Terror plot—or fantasy?

Did Iran really plan to kill the Saudi ambassador?

Terror plot—or fantasy?

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a baffling plot that strains the credulity even of those deeply familiar with Iran’s capacity for murder and intrigue.

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department said it had disrupted an Iranian plan to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir. Several options were supposedly discussed, including a restaurant bombing that likely would have killed many innocent bystanders.

The U.S. has charged two individuals with the alleged plot. One, Gholam Shakuri, is a suspected member of the Quds Force, a wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for operations—including terrorism and assassination—outside Iran. The second, Mansour Arbabsiar, is an Iranian-born American citizen who, over the past three decades, has failed at a variety of business ventures selling everything from used cars to horses, gyros and ice cream. He’s been sued, chased by angry creditors, and charged with theft. Friends say he’d often forget keys and cellphones, and that his socks didn’t always match.

Arbabsiar, according to U.S. prosecutors, was enrolled in the scheme by his Iranian cousin, a member of the Quds Force, who put him in touch with Shakuri. Arbabsiar then allegedly enlisted a man he thought was a member of a Mexican drug cartel to do the dirty work of actually killing the Saudi ambassador. Arbabsiar allegedly promised him US$1.5 million for the job and had wired a down payment of US$100,000. The hit man turned out to be a U.S. informant, which is how the plot was broken up.

“Seriously, I cannot believe it. The story is so bizarre,” says Saeed Rahnema, a political science professor at York University, before recalling some of the dozens of assassinations Iran has committed over the last 30 years. “This is a criminal regime. They have never hesitated in doing these things before. They killed [Shapour] Bakhtiar, the last prime minister, so brutally. They killed several generals and many intellectuals. But I really don’t understand this.

“They are much more capable. It’s a big killing machine. Why would they try to bring in Mexican drug dealers? Why would Mexican drug dealers jeopardize their status with the Americans? They want to avoid Americans as much as possible so they can have their own lucrative trade. For a million and a half? A million and a half could be big money for ordinary people, but not for drug cartels. I don’t know if the Iranian regime is this stupid. They’re criminals, but not stupid.”

FBI director Robert Mueller admitted the alleged plot read “like the pages of a Hollywood script.” But the 21-page complaint signed by FBI Special Agent O. Robert Woloszyn suggests the case will rest on at least some solid evidence. Most importantly, Arbabsiar has confessed and appears to be co-operating. At one point in the investigation, he was shown seven photographs, two of which were of people known to the United States to be senior members of the Quds Force. Arbabsiar, according to the complaint, identified one of them as an Iranian official he met with while plotting the assassination. He knew the individual by an alias familiar to the U.S. There is also the money transfer and numerous secretly recorded conversations and phone calls.

“I think we have here very credible accusations,” says Patrick Clawson, director of the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It would be absolutely the pattern that Iran has used in past situations when it was furious at the actions of another government and wanted to influence those actions [and would] turn to terrorism.”

Iran is angry at Saudi Arabia for sending troops to intervene on the side of Bahrain’s king and government against civilian protesters earlier this year, notes Clawson. He says Iran might have wanted to show Saudi Arabia that it would pay a high price for similar actions in the future.

The United States makes extensive use of informants and undercover agents in its counterterrorism efforts—a strategy that has led to accusations of entrapment when it seems that those secretly working for law enforcement agencies nudged plots along. But Clawson says there is no evidence of that here. When the informant pointed out that killing the Saudi ambassador in a crowded restaurant would result in many more deaths, Arbabsiar responded: “They want that guy done. If the hundred go with him, f–k ’em.”

An Iranian assassination of the Saudi ambassador would have been a blow in what is already an ongoing, if undeclared, war between the two countries seen to champion different strands of Islam in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni, and Iran Shia.

“Iran and Saudi Arabia are in a very intense struggle over influence in the region,” says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future. “The Arab Spring has opened up new areas of competition for them—Syria, Bahrain. They’re fighting in support of different factions in Lebanon. In these countries, there is either a very clear or an implied Sunni-Shia conflict. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have equity. The scope of their confrontation has expanded. It’s sort of a high stakes game.”

