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US needs more evidence of Iranian plot before escalating conflict in Middle East

Posted: October 28, 2011 - 12:03am

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The United States should put a hold on any plans it has for moving against Iran over the alleged plot to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador.

A federal indictment claims that a Houston resident, an Iranian naturalized as a U.S. citizen, offered $100,000 for the assassination.

The charge is conspiracy to murder. The $100,000 was supposedly supplied to the Iranian-Texan by an Iranian holding a government position.

According to the indictment, the Iranian-Texan was solicited to carry out the murder by a man he thought was a member of a Mexican drug cartel, but who was actually a paid U.S. government informant.

An arrest was made, nothing more was done.

Much of the incriminating information comes from the informant, who had earlier been let off a drug charge for cooperating with the Department of Justice.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are calling on other countries to sanction Iran. They claim that an agency of the Iran government — even if not the top leadership — was behind the plot.

Many analysts find it improbable that Iran would entrust such a task to Mexican drug figures, over which it would have little control.

One possibility is that the Iranian-Texan was interested in selling drugs to be supplied from Iran, rather than in an assassination.

It is conceivable that the Justice Department will produce convincing evidence that an assassination plot was indeed afoot and that Iran was behind it.

Until that happens — either in court, or in a release of evidence out of court — the Department’s version of a plot is too weak to be calling for sanctions.

If the Department’s version were true, it would make out a crime under U.S. law, but only because we consider conspiracy to be a crime. In most countries you need to get to the stage of attempting before you are punishable.

The State Department has been saying that the plot is an international crime.

The relevant international document is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons.

Both Iran and the United States are parties. The Convention requires states to punish murders of diplomats, including attempts. But the Convention does not mention conspiracy. So the act charged against the Texan-Iranian would not be a crime in many countries and is not a violation at the international level.

The frailty of the indictment has led to speculation of a hidden motive. The U.S. has been leading the charge for tough sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. The U.S. call for international action against Iran over the alleged assassination plot could be aimed at further blackening Iran’s eye to make it easier to get sanctions on the nuclear issue.

Israel has been threatening military action against Iran over its nuclear program. Talking tough against Iran wins points for the Democrats with the Israel lobby, whose role could be decisive in the 2012 elections. So the call for action against Iran over the alleged assassination plot could be a favor to Israel.

Outside the Administration calls are being heard for military action against Iran over the alleged assassination plot.

Even if there was an assassination plot, and even if Iran was behind it, military action against Iran would be the wrong move. You can’t attack a country over an incident of this sort.

Military action against Iran would be aggression. Our allies are unlikely to help, as they too would be committing aggression.

Iran’s reaction to a military move would be hard to predict. Iran has the potential for causing us trouble in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Even the sanctions the administration is proposing are not likely to gain much support at this stage. The Obama administration should tone down its rhetoric and wait to see how the evidence develops.

• Quigley is a distinguished professor of law at The Ohio State University and the author of more than a dozen critically acclaimed books on various aspects of the law. Readers may write him at Moritz College Law, 55 West 12th Street, Columbus, Ohio 43210.

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