Back in the summer of 2002, in those post September 11 months when the United States was hunting terrorists at home and hurling threats abroad, an attempt by Al Qaeda to explode a “dirty” nuclear bomb was reportedly uncovered.
This was the sort of attack the US government feared. It would be another year before Condoleezza Rice warned that an Iraq invasion was necessary, despite the lack of strong evidence, because “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”. But the fear that a radiological device could be detonated in an American city had already been widely discussed.
So serious was the plot that the then-attorney general, John Ashcroft, interrupted an international visit to appear on television to announce an American citizen had been arrested for what would have been a devastating attack.
Except the evidence didn’t stack up. The US citizen, Jose Padilla, did not have a dirty bomb. He had no means of acquiring a dirty bomb. Instead of presenting the evidence before a court of law, the US held Padilla without trial for more than three years. When his rights to due process were finally upheld, there was no mention of a dirty bomb in the indictment. Padilla was eventually sentenced for other terrorism-related offences.
The Padilla plot was just one of several spectacular cases that went nowhere or that turned out to be much less dramatic than they were originally portrayed. The point is not that Padilla was entirely innocent – he clearly was guilty on other counts – but that the dramatic crime he was initially accused of was not backed by clear evidence. Worse, the allegations fit a pattern, part of the background noise of threats and allegations that eventually led to Iraq being torn apart. The rumour of a dirty bomb became an imagined crime that affected policy.
From the information that has been released into the public domain so far, the alleged Iranian plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to Washington looks like another Padilla plot, an explosive story whose facts turn out to be less dramatic on closer inspection.
It could be, in the coming days and weeks, that the plot turns out to be serious as more evidence is released. But the question is, right now, does the evidence in the public domain justify the rhetoric the Saudis and the US are engaged in?
The answer has to be no.
“Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price,” warned Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former intelligence chief. The United States have gone further: President Barack Obama threatened the “toughest sanctions”; another US official said Iran had “crossed a line”. Military options have been touted and nothing is “off the table”.
This is serious stuff and the evidence in the public domain so far justifies such talk – which, for the moment, is all it is, words not policy. But that could change.
Was Manssor Arbabsiar, the naturalised US citizen at the centre of the allegations, plotting something? The evidence so far released suggests he was. But was he a mastermind for an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, plotting a dastardly assassination against Saudi Arabia on American soil, an attack that would change US and Saudi relations with Iran and spark a conflagration involving two powerful militaries in the Middle East? Thus far, the evidence does not support that assertion.
Even US officials are sceptical about the plot. It would be “very outside the pattern”, one official told Reuters. An Iran specialist for the research arm of the US Congress points out “the idea that this was some sort of directed, vetted, fully thought-through plot, approved at high levels in Tehran leadership I think defies credulity”.
When a plot with such flimsy evidence appears, fitting a narrative so easily exploited by US and Saudi politicians, it is right for the international community to be sceptical.
After all, we have been here before. The elephant in the room, the astonishing illusion so often overlooked, was the march to war in Iraq on a false prospectus. In point of fact, we are still there. The legacy of the Iraq invasion is not over.
Regardless of whether the threat turns out to be real, what is clear for now is that the United States are using this alleged plot to advance a long-standing agenda against Iran, and the Saudis are reacting to the charges.
The rhetoric of politicians and the fantasy war scenarios the US media are salivating over can quickly become real.
These are serious accusations at a serious time for the region. An attack on Iran is neither a joke nor a fiction. It is a real scenario, one for which international actors are preparing. If it comes, it will involve real bombs and real deaths and people on both sides losing limbs and life and liberty. It will mean children growing up without parents and parents growing old without children.
Similar allegations and accusations led to the invasion of Iraq, to enormous bloodshed and devastation. Before more anarchy is loosed upon the world, we should see clearly towards which destination we are slouching.
Follow him on Twitter @FaisalAlYafai