The stakes were high even before popular uprisings swept the Middle East earlier this year. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables reveal that Saudi King Abdullah repeatedly urged the United States to launch military strikes against Iran to end its nuclear program and “cut off the head of the snake.”

“So you can see that the Iranians would want to shoot an arrow across the Saudi bow and send a powerful signal,” says Nasr, also a professor of politics at the Fletcher School of Tuft’s University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But Nasr, too, has doubts about the alleged plot. “There is a lot about this case that is questionable. The modus operandi is not in keeping with the way in which the Iranians have behaved. Both the Quds and Iranian intelligence are fairly sophisticated organizations. Iran has access to operatives in Latin America through Hezbollah. They don’t need a used car salesman to get in touch with Mexican cartels. There’s something missing from this picture.”

Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian scholar in the United States and co-author of The Rise of the Pasdaran, a book about Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is also dubious. Previous assassinations—such as those of Iranian dissidents during the 1990s—were often detailed and well-executed operations. This plan appears to have been amateurish in comparison. He also questions why Iran would strike at Saudi Arabia on American soil, knowing that such a move might provoke an American attack. “Iran is already very isolated and in a lot of trouble, and does not want to invite more trouble at the moment,” he says.

And yet alternative explanations for the apparent assassination attempt are unconvincing. The Quds Force is tightly controlled; it’s unlikely that “rogue elements” within the organization could have planned the attack. It doesn’t appear that Arbabsiar was entrapped. The idea that the United States cooked up the plot on its own to justify an attack on Iran is far-fetched and without evidence. Suggestions that Israel, Saudi Arabia, or some other internal enemy of Iran might be responsible are speculative.

“People who say this is not really the way Iran operates because they prefer to go with the A-team, or they like to work with Hezbollah, that seems way too in-the-box thinking, to me. It’s an overly narrow view. It assumes that their tactics are always going to stay the same,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Their strategy has been pretty aggressive for a long time. They are more than happy to kill a lot of people, including a lot of innocent people who mean them no malice at all, in the interests of pursuing a pretty ambitious agenda of trying to make our current foreign policy too painful for us; trying to hit at or hurt Israel just for the sake of anger at Israel; and trying to destabilize Sunni regimes in the region for the sake of making themselves the remaining strongest power as others get weakened by the kind of chaos they produce through assassination and terrorism.

“That’s been their overall grand strategy, such as it is, for 30 years. So why should I presume that their tactics are always going to be gentlemanly or consistent with what they’ve been in the past?”

Iran has previously committed murder in the United States. In 1980, it recruited an American convert to Islam, Dawud Salahuddin, to assassinate Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabaei at his Bethesda, Md., home. It killed and kidnapped Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, including being behind an attack on a Marines barracks that killed 241 military personnel. And it continues to target American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Its foreign policy is not timid. In 2008, Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force, sent a swaggering text message through an Iraqi intermediary to David Petraeus, then a four-star American general with a messy insurgency on his hands. It read: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.”

It’s possible Suleimani, still the Quds Force commander, believes Iran could handle any American response to an Iranian act of terror. Even large-scale retaliation might not damage Iran too much, says O’Hanlon, because it would weaken American efforts to build international consensus against Iran. China and Russia don’t like anti-Iranian sanctions and would seek any excuse to eliminate them, he says. “If it looks like we’ve reciprocated or even escalated, they will feel that sanctions are less necessary because we’ve already punished Iran, and maybe things can be left at that.”

And Tehran has the means to respond to any American strikes. “If they start bombarding Iran, the Iranian regime would not stand still to be bombarded,” says Rahnema. “They would start using the levers that they have—here and there, in Afghanistan, in Iraq particularly, in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories.”

But would Iran risk expanding its confrontation with the United States in such a fashion? Would it risk further isolation, military strikes, an attack on its nuclear program? The plot seems foolishly reckless. But O’Hanlon says it reflects Iran’s long-standing willingness to take “pretty big” gambles. “The bottom line is, they’ve done a lot of nasty things before in the last 30 years, and their regime has never been threatened as a result, except briefly by Saddam Hussein [in the Iran-Iraq war]. So they know they’re likely to get away with it.”

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