There's a Lot That's Hard to Believe in the Iranian Assasination Plot

The U.S. is increasing its isolation of Iran and warning of retaliatory terrorist attacks

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The announcement that U.S. officials had thwarted a plot by Iranian officials to murder Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. and bomb Saudi and Israeli embassies has touched off a firestorm of activity. But it also has a lot of people puzzling over the Obama administration's description of the elaborate Iranian scheme. As CNN's Ben Wedeman tweeted this morning, "Many in the know say the alleged #Iran plot to assassinate Saudi ambassador to US doesn't quite add up. Bad Hollywood script?"

Since the news broke yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden has called for an international campaign to isolate Iran, the Treasury Department has sanctioned the suspects in the case and senior members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, and the State Department has warned Americans around the world of the potential for retaliatory terrorist attacks against U.S. interests. Meanwhile, Iran's U.N. ambassador has denied the allegations and accused the U.S. of "warmongering" and attempting to distract the American public from social and economic troubles at home.

We're also learning more about the two men allegedly behind the plot: the Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar, who was arrested in New York last month and is pictured in a courtroom sketch above, and the Iran-based Gholam Shakuri, a Quds Force member who is still at large. In regards to the 56-year-old Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen and used car salesman from Texas with a criminal record, we're currently seeing several of the shocked-neighbor, we-always-thought-he-was-a-regular-guy articles that typically accompany crime stories. "He's no mastermind," former business partner David Tomscha tells the AP. "I mean, he didn't seem all that political. He was more of a businessman." Mitchel Hamauei, who runs a gyro and kebab restaurant in Corpus Christi, informs CNN, "He was a happy go lucky guy, always joked around." But others disagree. "He wasn't friendly at all," neighbor Eric Cano tells the AP. "He'd just walk and talk in this language I'd never heard of." We imagine it was Persian.

Analysts are also highlighting the most bizarre elements of the alleged plot:

  • Mexican drug connection: A law enforcement official tells The New York Times that Arbabsiar tried to pay members of Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel, $1.5 million to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador at a D.C. restaurant and bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina. The official adds that the plotters also discussed a deal to transport tons of opium from the Middle East to Mexico that never materialized (they were actually speaking with an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, who alerted U.S. officials to the plot). According to The Times, Arbabsiar was detained as he flew to Mexico City to serve as human "collateral" to guarantee that Los Zetas would be paid in full. Time's Tim Padgett says that if the plotters really did reach out to Los Zetas, they were being "pretty dumb." While Los Zetas are "certainly Mexico's most bloodthirsty" cartel, he explains, they "know better than to venture north of the border and invite the kind of U.S. law enforcement heat that a political assassination of this magnitude would have brought on them.
  • Strange Iranian tactics: The Times points out in two articles that Iranian experts find it hard to believe that the Iranian government would "back a brazen murder" and that the Quds Force, which typically focuses on the Middle East and works through proxies, would risk "linking itself so publicly to plotting a terrorist attack on American soil, particularly at a time when Iran faces a high degree of international scrutiny and pressure over its nuclear program" (Iranian-American scholar Rasool Nafisi says the last lethal Iranian operation in the U.S. was the murder of an Iranian dissident in Bethesda, Maryland in 1980). Former CIA operative Robert Baer, for example, has informed Australia's ABC News and CNN that the sloppy plot relayed by the Obama administration doesn't look like the work of the Iranian government or Quds force. U.S. officials, however, are standing by their story and insisting that there is substantial evidence linking the suspects and the money for the plot to the Quds Force. It's still unclear whether top Iranian officials sanctioned the plan-- suggesting a troubling shift in tactics or a mammoth blunder--or whether rogue elements of the military conceived of it--suggesting serious divisions within the Iranian regime.
  • Arbabsiar's behavior: The Justice Department says Arbabsiar has confessed to his role in the plot and provided "extremely valuable intelligence." But his lawyer says he will also plead not guilty. Why would Arbabsiar "cooperate with the feds but then plead not guilty?" asks Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell. 
  • The entire plot: The Atlantic's Max Fisher argues that the plot--in targeting a low-level ambassador, involving Mexican drug cartels, and giving the Americans and Saudis a reason to repair their strained relations--would not advanced Iran's interests. "It's hard to see how they could have possibly decided on a plot like the one that [Attorney General Eric] Holder claimed today," he writes. Fisher's colleague Steve Clemons has an interesting rebuttal explaining why Iran may have thought the plot was a good idea.
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