By Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr
A day after the United States revealed an alleged Iranian-backed plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., senior members of the Obama administration's national security apparatus continue to debate what they believe the motivation was for Iranian operatives to engage in the plot according to several US official CNN spoke with at length.
But the search for motivation comes as others question whether such a plot is even in character with the Quds Force behavior.
Determining the motivation may be crucial to learning how high up in the regime the plotting occurred.
"There is a lot of internal discussion related to the 'why' on this," one official said.
Some theories for the alleged attack revolve around the notion that Iran and Saudi Arabia have essentially been engaged in what one official described as a "Middle East cold war" over their differences on everything from Bahrain to Syria.
But another theory gaining some currency is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards-Quds Force, said to be behind the plot, was perhaps working at the behest of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is close to the Quds Force. Khamenei is well known to be in a power struggle with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and may have been using the Quds Force to embarrass and discredit the president in the region and on the world stage.
While that is a theory, administration officials Wednesday are stopping short of saying the alleged conspiracy was specifically directed by either Iran’s president or the Supreme Leader.
“We are treating this as a very serious Iranian government sponsored plot,” says one senior administration official. “Our sense is there was institutional sponsorship of this plot."
In the past when the US has criticized Iran’s Quds force for shipping weapons into Afghanistan and Iraq, it has also stopped short of linking those operations directly to the President or the Supreme Leader.
One of the Iranian officials sanctioned by the Treasury Department Tuesday is Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander who is said by US officials to be very involved in all operations and also close to Khamenei.
Several officials said while they were initially surprised to see the alleged perpetrators get involved with drug cartel personnel, they now believe it is simply the Quds Force willingness to adapt and shift techniques from previous operations.
"This is an example of using other methods" when traditional methods fail. They point out that previous Quds attacks in South America and the Middle East show the organization is willing to operate outside their expected parameters and deal with entities the US might not expect.
Officials also said in assessing the seriousness of the plot, they had confirming information from multiple sources, not just the naturalized American arrested by law enforcement.