The unbelievable terror plot

Nicole Colson reports on the dubious allegations of an Iranian terror plot aimed at the U.S. and a Saudi official--and how the U.S. will try to use it to a political advantage.

Eric Holder discusses the alleged terror plot connected to Iran at a press conferenceEric Holder discusses the alleged terror plot connected to Iran at a press conference

IT SOUNDS like something out of a really bad movie: A conspiracy involving Iranian officials plotting to murder Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, organized by an Iranian-American used-car salesman who believed he was hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel gang for $1.5 million. And to top it off, the conspirators planned to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina.

But U.S. officials are trying to sell it as reality.

According to Attorney General Eric Holder, the supposed plot was "directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds Force"--an elite section of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Announcing the plot at a press conference last week, Holder announced that "high-up officials in those agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot."

To say that all this beggars belief is an understatement. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote:

The most difficult challenge in writing about the Iranian Terror Plot unveiled yesterday is to take it seriously enough to analyze it. Iranian Muslims in the Quds Force sending marauding bands of Mexican drug cartel assassins onto sacred American soil to commit Terrorism--against Saudi Arabia and possibly Israel--is what Bill Kristol and John Bolton would feverishly dream up while dropping acid and madly cackling at the possibility that they could get someone to believe it.

Reportedly, a Drug Enforcement Agency informant with ties to the Los Zetas drug gang told agents that he had been asked by Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian man in Texas, to carry out terrorist attacks inside the U.S. Arbabsiar's cousin, Gholam Shakuri, is being called "an Iran-based member of Iran's Quds Force" by the government and was supposedly involved in the plot as well, although he has yet to be arrested.

Over a span of two months, the informant--under the direction of U.S. officials--reportedly worked out a deal with Arbabsiar under which Arbabsiar would pay $1.5 million to the Los Zetas gang to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Arbabsiar is alleged to have wired approximately $100,000 to the informant's bank account as a "down payment." He was arrested on September 29.

According to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, "For the entire operation, the government's confidential sources were monitored and guided by federal law enforcement agents." Bharara also noted that "no explosives were actually ever placed anywhere, and no one was actually ever in any danger."

In other words, this seems to be yet another case of the luring people into participating in "terrorist plots."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ARBABSIAR IS a failed used car salesman living in Corpus Christi, Texas. His friends and acquaintances are having a hard time seeing as a terrorist "mastermind."

According to a profile in the San Antonio Express-News:

A long-time associate and former business partner of Manssor Arbabsiar said the terror suspect had owned a string of used-car and other businesses in the Corpus Christi area, but if anything seemed absentminded and shifty.

"He was pretty disorganized, always losing things like keys, titles, probably a thousand cell phones," said David Tomscha, an Aransas Pass businessman who ran a used-car lot with Arbabsiar. "He wasn't meticulous with taking care of things."

Tomscha said that if the allegations were true, Arbabsiar must have been driven by "easy, squeezy" money rather than religious or political zealotry.

"He never spoke ill of the United States," Tomscha said. "I always thought he liked it here, because he could make money. He loved to make money."

Another decades-long acquaintance of Arbabsiar, Tom Hosseini, said the idea that Arbabsiar was a Muslim fanatic--or even motivated by religion at all--was a farce. Friends say Arbabsiar's nickname is "Jack," due to the amount of Jack Daniels he drank. "He couldn't even pray, doesn't know how to fast," Hosseini said. "He used to drink, smoke pot, go with the prostitutes...His first wife left him because he would lose his keys every other day...This guy is not a mastermind."

"Are we to believe that this Texas car seller was a Quds sleeper agent for many years resident in the U.S.? Ridiculous," wrote Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service in a post on the Internet. Katzman, who has studied Iran's Revolutionary Guard, added, "They (the Iranian command system) never ever use such has-beens or loosely connected people for sensitive plots such as this."

Arbasiar isn't the only suspicious thing about the so-called terrorist plot. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, "Iran specialists who have followed the Islamic Republic for years say that many details in the alleged plot just don't add up."

For one thing, there appears to be no rational political motive for Iranian officials to sponsor such an act of terrorism. "This [plot] doesn't seem to serve Iran's interests in any conceivable way," Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corp, told the Christian Science Monitor. "Assassinating the Saudi ambassador would increase international pressure against Iran, could be considered an act of war...by Saudi Arabia, it could really destabilize the government in Iran; and this is a political system that is interested in its own survival."

