National Security

Richard Clarke Discusses Alleged Assassination Plot

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For more context on the news that Iranian elements may have been plotting an assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Guy Raz talks with Richard Clarke. Clarke teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and he was a senior White House adviser to three presidents.


For more on the alleged Iranian-backed plot, we're joined now by Richard Clarke, former top counterterrorism advisor to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Richard Clarke, welcome.

Thank you, Guy.

The attorney general has alleged that this conspiracy was directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government. What does that mean to you?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, if this was, in fact, the Iranian Quds Force or Jerusalem Force, that's their top special forces organization that reports to the Grand Ayatollah, to the Supreme Leader. That would say to me that the Iranian government at the highest levels, if this is all true, was looking to provoke a confrontation between Saudi Arabia and the United States, on the one hand, and Iran because this would cross a red line that hasn't been crossed in 30 years. Assassinating a high level foreign official in the United States capitol and probably taking out many, many other people in the bomb that was to go off in a restaurant, ultimately they had to believe that we would find out they were behind it and they had to believe that we would attack them militarily in response.

So this suggests, if it's true, that they're looking for a fight.

RAZ: Why would Iran, though, take such a risk, at this point?

CLARKE: Well, I think there's an awful lot of internal jockeying inside Iran, as international sanctions on them are continually ratcheted up because of their nuclear program. And there may be elements inside Iran that think it would be good for them in terms of domestic politics for there to be a fight with the United States. That perhaps everyone in the country would rally around the flag if the United States were to bomb them.

RAZ: Richard Clarke, give us a sense of the extent to which elements of the Iranian government are suspected to be actively involved in terror plots.

CLARKE: Well, we know the Iranian government is involved in terror plots all around the world and has been for about 30 years now. They have blown up temples and synagogues in places like Buenos Aires. They have been actively involved in stirring up the oppressed Shia in Bahrain. They have been involved in terror plots in Lebanon and in Saudi Arabia. So this does not come as a surprise that the Iranian government would be directly involved, through their intelligence services, in assassination plots.

RAZ: But no question this is a bold departure for Iran.

CLARKE: The departure, I think, is where it was supposed to take place.

RAZ: Given that these alleged Iranian agents were attempting to work with Mexican drug cartels to fund or to carry out these attacks, is this a shift?

CLARKE: Well, if it's true, it is a shift. The thing that has bothered everybody in the government about this case when they first look at it is that it doesn't strike any of the intelligence or law enforcement officials as the way that they would assume that Iran would go about it. The Iranians are very professional and to hire some Mexican drug gang so indirectly through a cutout, unless they thought perhaps no one could figure out who was behind it because of the way in which they hired the killers.

This is a really strange plot.

RAZ: Iran has been tied to proxy agents Hezbollah Hamas. How - what are the quality of their intelligence operatives? Could they actually carry out an attack like this themselves?

CLARKE: Well, you would have thought so. The Iranian Quds Force and intelligence people are among the best in the world and they've proven that over and over again. You can understand, however, that if you're gonna do something as provocative as this, you want some deniability and some cutouts. But those never last for long. It's truly strange.

RAZ: That's Richard Clarke, the former top counterterrorism advisor to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Richard Clarke, thanks.

CLARKE: Thank you, Guy.

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