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.

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