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Questions over Alleged Islamic Republic Assassination Plot in US

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

12 Oct 2011 05:00Comments
13900720013826_PhotoL.jpgFrom motive to method, elements of purported plan don't readily add up.

[ comment ] On Tuesday afternoon, ABC News reported that agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration had succeeding in disrupting a plot to commit a "significant terrorist act in the United States" tied to Iran. According to the report, the plot aimed to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir (pictured), with a bomb and then to carry out bomb attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C. Bombings of the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian capital, were also supposedly discussed.

The report soon became official when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared in a press conference that the plan was "conceived, sponsored and was directed from Iran" and called it a "flagrant" violation of U.S. and international law. "The U.S. is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions," Holder said, adding that the White House will be meeting with federal agencies before announcing "further action" in regards to Iran. FBI Director Robert Mueller said the arrest of a suspect in the plot demonstrates that the United States will "bring the full weight of law to bear on those responsible," and that any attempts to kill foreign officials "on American soil will not be tolerated."

That one suspect currently under arrest is Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian American who resides in Corpus Christi, Texas. Arbabsiar approached a DEA informant who he thought was a member of the Zetas Mexican drug organization to ask the cartel to carry out the assassination of the Saudi ambassador. Arbabsiar claimed he was being "directed by high-ranking members of the Iranian government," including a cousin who was "a member of the Iranian army but did not wear a uniform," who counter-terrorism officials believe may be part of the Quds force, the special operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Arbabsiar and Gohlam Shakuri, supposedly an Iranian official, were named in a five-count criminal complaint filed Tuesday afternoon in federal court in New York. Shakuri is in Iran. The indictment mentions another Iranian official, but his name has not been revealed.

Iran quickly rejected the claim. Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said, "The false claim for the assassination of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. [by Iranian agents] is devoid of any truth." Condemning all terrorist acts, Mehmanparast called the claim a "ridiculous show" that is intended to create divisions, "pursued by the enemies of Islam in the region," with the goal of "helping Israel to exit from its present isolation."

The question now is: Can the claim possibly be true?

Before addressing the question, let me first emphasize that there is almost nothing that the Tehran hardliners might do that could surprise me. This perspective is based on their long track record, both within and outside Iran. Therefore, if the claim turns out to be true -- if it is shown that Iranian agents did want to carry out the alleged plot -- I would not be deeply surprised.

Having said that, however, I must state that at this point, I am highly skeptical about the entire episode. In fact, the more I learn about the claim and the indictment, the more I think this may be a classic case of entrapment on the part of the FBI/DEA agents, of the kind that has happened too many times in the past in the United States to be ignored.

But let us analyze the claim carefully to see whether it is plausible at all. Hence, for the sake of argument, let us assume that the claim is true. The question is, What would the hardliners have gained, had they succeeded? As I see it, nothing but more trouble and intense international pressure, not to mention the further wrath of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

One may argue that such a line of thinking assumes that the hardliners are rational people, and what have done in Iran indicates that they are not. But, in fact, despite its repressive domestic policy, when it comes to dealing with the outside world, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has followed a pragmatic approach, based first and foremost on protecting itself from external physical attacks, and then on expanding its influence when and where possible. We can see this from how it dealt with and received weapons from Israel in the 1980s during the notorious Iran-Contra affair, from the pragmatic way it sat out the conflict when the U.S. and its allies attacked Iraq to expel it from Kuwait in 1990 (despite many internal voices demanding that Iran assist Saddam Hussein's regime against the Western forces), from its arming of the Bosnian Muslims with U.S. consent during the war with the Serbs, and from the significant assistance it provided to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Based on a purely cost-benefit analysis, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the IRI could have benefited from such a plot as is alleged. At a time when (a) international pressure on Iran is mounting in response to its gross human rights violations, (b) the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran are showing signs of working, (c) the IRI is deeply worried about the fate of its strategic partner in Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad, (d) tensions with Turkey are increasing over its hostile policy toward the Assad regime, and (e) a fierce power struggle is underway within Iran between the supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is essentially impossible to believe that the IRI would act in such a way as to open a major new front against itself.

