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Is Iran’s Regime Capable of Attacks Inside U.S.?

October 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that Iran is behind a terror plot in the U.S. that targeted Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington and possibly two embassies. Jeffrey Brown discusses the alleged scheme and the Iranian political landscape with The New York Times' Charles Savage and Stanford University's Abbas Milani.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The country’s top law enforcement officials accused Iran today of fomenting a terror plot inside the U.S. — the targets, the ambassador to Washington from Saudi Arabia and possibly two embassies.

The announcement came from Attorney General Eric Holder. Two men have been charged, both of Iranian background. Manssor Arbabsiar was arrested last month at New York’s Kennedy International Airport. He’s a naturalized U.S. citizen who also holds an Iranian passport. The other, Gholam Shakuri, is a member of the Quds Force, the special operations unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He remains at large.

The men are accused of plotting to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. U.S. officials said they also talked of trying to bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C. According to the complaint, no one, including the ambassador, was ever in any immediate danger.

Attorney General Holder said today there is no question where the plot originated.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. attorney general: The complaint alleges that this conspiracy was conceived, was sponsored, and was directed from Iran, and constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, including a convention that explicitly protects diplomats from being harmed. In addition to holding these individual conspirators accountable for their alleged role in this plot, the United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Holder stopped short of saying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or others in the upper echelons of his government were involved, and Iran denied any role. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the U.S. is now preparing further penalties against Iran.

Elements of the plot read, in the words of FBI Director Robert Mueller himself, like a Hollywood script. The planners are alleged to have engaged in a murder-for-hire scheme with members of a Mexican drug cartel, who turned out to be sources of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Joining us now with more, Charles Savage, domestic correspondent for The New York Times, and Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University.

Charlie Savage, fill in the picture a bit. What’s known about these two men and how they intended to assassinate the Saudi ambassador?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Well, so there are two men charged today. One is at large. He remains in Iran.

The other who you mentioned was arrested at JFK Airport as he was attempting to fly from Mexico City back overseas late last month is a naturalized American citizen. He had been living in Corpus Christi, Texas, working as a used car salesman. And apparently, this spring, his cousin, who is a member of the Quds Force, supposedly, approached him and asked him to recruit a Mexican drug dealer who could both kidnap, which was the plot at the time, later evolving to assassinate, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and who also might be able to open a side deal in narcotics with the Quds Force for multiple tons of opium, supposedly.

JEFFREY BROWN: So they went to talk to what they thought were Mexican drug cartel people and then it became something of a sting operation?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, this is a little bit hazy. The agencies tend to be cloudy about these things, for obvious reasons.

But it seems like they’re — the guy he thought was a member of Los Zetas, which is the most hyper-violent of the Mexican cartels, did in fact have ties to senior leaders of that cartel, though he may himself may not have been a member. There’s something strange about this, where the defendant supposedly knew of him through his aunt, who was a friend of his in Corpus Christi.

The whole thing has a certain element of bizarreness along with its provocativeness. And a lot of national security analysts are puzzling still about whether this was, in fact, an Iranian government operation. Was it a rogue operation by some handful of members of the Quds Force or what? What is this?

JEFFREY BROWN: But officials have said that nobody ever — there was — this never got close to being put into practice.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: That’s right, because the guy that he approached who he thought was a member of the Zetas was in fact an informant for the DEA, you know, to inform on cartel issues.

And he came to the DEA, and he said this Iranian guy is wanting to hire me and my organization to carry out some attacks inside the United States. And they had him start recording those conversations, both in personal meetings and in telephone calls. And as the plot unfolded and $100,000 as a down payment was wired to him, the FBI and the DEA were watching it every step of the way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, Abbas Milani, while everyone is trying to figure out the Iranian connection here, remind us first, what is the Quds Force and why would they be out to get a Saudi Arabian ambassador?

ABBAS MILANI, Stanford University: Well, the Quds Brigade is a very small, elite unit of the IRGC, or the Revolutionary Guards, which are now the most important political and economic force in Iran.

I think they’re the virtual rulers of Iran. Within them, there is this shadowy organization called the Quds Brigade. It takes its name from the city of Jerusalem, which in Arabic is called Quds. They have been alleged to be involved, and in many cases it has been proven to be involved in all kinds of assassination attempts.

They are the group that radically, fundamentally organized Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example. It was groups from the Quds Brigade that went there. They’re very powerful in Iraq. There are many stories of them engaging in arming Iraqi insurgents. In Afghanistan, they have been involved. They’re also the group that was alleged to have been involved in the attempt to — and the absolute bombing of the synagogue in Buenos Aires.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the attorney general, Holder, as we said, didn’t want to point fingers directly at Iranian leaders. It was a little unclear exactly how far he was pushing this. Who controls the Quds Brigade? Who pulls the strings for what it does?

ABBAS MILANI: Well, the commander of the Quds Brigade is a man of about 50. His name is Suleimani. He has appeared from the cold and essentially recently because there was a Guardian article about him, alleging that he was really the second most powerful man in Iraq.

They alleged that they – Gen. Petraeus landed in Baghdad, he got a text message on his phone from this man saying that: I’m the boss here. If you want to do business here, you have to see me.

And, from then on, he has been more apparent. And they brought him out and they had him give kind of a security overview to the council of experts that met two months ago. But, ultimately, the Quds Brigade is commanded by Khamenei, who is the commander in chief. He appoints the commanders of the IRGC and commanders at the level of Mr. Suleimani.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Charlie Savage, let me bring you back in here because the attorney general talked about the U.S. holding Iran accountable for this.

Do we know what that means exactly, what kinds of sanctions or penalties are being thought about?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, of course, the Quds Force itself has already been designated a terrorist organization, which makes it illegal to do business with it and so forth.

Back in 2007, that happened. Today, the Treasury Department announced that five specific members — actually, well, five people, four of whom are allegedly senior officials of Quds, were personally designated as terrorists and would, therefore, have their assets frozen if they have money in accounts elsewhere and one cannot do business with them. That’s the first overt sign of something that he may have been referring to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Abbas Milani, back to the Iranian part of this, there have been tensions between the U.S. and Iran for a long time.

Do you — Iran quickly denied any involvement here. So are there questions surrounding this or being raised either in Iran or for you about why Iran would have done this?

ABBAS MILANI: Well, you know, the Iranian regime has committed numerous acts of murder against its opponents, against figures it doesn’t like. It has at least killed 120 opponents in Europe.

In one famous case, it killed the leadership of the Kurdish movement. And in that case, in fact, the German prosecutor went and named Khamenei as the person who ordered the hit. So there have been cases where Khamenei has been personally named in this.

But, right now, when you think about all the problems that the regime is facing in the region, the Quds Brigade incidentally is also the group that is alleged to have been employed in Syria to suppress Syrian democrats. When you think about Syria, when you think about Iran’s increasing tensions with Turkey, with Saudi Arabia, its losing of its position, it now has a popularity of 14 percent amongst the Muslims in the Middle East.

To think that they would dare something like this in the United States, where they have only killed one opponent — and that was 30 years ago — seems rather audacious, but this is a regime that has done crazy things before. If it was — if these were made by other regimes, one would have much more doubts about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Charlie, just briefly, what happens next?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, today, the one defendant who is in custody was — met a judge for the first time and didn’t enter a plea, but his court-appointed lawyer said he will plead not guilty when the time comes for that.

So we will have to see as this case unfolds what other information shakes loose.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Charlie Savage, Abbas Milani, we will watch with you. Thanks for now.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you.

ABBAS MILANI: Thank you.