Caution urged as US mulls responses to alleged Iran conspiracy

A long-time Washington, DC, energy observer recommended caution as the Obama administration considered possible responses to an alleged Iran-based conspiracy to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US (OGJ Online, Oct. 11, 2011).

“I think there will be great pressure on the White House to do something dramatic,” Charles K. Ebinger, energy security initiative director at the Brookings Institution, told OGJ on Oct. 12. “It certainly isn’t going to do the region’s stability any good. I think the United States will feel that it has to respond in some manner. I hope cooler minds prevail.”

The US Department of Justice announced on Oct. 11 that Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized US citizen holding both Iranian and US passports, and Gholam Shakuri, an Iran-based member of the Qods Force within the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard, had been charged for allegedly participating in a plot to murder the Saudi Arabian diplomat in the US.

There could be oil-market implications, another Washington expert suggested. “I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be,” said Jon B. Alterman, a director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Middle East program. “I think Saudi Arabia may try to persuade people not to buy Iranian crude and replace with Saudi crude. There also may be efforts to hamper Iran’s clearing trades and delivering fuel.”

The main question quickly became was whether the conspiracy was sanctioned by Iran’s government or simply a scheme devised by a rogue faction within it. A spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that it was a US government effort to divert attention from domestic problems.

Alterman told OGJ that the role of Iran’s government may be hard to determine. “The Revolutionary Guard, of which the Qods Force is a part, has a practice of giving a lot of autonomy to individual commanders,” he explained. “If that is indeed what it is, it’s possible that someone who believes he had authority was acting without clearance from Iran’s supreme leader.”

Ebinger said the US might find it difficult to mobilize international support for an aggressive response because of the potential consequences. Even seeking approval of a resolution before the United Nations condemning the alleged plot might prove difficult because of a potential Chinese or Russian veto, he indicated.

“I think the price of oil will go up, but it will be temporary unless there’s a strong response,” he told OGJ. “The only good thing about this is with the world economy in turmoil right now, we don’t see upward pressure in demand and prices. Barring this escalating, I don’t think there will be a long-term impact on the price of oil. It may spike for a few days or weeks until the crisis is resolved.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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