Moreover, although the IRI has carried out assassination operations beyond Iranian borders, some of which I have described here and here, they targeted Iranian dissidents, not foreign diplomats. Even at the height of the assassination wave, the IRI did not go after non-Iranians. It is keenly aware that it is under the American microscope. It is thus hard to believe that the IRI would actually embark on such a useless assassination involving a low-level, non-player individual, dealing with people that they do not know.

Furthermore, the IRI ended its foreign assassinations in the mid-1990s. And, with a single exception more than 30 years ago, the IRI avoided carrying out any such plots on U.S. soil. The first and last such act occurred in July 1980, when Ali Tabatabaei was murdered at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, by Dawud Salahuddin, an American sympathetic to the 1979 Revolution. Tabatabaei, press attaché in the Iranian Embassy in the United States under the Shah, had joined the opposition after the Revolution. Salahuddin, who was paid $5,000 to kill Tabatabaei, currently lives in Iran.

One may argue that the targets of the operation were Saudi Arabia and Israel. But this seems even more absurd. If the IRI really intends to harm Saudi Arabia, due to the increasing tension with the Riyadh government, why should it try to do it here in the United States and in Washington? Why not attack the Saudis embassies in, for example, chaotic locations in the Middle East, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen? Why not carry out a sabotage operation against Saudi Arabia's oil fields in the eastern part of the country, where the Shia population is centered? That would increase the price of oil dramatically, which would benefit the IRI and hurt the fragile economies of the West. Aside from all such considerations, assassinating Saudi Arabia's ambassador just when the annual Haj pilgrimage is approaching makes no sense.

As for attacking the Israeli Embassy in Washington, that appears even more absurd, given the extent of the fortification and security measures that protect it. Would it not be easier, for example, to agitate a crowd in Egypt, Jordan, or Turkey to attack Israel's embassies there, rather than in Washington? It just happened in Egypt.

There are also other considerations. First, the indictment refers to Shakuri as an "Iranian official." I could not find any information on this "official," nor have I ever heard of him. Second, it would be only a minor exaggeration, if at all, to say that every Iranian who enters the United States is viewed suspiciously. Even grandmothers and grandfathers are finger-printed when they arrive here. Every time that I -- a U.S. citizen, academic, and a highly public person -- travel abroad, I am questioned and grilled thoroughly when I return home. So, how was it possible for Arbabsiar -- supposedly connected to the Quds force -- to repeatedly cross the border between the United States and Mexico without raising any suspicions? Have there not been mandatory passport scans at the Mexican border for several years now? That should have created a database of all the border crossings. A Revolutionary Guard operative, supposedly involved in such a plot, would surely not risk raising suspicion by repeated trips to Mexico coupled with travel to Iran. Call the Guard officers and operatives anything you want, but they have proven to be shrewd and smart. Despite years of work and numerous claims, the United States has not been able to trace Iran's fingerprint in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, or in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia.

There is a small chance that some rogue elements in the Revolutionary Guards decided to carry out such a plot. There is precedence for such an operation. During Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's second term as president, rogue elements of the Ministry of Intelligence led by Saeed Emami -- leader of the gang that assassinated numerous dissidents in what is now known as the infamous Chain Murders -- tried to smuggle missiles out of Iran to Brussels to attack the NATO headquarters. The plot was discovered, and Rafsanjani later acknowledged it. Its discovery set back relations between Iran and the European Union for several years.

Given the power struggle pitting Khamenei and his supporters against Ahmadinejad and his camp, and given the extreme hostility that some former Ahmadinejad supporters have toward him and their fear that he might be able to establish some form of diplomatic relations with the United States, the possibility of such a rogue operation cannot be discarded. But the indictment against Arbabsiar and Shakuri claims that they are members of the Quds force, and given the discipline that the Quds force has demonstrated in its operations throughout the Middle East, I still find it difficult to believe that they would embark on what seems to be a useless, dangerous, and relatively easy-to-discover operation.

Thus, at this point, I find the claim that the IRI was involved in the plot highly unlikely. The more information that becomes available, the more it appears like a frame-up of Mansour Arbabsiar, a classic case of entrapment. But, once again, there is nothing the IRI might do that would surprise me.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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