Editor’s note: Clare Lopez is a former operations officer for the CIA, and former head of the Iran Policy Committee.
Things have been going fairly well for Iran of late, at least with regard to the Americans. Even though an important legal case (Havlish, et al. v. Islamic Republic of Iran, et al.) had been filed in May 2011 that presented compelling evidence of Iranian support to al-Qa’eda in the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government had obligingly ignored the whole thing. A total of $1.5 million in ransom money had been paid to the regime for the release of three young hikers, shameless ingrates all, who denigrated their homeland the moment they got in front of a microphone. Other conditions of their release were not made public, but certainly exist.
A complete pull-out of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 paves the way for uncontested Iranian hegemony there, while Iranian opposition groups like the MeK (Mujahedeen-e Khalq) and PJAK (The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) that long had found safehaven on the Iraqi side of the border face imminent slaughter. The current American administration, like all the ones that had preceded it, levied some sanctions but wasn’t really making too big a fuss over the Iranians’ nuclear weapons program, which by now was nearly ready to test and deploy in any case. So, despite an internal opposition movement that wouldn’t go away and an economy in the tank, overall, things were coming along rather nicely from the Iranian point of view.
According to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who took time out from attending to congressional subpoenas about his role in the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal to make the announcement on 11 October 2011, the Iranian regime was plotting to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. According to the criminal complaint filed in the Southern District of New York, an absent-minded, unemployed, used car salesman named Manssor Arbabsiar with a predilection for alcohol, pot, and prostitutes, and his Iranian cousin, Gholam Shakuri, planned to assassinate al-Jubeir at a restaurant in Georgetown, WDC. They were going to do this with the assistance of the Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas. Then, after that, they were going to bomb the Israeli and Saudi Embassies in WDC using the plastic explosive C-4.
The first thing that needs to be said is that the Iranian regime is a murderous state sponsor of terror that has dispatched its operatives and proxies across the globe time and again to bomb, kidnap, and kill its enemies, including thousands of Americans, for more than three decades. There is a desperate rivalry for domination of the international jihad movement, or the Islamic Awakening, currently playing out between the Shi’ite Iranians and the Sunni Saudis. The stakes are high: each side hates and fears the other and would do almost anything to gain the advantage. The Iranians in particular field some ruthless and highly-sophisticated operatives belonging to their intelligence service (the MOIS–Ministry of Intelligence and Security) and the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) with its subordinate Qods Force division. Iranian diplomatic facilities worldwide provide cover slots for these operatives, including in Mexico City and at the United Nations. One of the main jobs of the MOIS and Qods Force people who operate out of Iran’s embassies and consulates is liaison with local organized crime and terrorist groups. In North America, this includes the numerous Hizballah cells operating both north and south of the U.S. border with Mexico and the various narcotrafficking cartels, such as Los Zetas, among others. When the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and his National Security Council decide to authorize a terrorist attack, like the Buenos Aires bombings in 1992 and 1994, the order goes out and the local Qods commanders carry out the operation, usually through locally-hired Hizballah and criminal elements.
Los Zetas make perfect bad guys in this scenario because Iranian and Hizballah ties with the Mexican drug cartels have been extensively reported in the open press. Except that Los Zetas, like all the other narcos in Mexico are playing in a deadly multi-billion-dollar-a-year business with no margin for slip-ups. Los Zetas have a presence in dozens of American cities and a relationship with the Iranians and Hizballah. But while their thugs routinely execute contract hits, it’s all about narcotics market share. A piddling 1.5 million dollar assassination job that would set off an international crisis is not remotely in their interests. Nor were any Zetas actually contacted for this one either; why Arbabsiar hadn’t been given better contact information if Los Zetas were the intended subcontractors on this hit is a mystery. In any case, Arbabsiar wound up in contact with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) and FBI, but no Zetas.
Then there was Arbabisar’s accused contact back in Iran: one Gholam Shakuri, identified as Arbabisar’s cousin and a Qods Force official. Except that, according to the criminal complaint filed in the case, Arbabsiar himself never said he was a Qods Force official: he said he was “a big general in the army [not the same thing as the IRGC/Qods Force]” who did plainclothes work abroad, “had been on CNN,” and was “wanted in America.” The FBI agent admits in his affidavit that he merely drew the inference that Shakuri belonged to the Qods Force. Arbabsiar claims that he traveled to Iran and made phone calls to Iran; he actually did receive money wired from somewhere (not Iran).
So, why did the Obama administration go public with this absurd plot at this particular time? As veteran Iran-watcher Michael Ledeen says, it’s baffling…on a number of counts. Aside from the fact that the plot as described makes no sense whatsoever, the biggest critics of it are from inside the Obama administration while those most inclined to take it at face value are in Congress, including Republicans. Perhaps the president decided he had to make a choice about which faction of the Islamic Awakening he was going to support: the Iranian alliance (Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah) or the Muslim Brotherhood one (Egypt-HAMAS-Turkey). Given that the administration has officially recognized and opened talks with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, encouraged Turkey to stack the Syrian opposition Council with Brotherhood players, and openly consorts with the U.S. affiliates of the Ikhwan, that may be it.
The Iranians don’t seem too concerned about it, though: no American administration has ever held them to account for anything they’ve done, from threatening our Israeli ally with genocide, to backing terror proxies who kill Americans, to developing nuclear weapons in contravention of treaty obligations, Security Council resolutions, and assorted sanctions, to perpetrating the most horrific human rights abuses against its own citizens. The mullahs really have no reason to think the Americans would change course now.
It’s still baffling, though.