REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration should punish Iran, which allegedly plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, by waging a covert war that includes lethal strikes against Iranian intelligence operatives, a group of conservatives told a joint House subcommittee hearing Wednesday.
“Why are we permitting the Quds Force leaders who have been organizing this killing of us for 30 years to go around still walking around?" asked retired Gen. Jack Keane, an influential military thinker who helped craft the 2007 troop buildup in Iraq. “Why don't we kill them? We kill other people who are running terrorist organizations against the United States.”
The Justice Department alleges in court papers filed Oct. 11 that the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, ordered an Iranian American to hire a man he thought was a Mexican drug cartel operative to blow up the Saudi envoy at a Washington restaurant. The cartel figure turned out to be a U.S. informant who tipped his American handlers.
The Quds Force and its predecessors were responsible for several attacks against American interests, including the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 servicemen, witnesses told committee members at the hearing entitled "Iranian Terror Operations on American Soil.”
President Obama vowed to hold Iran accountable for the alleged Saudi plot, saying he would seek tougher economic sanctions. But it’s unclear whether sanctions can be toughened meaningfully without the approval of countries such as China and Russia, which have long resisted disrupting their trading relationships with Iran.
Although Republican lawmakers criticized the administration’s approach to Iran as not aggressive enough, Democrats argued that the current regime of sanctions had worked to slow Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons. All agreed that the alleged plot was a serious provocation that merited a response. At issue was what sort of response.
Suggestions ranged from limited cyber attacks to covert CIA action and unilateral U.S. raids.
“I do think we need a tougher response, particularly in light of the assassination attempt, you know, in the nation's capital,” said Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), who chairs the subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer now at the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, added: “The only way that I would argue that you are going to stop that type of mentality is that you have to convince them that you will escalate.
“You don't want to run away from that war, you want to run towards it," he said. "You do not want to say to them, we don't want to have another front in the war on terror -- say you are more willing to have another front on the war on terror.”
The lone voice at the session urging caution came from Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration defense official at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress.
“While it might be emotionally satisfying to take military action, I think it would be exactly the wrong step,” Korb said. He added that the alleged attack was “a sign of desperation” that actually indicated “sanctions are working.”
-- Ken Dilanian
Photo: Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, was the target of an assassination plot. Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters