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The Iran Plot May Be Just That

by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.

15 Oct 2011 23:41Comments

A Plot

iranplotcourt.jpg[ comment ] The bizarre case of Mansour Arbabsiar leaves plenty of room to be skeptical about its true nature. That doesn't mean, however, that analysts and Iran experts are free to concoct missing data points to fill in their own preconceived notions of what must have occurred. As William of Occam might have observed with razor-like precision: Sometimes a plot is just a plot.

The most troubling aspect of the case is the reported involvement of Abdul Reza Shahlai, a commander in the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was named in a Treasury Department sanctions document on October 11. Shahlai, the unnamed "cousin" of Arbabsiar in the original Justice Department charging document, was named along with his boss, Hamed Abdollahi, another IRGC-QF commander, who, according to Treasury, "coordinated aspects of this operation." It was Shahlai, under Abdollahi's direction, who approved up to $5 million for the scheme that was designed first to kidnap, and then to assassinate, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Shahlai, Iraq watchers know, was reputedly the mastermind behind the January 2007 massacre of five American troops in Karbala, Iraq, at the start of the surge ordered that month by President Bush. According to a well-reported story in the Washington Post, Shahlai was the "guiding hand" behind the team of commandos who carried out that operation, under the nominal guise of partisans of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Following that event, the Post reports, "The U.S. military found a 22-page memo that detailed preparations for the operation and tied it to the Quds Force, a branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Treasury officials singled out Shahlai as 'the final approving and coordinating authority' for the Iran-based training of members of Sadr's militia before they went back to Iraq to attack coalition forces."

It isn't clear, yet, what the relationship among Arbabsiar, Shahlai, and Abdollahi is, nor is it clear what the United States knows about Abdollahi's role. Still murkier is the question of how much General Qassem Suleimani, the IRGC-QF commander, knew about his underlings' scheme, or whether he knew anything at all. And, further up the food chain, it gets murkier still. So far, no U.S. official has charged that the overall commander of the IRGC, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, or his superiors, including Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, knew anything about it.

As strange as it may seem, it's entirely possible that the witting participants in a plan that, had it taken place, could have triggered an all-out U.S. attack on Iran's military facilities and nuclear research installations didn't rank very high. That, in part, might explain the staggeringly inept nature of the plot, which involved easily traced transfers of large sums of money to unvetted bank accounts, clumsily disguised, barely coded conversations over open phone lines, and the plotters' reliance on a bungling, pot-smoking Iranian-American businessman with a criminal record. Still, when drugs, guns, and money are involved, participants are not usually members of Mensa. In particular, there have been media reports that Shahlai, Arbabsiar's cousin, was something of a drug-running gangster himself, which could explain why he gravitated to a plan intended to contract the attack on al-Jubeir with Los Zetas, a vastly powerful Mexican mafia organization.

Among the shoot-from-the-hip reactions to the affair are claims that the Obama administration has fabricated or wildly exaggerated some of the claims in its charges against Arbabsiar et al., either for political reasons or to create a pretext for war with Iran. But so far at least, the Obama White House is under little or no pressure from the Republican opposition over Iran. And, in contrast to the Bush administration, which aggressively sought to use manipulated intelligence for its war with Iraq, the Obama administration is seeking to avoid war with Iran, not launch it.

Similarly, those who've suggested that some third-party "hidden hand" was behind the affair, that perhaps Arbabsiar was a witting or unwitting pawn of some spy mastermind that wasn't really in Iran at all, seem akin to the deluded 9/11 Truthers. Perhaps a devastating act of terror in Washington that was blamed on Iran would suit the purposes of those, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who'd like to exacerbate tensions between Washington and Tehran. But there's not a shred of evidence to support the fanciful notion that anyone other than the Iranians were involved.

So far, the precise details of Arbabsiar's relationship to his Iranian colleagues aren't known. The same goes for the nature of Arbabsiar's contacts with the Drug Enforcement Administration informant who pretended to be a Los Zetas operative. In the past, since 9/11, there have been a string of terrorism cases in which FBI moles and informants egged on, inflated, and aggrandized the aspirational hopes of pathetically incapable would-be terrorists. But, in this case, a less-than-brilliant Arbabsiar seems to have been propelled by a coterie of IRGC-QF officials, rather than the other way around. As the Post story, no doubt taken from a U.S. official account, says: "It is unclear how much Shahlai understood about his cousin's life in the United States and if he understood how unlikely it was that a struggling used-car salesman in Corpus Christi, Tex., could successfully orchestrate a high-profile international plot."

Given the fractured nature of Iranian politics today, especially the growing dichotomy between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, it's entirely possible that a subset of the IRGC might decide to act on its own. David Ignatius, a very well informed reporter for the Washington Post, suggests that the Quds Force is "tailor-made for risk takers, score-settlers, and freelancers" who can cooperate with only loose approval, or no approval at all, from higher ups. Certainly, the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- and proxy wars between those powers in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Afghanistan -- could provoke Shahlai, Abdollahi, et al. into trying something as rash as striking back by assassinating al-Jubeir.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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