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Iran & The Science of Killing

Iran & The Science of Killing

Anyone in the business of studying violence should look askance at recent US claims that Iran’s Quds Force – a unit belonging to the Pasdaran, aka the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – is behind the amateurish plot to assassinate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the US. The main issue in contention here is not whether Iran would undertake such an audacious move  (it’s possible, but I find it improbable); rather, it’s whether the state of Iran did have a hand in the debacle. And as I mention below, the US may have critically overlooked other possible perpetrators, the Mujahedin-e Khalk, for example, in its rush to judgement and lasting desire to shame Iran.

Some questioning of the US’ assertions has happily manifested, highlighting inconsistencies that mainly lie in the Quds Force’s alleged departure from established sound tradecraft in assassination (PBS, Danger Room, and The Guardian). To sum up the dissent from most people that are familiar with the Quds Force’s exploits, the unit takes careful, deliberate steps to ensure that its operations remain covert (show no clear association with Iran) and succeed, which is why it seems highly unlikely that the purported plot would have any official association with the unit. While open to some debate, it is generally accepted that the Quds Force has been successful in many efforts, ranging from arms trafficking, to transnational intelligence networks, to assassinations, in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, various other Near Eastern states, and in Latin America.

After consideration of the above details, the US must not have conducted any peer review in its investigation. The first thing I would have highlighted, as mentioned above, is that the Quds Force would never undertake such activity in such a haphazard manner. Further, I would suggest that they should then consider exactly who would. Equating the investigation to an experiment, you can receive the data and results, but then you should consider what different theories could explain the results. Just because the expected (i.e., biased) theory that the Quds Force was behind it fits the observations (i.e., attempted assassination) does not mean that other actors could not be responsible.

With this, who else could have been behind such an audacious plan to target Saudi and Israeli interests in the US, and possibly abroad? To name a couple, the Mujahedin-e Khalk (MEK) and Baloch insurgents both could benefit from such efforts. In the case of the MEK, though, the slipshod modus operandi, enormous benefit from increased hostilities towards Iran, and the finances to support the effort make it much more likely to have been the culprit. In further support of this theory, initial reporting says that the perpetrator, Manssor Arbabsiar, freely mentioned his relative’s clandestine association with the Iranian military to an informant posing as a member of the Mexican Zetas drug cartel. Arbabsiar, in this instance, would be providing a clear connection to the Quds Force and Iran in the case that the attack succeeded, or even if it were foiled. Thus, the MEK would achieve its goals of further isolating Iran in either the plot’s success or failure.

The possibility exists that the Quds Force was behind the plot, but all evidence suggests that Iran knows the science of killing far too well to be so imperfect. Next time, instead of building a case built on adversity and pomposity, the US should consider reaching out for assistance from the alleged involved nation. Then again, you can never trust those Iranians!

(Photo credit: Associated Press)



Ali A. Riazi

Ali is an independent advisor on conflict and foreign affairs and an advocate for civilian protection. He has advised the Office of the Secretary of Defense, US military, NGOs, and intelligence oversight staff on topics, such as Afghanistan, civilian protection, irregular warfare, and civil-military affairs. His 13+ years of career experience have spanned humanitarian and national security circles and involved extensive experience throughout the Near East and Central Asia.

Ali earned a BA in Government & Politics (summa cum laude) and a Minor in International Development & Conflict Management from the University of Maryland, College Park. Additionally, he served as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant in International Political Economy. He is currently pursuing an MLitt in Terrorism Studies through the University of St. Andrews.

Ali's other blog interests can be followed at, and he can be found on Twitter at!/ali_riazi.