Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals that have waged a cold war for decades. But U.S. accusations that Iran had backed a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States have been met with skepticism by many regional experts.
"Killing the Saudi envoy in America has no benefit for Iran," independent Iranian analyst Saeed Leylaz told Reuters. "Why should Iran create hostility when the region is boiling?"
U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran's Quds Force of sponsoring terrorist attacks abroad, including bombings targeting American forces in Iraq. But former CIA agent Robert Baer said it would be out of character for the elite Revolutionary Guard unit to orchestrate such an amateurish plot.
U.S. authorities charge that an Iranian American from Texas, acting at the behest of Quds Force members, agreed to pay an informant posing as a member of a Mexican drug cartel $1.5 million to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir.
"There are very few groups operationally better than Iran’s Quds Force," Baer told CNN.com’s Global Public Square. “They know what they are doing. The only proxies they use are ones they’ve vetted. They don’t let their own citizens get involved. They send other people to do it for them, from Hezbollah to Bosnian Muslims. It would be completely uncharacteristic for Iran to be caught red-handed."
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III acknowledged Tuesday that the case “reads like the pages of a Hollywood script” but asserted that the threat was real. Top U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, said Wednesday that Iran should be held accountable.
"Clearly, senior levels of the Quds Force were engaged in the plotting," Carney said.
Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, said it was "possible that some rogue element of the Revolutionary Guards came up with this cockamamie but obviously despicable scheme." But, he wrote on his Foreign Policy blog, "whether Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad had anything to do with it, of course, is another matter entirely."
"Until we know a lot more about the actual timeline and evidence behind these latest accusations, a certain skepticism is warranted," Walt said.
-- Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles
Photo: The Saudi Embassy in Washington on Oct. 11, 2011. Credit: Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images