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FBI and DEA agents have disrupted a plot to commit a "significant terrorist act in the United States" tied to Iran, federal officials told ABC News today.
The officials said the plot included the assassination of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, with a bomb and subsequent bomb attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C. Bombings of the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Buenos Aires, Argentina, were also discussed, according to the U.S. officials.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in an announcement today that the plan was "conceived, sponsored and was directed from Iran" by a faction of the government and called it a "flagrant" violation of U.S. and international law.
Okay, not good. Very bad. And there's no question that the Saudis and the Iranians have had a history of aggression towards the other and that both countries sought to assert dominance and control in the power vacuum created by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the details of this plot have left questions niggling in my brain.
The new case, called Operation Red Coalition, began in May when an Iranian-American from Corpus Christi, Texas, approached a DEA informant seeking the help of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, according to counter-terrorism officials.
The Iranian-American thought he was dealing with a member of the feared Zetas Mexican drug organization, according to agents.
The DEA office in Houston brought in FBI agents as the international terror implications of the case became apparent.
The Iranian-American, identified by federal officials as Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, reportedly 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," according to a person briefed on the details of the case.
So maybe I'm reading this wrong, but this is a naturalized American citizen who claims that he's acting on the behalf of high ranking members of the Iranian government. It's a little far-fetched to call this a slam dunk case of a terrorist state and not the actions of bad players who may or may not be part of a faction of a government of which he's relinquished his citizenship. According to the report, this man wanted to get arms from Mexican drug cartels but was dumb enough to try to make a deal with a US DEA informant. Iran has been reaching out to the Obama administration, so a plot on American soil seems counter-productive. What do they gain?
He also reportedly told the undercover DEA informant that his contacts in the Iranian government could provide "tons of opium" for the Mexican cartels, according to officials who have reviewed the case file.
The Iranian government--the ruling mullahs--can provide 'tons of opium'? The mullahs have taken their usual no mercy stance against drug traffickers. I'm not saying that the Iranian government is all sweetness and light, far from it. They have brutally terrorized their own citizens. It's impossible to not be inundated with anti-Iranian rhetoric in this country, but to risk military action by the US in retribution for a terrorist act on American soil to get back at the Saudis? It doesn't seem like the smartest tactic.
Marcy at Emptywheel has some questions too:
The complaint may suggest they had an entirely different plan. After Arbabsiar was arrested on September 29, the FBI had him call Shakuri on several different occasions–October 4, October 5, and October 7. Claiming to be in Mexico has guarantor for the remaining 1.4 million promised for the hit, Arbabsiar told Shakuri–the complaint describes, “among other things”–that Narc wanted more money. Shakuri refused to give it to him, reminding him that he was himself the guarantee Narc would get paid. Before Abrbabsiar purportedly went to Mexico, Shakuri had warned him not to go.
All this suggests the FBI was after something else–though it’s not clear what. The obvious thing is that they would use Arbabsiar as bait to get first Shakuri and possibly his cousin.
But I also note that the complaint refers to the cousin and the other Quds officer as men Arbabsiar knew to be Quds officers–as if they might be something else.
In any case, this indictment seems like a recruitment gone bad. If so, should we really have told the world we’re using Los Zetas members we flipped to try to recruit Iranian spies?
And Max Fisher of The Atlantic thinks something is fishy too:
But, for all the plausibility that Iran might be willing to blow up a Saudi ambassador, it’s not at all apparent what they would gain from it. Iran has never been shy about sponsoring terrorism, but only when it was within their interests, or at least their perceived interests. It’s hard to see how they could have possibly decided on a plot like the one that Holder claimed today.
What would it really mean for Iran if the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. were killed in a terrorist attack in Washington? The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been bad and getting worse since the start of the Arab Spring, with the Saudi monarchy working increasingly against the democratic movements that the U.S. supports. A senior member of the royal family even threatened to cut off the close U.S.-Saudi relationship if Obama opposed the Palestinian statehood bid, which he did. If the U.S. and Saudi Arabia really broke off their seven-decade, oil-soaked romance, it would be terrific news for Iran.