By Prof. Michael Glennon —
When Paul Nitze headed the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff during the Korean War, the United States discovered that Soviet pilots, disguised as Chinese pilots, were flying some of the MiGs engaged in dogfights with U.S. forces. Official Soviet papers and records were doctored to try to hide their involvement, but Stalin knew that Soviet involvement would ultimately come to light. “Our pilots’ work in the in the skies over Pyongyang will inevitably be discovered by the U.S. troops right after the first air combat, because all the control and command over the combat in the air will be conducted by our pilots in the Russian language,” Stalin wrote his defense minister. When Soviet involvement was discovered and word was passed to Policy Planning, Nitze was asked how the Truman administration should respond. His answer: suppress all evidence of Soviet involvement. One should not “point the finger of scorn at the Soviet Union unless one was prepared to do something about it. And we weren’t prepared to do something about it,” he wrote. Every single copy of the report was destroyed.
I was reminded of this episode (recounted by Nicolas Thompson in his gripping dual-biography, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War) in reading increasingly perplexing accounts of the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington. State-sponsored assassination within the territory of another state is an extremely big deal, a grave offense against state sovereignty that pre-dates even proscriptions against the unlawful use of force in international law. There’s no comparing it, in this regard, to the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki (the Yemeni government consented). Not that it hasn’t happened here before (the assassination of Orlando Letelier by Chilean intelligence operatives in 1976 is the most prominent recent example), and not that foreign intelligence services don’t operate against targets in the United States (the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, kept track of Iranian students in the United States with the full knowledge of the U.S. government). But these sponsors were governments friendly to the United States and counted upon the gentle treatment that they in fact received after their operations were uncovered. Iran has been on America’s axis-of-evil list for some time and might have expected―well, that’s the question: might have expected what? Might have expected that the plot ultimately would be discovered, but that the United States―not prepared to do something about it commensurate with the gravity of the offense, and not wanting to look like a paper tiger in decline―would say nothing, at least not publicly? Or might have expected that the United States, resigned to that fate, could only go hat in hand to a suspicious Security Council, where Iran could count on the vetoes of Russia and China, or both? Why has the Obama administration gone public with the matter, given its apparent unwillingness―or inability; three wars at one time may be enough―to make clear to Iran and any other nation thinking about killing U.S. residents that that’s not something even to think about?
One possible answer is that the administration had no choice. It could hardly allow a person who is plotting murder to remain at large; he had to be arrested for safety’s sake. Perhaps. But conspirators, particularly ham-handed conspirators (a category into which the hapless Mansour Arbabsiar seems to fall), are not always immediately rolled up upon receipt of sufficient evidence of probable cause. Sometimes allowing them to plod along, always under the watchful if unseen eye of law enforcement authorities, permits the gathering of more useful evidence. In this case, more useful evidence would consist of evidence firmly establishing attributability of the plot to the Iranian leadership. Now, though, having stopped the music mid-act, the administration will have to go with what it’s got and hope that the Security Council, Congress, and the American people will buy the claim that the Iranian government is behind the whole thing. Given the administration’s earlier efforts to spin events surrounding the Osama bin Laden killing and the “hand-off” of the Libyan war to NATO, I’m skeptical. No sensible observer, at home or abroad, will or should take the administration’s word for it. President Obama’s bare claim of “direct links” doesn’t cut it. What links, specifically? To whom in the Iranian government? What was said? When? To whom? The indictment doesn’t begin to provide the level of proof required for a predicate for economic sanctions against Iran, let alone for any form of military action. Perhaps the administration has the evidence. At this point, however, what comes to mind is the old line from high-school poker games: put up or shut up.