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U.S. Treading Carefully to Build Case Against Iran Over Alleged Plot

October 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
American ambassadors around the world are alerting governments in their host nations about the ongoing investigation into the alleged Iran-backed assassination plot in the United States. Jeffrey Brown discusses the latest developments with Joby Warrick of The Washington Post and Daniel Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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JEFFREY BROWN: For the latest in how this it might play out in the U.S. and Iran, we turn to Joby Warrick of The Washington Post and Daniel Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Joby, you wrote today that the U.S. officials originally were skeptical of this Iranian link. Today, we see the president say the facts are there for all to see. What are they pointing to, to make the link?

JOBY WARRICK, The Washington Post: It’s interesting that they were skeptical at the beginning, because these are people who say normally we like to say we get excited about a case and then the skepticism comes in.

In this case, they were skeptical from the beginning because it just didn’t seem like something Iran would do. But as time went on, they had good evidence pointing to involvement by someone in the Iranian government. Specifically, they saw money being wired from Quds-controlled bank accounts and they overheard conversations through wiretaps and also participation of one of the suspects who became a cooperating witness and were able to direct the plot very directly to some members of the Iranian government, at least at a medium level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there’s also been people looking into Mr. Arbabsiar and his life in Texas. And some of it makes him sound like an unlikely plotter, or at least an unlikely person that the Quds Force would work with.

JOBY WARRICK: Yes, this might be somebody for a good pulp fiction novel, but not for a real Iranian plot.

Here is someone who was — he had been a used car salesman. He had a failed business making kebabs. He had a failed marriage. He had lost his house just this past year. He was forgetful, he was bumbling, and so not the perfect specimen really for a hit like this, and yet this is the person that the U.S. alleges was the central U.S. player in trying to put this plot together.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Gholam Shakuri, the other person here, whereabouts still unknown?

JOBY WARRICK: Yes, he’s much more interesting.

He is a member of the Quds Force. And when Arbabsiar was arrested, they had him look at photographs to see if he could identify the people he talked to. And, sure enough, Shakuri is a member of the Quds Force. There’s no question about it.

So he is someone who is directly involved in this case and someone who has ties to this very important elite military unit inside Iran.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Dan Brumberg, in the meantime, the U.S. is trying to shore up support, get allies on board with them.

We heard some support in our tape piece. Is there still also some puzzlement out there you’re hearing?

DANIEL BRUMBERG, U.S. Institute for Peace: Yes, I think so.

I think if we recognize that among Iran experts, first of all, in the United States, whether on the left, center, or the right, there’s a great deal of skepticism. It’s a fantastic story and it’s hard in many respects to believe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because why?

DANIEL BRUMBERG: Well, because here you have to believe that the Iranian government first and foremost would engage in an act that would be an act of war with the United States, in effect. And this would be a kind of recklessness that you don’t find even coming from the Iranian government and the Al-Quds forces.

Apart from the fact that we’re dealing with this used car salesman who apparently was a drunk and a womanizer and a drug user and the rest of it, the story has so many extraordinary aspects to it that the United States is going to have to work very hard to make its case, and also of course not simply to make the case, but to suggest what that case merits in terms of any kind of policy change from the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in terms of that, of course, we heard the president say there are going to be consequences. Now, what kinds of measures are being considered?

DANIEL BRUMBERG: You know, I don’t have an inside track on that particular question, but my sense is, listening to the president in your piece just now and having read through the interviews with a great deal of other administration officials on and off the record, that they’re being very careful about who particularly within the Iranian government they’re going to blame and who they’re going to hold accountable.

And they’re not suggesting that the blame go all the way up to the supreme leader. And it seems to me that in sort of trying to sort of maneuver through this thicket of ambiguity, this strange story, they’re setting the ground for a set of actions which will probably mean things such as enhanced sanctions, things short of the use of military force. That is my sense of this.

So, in that sense, this is going to be an evolution of U.S. foreign policy on Iran, but not a major break or a change in the direction of a military confrontation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we heard, Joby, the State Department spokeswoman say that there had been direct contact.

JOBY WARRICK: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But we didn’t hear any details. Do you know any more about what is going on behind the scenes?

JOBY WARRICK: This is very unusual, because, as you know, we don’t have diplomatic relations with the Iranians.

There was direct contact. It has been very vaguely described, but there was a meeting today at the United Nations in New York involving U.S. and Iranian officials. What the content was, what they actually said to them is — you can kind of guess about, but we don’t know in detail. But it’s interesting they are reaching out to the Iranians to complain about this and to say that there will be consequences.

And on the flip side, the Iranians are saying, you know, we have been attacked. We have had Iranian nuclear scientists killed, and we have been victims of terrorism. So there’s a bit of a back-and-forth going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your sense of how much the administration, how hard they’re working to convince others? Are they worried that they’re not making their case at this point? Is there sort of a scramble, or is this just unfolding the way they expected?

JOBY WARRICK: It’s interesting that they feel a bit handicapped by the strangeness of the story. So going around to people in New York, to other delegations saying, this is what happened, it’s so fantastic, that they’re a little bit worried that people will be skeptical and not believe it.

But we have been talking to some of those delegations, Western European and others, and they take this very seriously. They say the evidence is sound. And maybe this is a galvanizing moment, when we can bring people together and maybe do something we couldn’t do before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about, Dan Brumberg, the isolating factor? Does this further isolate Iran in the world? They’re already isolated, right?

DANIEL BRUMBERG: It does. It is isolated already, and it’s going to make it more difficult for Iran to operate. It’s going to provide further justification for more intense sanctions of different kinds.

I think the real question will be whether the administration will use this plot as a basis for arguing for more punitive measures, including military measures. And I think that our allies, while wanting to support enhanced sanctions and other kinds of measures, really want to make sure that this is not used as a basis for either giving the green light to Israel for an attack on Iran and/or the U.S. itself undertaking that sort of attack, which, of course, would open up a can of worms in the region.

So the administration has to balance this very carefully, get consensus, get support. At the same time, don’t — they have to avoid signaling that this is simply going to open a pathway for a new kind of hawkish approach to Iran.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in the meantime, you hear from Iran denials, of course, and saying…

DANIEL BRUMBERG: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … throwing it back at the U.S. that this is a sign of U.S. weakness.

DANIEL BRUMBERG: Well, you know, the — the Iranian political system is an opaque system. We know that.

But if in fact this has been a rogue operation from some element within the Iranian special forces, Al-Quds forces, what have you, it would suggest a kind of breakdown in the decision-making process which would be quite unprecedented and suggest a falling apart of the Iranian system or a shift that could be very dangerous for Iran and for its neighbors and for the U.S.

So, if indeed this is a rogue operations, Iran’s own leaders have cause for concern. And this may be one reason why they have been speaking with the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, Joby, the investigation is ongoing.

JOBY WARRICK: Yes.

And there’s — the curious elements are just intriguing to people, but I think the real meat of this is going to be what exactly Iran is attempting to do here. If it is behind this, it does smack to some people as desperation they would try something like this. It might suggest division within the government. It might suggest an eagerness to try to retaliate for things that are going over there, for sanctions, for the Stuxnet. So it’s hard to say.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Joby Warrick, Dan Brumberg, thanks. Thanks very much.