"This plot, if true, departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures," Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University and principal White House aide during the 1979 Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, wrote in a posting on the Internet.

Sick added that "it is difficult to believe that they would rely on a non-Islamic criminal gang to carry out this most sensitive of all possible missions"--and questioned why Iranian officials, if they had sponsored such a plan, would rely on Mexican drug gangs, which are known to be heavily monitored and infiltrated by U.S. police agencies.

"It's so outside their normal track of activity," an anonymous senior law enforcement official who had been involved in the investigation told the New York Times. "It's a rogue plan or they're using very different tactics. We just don't know."

But in an interview with the Associated Press, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to sell the doubts about the plot as some kind of proof in itself. "The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador--nobody could make that up, right?" she asked.

She added that the supposed plot "crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for."

Already, the Treasury Department has announced sanctions against five Iranians, including four members of the Quds Force. Barack Obama and Joe Biden both made a point of publicly declaring last week that the U.S. would call for the "toughest sanctions" against Iran, saying that all options--including, presumably, military strikes--were on the table. Obama also downplayed the doubts about the case, saying, "We would not be bringing forward a case unless we knew exactly how to support all the allegations that are contained in the indictment."

U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Great Britain, rushed to denounce Iran for its supposed "sponsorship of terrorism."

As Middle East expert Juan Cole wrote, "That anyone in the [Department of Justice] or the U.S. foreign policy establishment would take all this seriously is not plausible. I conclude that they are being dishonest, and that this is Obama's turn to wag the dog as he faces defeat at Romney's well-manicured hands next year this time."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHETHER OR not the far-fetched plot has any grounding in reality, it's utterly hypocritical for the Obama administration to condemn the Iranian government for allegedly planning to assassinate a foreign national.

As Los Angeles Times editorial editor Nicholas Goldberg wrote in an op-ed:

Two weeks ago, the United States assassinated one of its enemies in Yemen, on Yemeni soil. If the U.S. believes it has the right to assassinate enemies like Anwar Awlaki anywhere in the world in the name of a "war on terror" that has no geographical limitation, how can it then argue that other nations don't have a similar right to track down their enemies and kill them wherever they're found?...

Much of the mainstream media, however, was entirely uncritical of the Feds--both about the sketchy details and the hysterical denunciations of Iran.

Self-described terrorism experts were quick to weigh in on Iran's "threat." National Security Expert Robert Chesney called the supposed plot "very scary," while Atlantic writer Steve Clemons wrote that if the accusations are true, "the U.S. has reached a point where it must take action"--and that "this is time for a significant strategic response to the Iran challenge in the Middle East and globally"

As Greenwald commented:

The ironies here are so self-evident it's hard to work up the energy to point them out. Outside of Pentagon reporters, Washington Post Editorial Page Editors and Brookings "scholars," is there a person on the planet anywhere who can listen with a straight face as drone-addicted U.S. government officials righteously condemn the evil, illegal act of entering another country to commit an assassination? Does anyone, for instance, have any interest in finding out who is responsible for the spate of serial murders aimed at Iran's nuclear scientists? Wouldn't people professing to be so outraged by the idea of entering another country to engage in assassination be eager to get to the bottom of that?

Then there's the War on Terror irony: our Hated Enemy here (Iran) is a country which had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. Meanwhile, our close ally, the victim on whose behalf we are so outraged (Saudi Arabia), is not only one of the most tyrannical and aggressive regimes on the planet, but produced 15 of the 19 hijackers and had extensive and still-unknown involvement in that attack. If the U.S. is so deeply offended by the involvement of a foreign government in an attack on U.S. soil, it would be looking first to its close friend Saudi Arabia, where "elements of the government" were likely involved in an actual plot, rather than a joke of a plot.

But even those who accept the alleged conspiracy at face value can see that the U.S. will exploit this situation to ratchet up the pressure on Iran.

According to the Washington Post's David Ignatius, "Iran has handed the United States an opportunity to undermine Tehran at a moment when U.S. officials believe the Iranian regime is especially vulnerable."

One anonymous White House official described to Ignatius what the U.S. aims to get out of the fallout from the plot: "We see this as a chance to go out to capitals around the world and talk to allies and partners about what the Iranians tried to do," the official said. "We're not going to tolerate targeting a diplomat in Washington. We're going to try to use this to isolate them to the maximum extent possible."