.

What kind of retaliation? As Ken Pollack points out, Iran considers itself to be at war with the United States, and in as it calculates its offensive moves, Tehran "may no longer be concerned about a massive American conventional military retaliation." In this case, the Obama administration's response thus far of announcing additional sanctions is necessary but insufficient. Depending on what the investigation reveals, a military response should at least be considered among the options. One possibility could be targeted strikes against Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) training camps inside Iran. This would also have the advantage of punishing the same entities responsible for killing American troops in Iraq, and supplying munitions to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is not the case that the assassination attack would have to have actually been carried out to justify a kinetic response. For example, in 1993 the United States uncovered a plot by Saddam Hussein to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush, and the Clinton Administration appropriately retaliated with cruise missile strikes against Iraqi Intelligence headquarters.

There remains some question about whether this Quds Force operation was authorized at the highest levels of the Iranian Government, specifically by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. It is very likely that Khameini did know. But even if he did not -- even if this was overseen by "rogue elements" of the Quds Force -- a strong response is warranted for the simple reason that Tehran is responsible for creating, equipping, and supporting the IRGC, and must be held accountable for its actions.

To be sure, there are also ample reasons to argue against a military response at this time, and the United States must be equally careful about gratuitous escalation and unforeseen consequences. But the severity of this threat is significant enough, particularly in what it reveals about Tehran's new strategic calculations about its latitude to target the United States, that we at least consider a kinetic retaliation among the options.

Perhaps more important will be the strategic dimension of the American response, and here the priority should be using this incident to shift the strategic momentum against Iran. As if any more evidence was needed why this regime cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability, this is it. The American strategic countermove should include repairing the frayed U.S.-Saudi relationship, bringing Turkey back in alignment with the United States and against Iran, stepping up multilateral pressure on Iran's ally the Assad regime in Damascus, reinforcing our support for the embattled Calderon government in Mexico, and making a renewed effort to enlist Chinese and Russian pressure against Iran on multiple fronts.

While the Russia "re-set" has thus far been oversold, here is a chance to get the Russians to deliver some results. China and Russia's double-veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria last week was as beneficial to Iran as it was to Syria. With this latest plot so brazenly targeted at our capital city, Iran has now overreached so far that Russia and China's hedging policy of playing both sides is no longer viable. Beijing and Moscow must now realize that any further support or cover they provide to Tehran amounts to a direct alignment against the core interests and security of the United States.

/AFP/Getty Images