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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

America's Most Exotic Presidential Pets

From alligators to bears, the White House has been home to some unusual presidential pets over the years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs