News / Middle East

Alleged Iranian Plot Prompts Skepticism

An anti-U.S. mural is seen on a wall of a government building in central Tehran, Iran, October 12, 2011.
An anti-U.S. mural is seen on a wall of a government building in central Tehran, Iran, October 12, 2011.
Gary Thomas

The alleged Iranian-backed plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. has sparked skepticism among some veteran Iran watchers.  

Many longtime Iran watchers are puzzled over the alleged Iranian plot to kill Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.  

According to the criminal complaint, Mansour Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Texas, conspired with an Iran-based member of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps to murder the ambassador in Washington. The U.S. says they sought to contract the services of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the hit.

U.S. officials have strongly defended the strength of their case. Iran has stoutly denied it.

Ken Katzman, a veteran Iran analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said the execution of the plot is totally out of character for Iran.

“If the Iranians weren’t totally sure about the ability of their own people to do such a plot in the United States, then they just wouldn’t do it.  They would try to attack the Saudis somewhere else, or they would go elsewhere where they could use their own very trusted people," said Katzman. "They wouldn’t just simply say, we have to carry out this attack in the United States, and we don’t have our own people there so we are going to subcontract to people we are unfamiliar with. That totally just doesn’t add up for those of us who have followed Iranian terrorism for many years.”

Quds Force operatives are known to have killed people outside Iran before, but they usually have been murders of dissidents in Europe and the Middle East. Katzman said, though, the Iranians would not contract out such a sensitive job as murdering an ambassador to an outside group, especially one that is non-Muslim and therefore suspect in Iranian eyes.

But why would the Iranians target the Saudi ambassador, and especially on U.S. soil?

It is true that Iran, a Shi’ite Muslim theocracy, and Saudi Arabia, run by a Saudi hereditary monarchy, have long been at odds. And a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks quotes the Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir as urging the U.S. to attack Iran’s nuclear program.

But, as Charles Faddis, a retired veteran of CIA Middle East operations, said, killing the ambassador in Washington is extraordinarily risky, even foolhardy.

“You know, a target of that profile on U.S. soil - I mean, that’s an act of war and is obviously going to provoke a response. And you have to wonder why they would think that’s in their interest as we’re leaving Iraq and clearly winding down in Afghanistan, and virtually bankrupt," said Faddis. "Everything would tell them that time is on their side. So why come stick their finger in our eye right now? That doesn’t make sense.”

Kamran Bokhari, chief Middle East analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, points out that such a murder in the U.S. capital would drive Washington and Riyadh closer together.

“From the Iranian point of view, the United States and Saudi Arabia are already very tightly aligned. The Iranians are having a hard time dealing with the status quo as is," said Bokhari. "Why would they want to do something that would even pull those two forces together even more tightly? And so it just doesn’t make sense."

From what little that is known, it appears the plan did not get very far. Katzman said the key defendant, Arbabsiar, may have approached Iranian intelligence with a plan that they really had no intention of carrying out.

“He appears to have some relations in the Quds forces, and it’s certainly possible he contacted them and maybe they indulged him and didn’t want to say no, or due to familial relationships or whatever, they perhaps didn’t stop him as vigorously as they should have because of the relationship. But the idea that this was a fully vetted and thought-through plan seems to fall apart to me, to my mind,” he said.

Former CIA operations officer Charles Faddis said the Iranians may have been trying to test a potential intelligence asset and got caught doing so.

“Another thing that strikes me as possible is that this individual was trying basically to con the Iranians - in other words, that he approached them with the idea that he’s going to try to build himself up because he’s frankly desperate for money. And so he’s going to represent that he is capable of things he’s really not capable of," said Faddis. "And then the Iranians take some actions to attempt to flush that out and determine what he is, and is not, capable of, and in the midst of that effort they discover that this whole thing has been under the control of American intelligence and law enforcement from the outset.”

Reports say U.S. officials have traced transfers of nearly $100,000 from Iran to Arbabsiar, which the officials describe as a down payment for the job.

Faddis emphasizes, however, that there are many competing centers of power in Iran, so it also might have been a rogue operation without official sanction.

“You have multiple power centers. So you can clearly have individuals inside whatever we want to call the power structure in Iran who have decided that they want to pursue a much more provocative course of action which the majority would not support. So I think that’s what people are getting at when they talk about rogue elements. So that’s definitely possible,” he said.

But rogue element or not, President Barack Obama said that Iran as a government will be held responsible.

“We believe that even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity,” the president said.

The State Department said the U.S. and Iran have been in “direct contact” over the plot but offered no further details. Washington and Tehran do not have diplomatic relations.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs