Is Iran’s Alleged Cash-for-Assassinations Plot Too Implausible to Be True?

Today, US Attorney General Eric Holder reported that an FBI-DEA action, “Operation Red Coalition,” has successfully prevented a campaign of Iranian terrorist attacks in the US and Argentina. Attorney General Holder and law enforcement personnel all assert that the operations were approved at highest levels of the Iranian government, but refer to “factions of the Iranian government” rather than “the Iranian government” as being responsible. Despite the saber-rattling, it appears that the US government does not want to completely assign blame for the attack on Iran’s top leadership.

A criminal complaint has been filed, based off of an FBI affidavit presented to a New York judge, charging five Iranians, including several Iranian-Americans, with plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel Al-Jubeir. They are also suspected of seeking to bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in both DC and Buenos Aires.

Purportedly undertaken in the spring with the blessing of high-level Iranian officials, an Iranian-American naturalized citizen named Mansour Arbabsiar approached a DEA informant (referred to only as “CS-1″) masquerading as a member of “Drug Cartel #1,” which ABC reports is probably the Mexican-based Los Zetas Cartel. As to why Mansour approached cartels, he is said to have been ordered to by his superiors “because people in that business are willing to undertake criminal activity in exchange for money.”

US media reports that Mansour also promised CS-1 to supply his/her cartel with “tons of opium” as part of their deal, though this has not been mentioned in any of the papers made public by the Justice Department.

CS-1 is described as “a paid confidential source” who, in exchange for having unspecified State Department charges dropped against him/her, agreed to become a mole for the DEA. The report discloses that CS-1 is on federal payrolls and is regarded as a “reliable” source of intelligence, and that some of the exchanges between Mansour took place in Mexico. The DEA’s informant policies are extremely well-kept secrets, and also very expensive and controversial. And like the FBI’s informant programs that have exposed numerous alleged terrorist plots, this plot was, apparently, held together by the informant, who presented himself as an explosives expert and promised to deliver C-4 for the operation.

Working through Mansour, the group in Iran was said to have sent US$100,000 (obtained from the Iranian government) to CS-1 as a “down payment” on a US$1.5 million assassination contract. When CS-1 suggested that an attack on the ambassador in a restaurant would also kill US civilians, Mansour replied that “sometime [sic], you know, you have no choice,” a point that US officials have (somewhat hypocritically, as Glenn Greenwald points out, given our “collateral damage” record overseas) reiterated time and again to try and demonstrate that the Iranians are somehow unbalanced psychopaths.

Regarding this portrayal, one is reminded of how in the late 1980s Batman comic series “A Death in the Family,” the writers were able to end the storyline where the Joker — yes, the Joker –became the Iranian ambassador to the UN (in order to kill UN ambassadors, of course!). You see, the Iranians are crazy, and so’s the Joker! Batman and Superman, of course, stop him (kind of), just as the DEA and FBI stopped the Quds Force (kind of).

The complaint asserts that one of the alleged plotters, Gholam Shakuri, is a colonel in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), specifically in the Quds Force, an arm of the IRGC the US designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2007. Mansour also made allusions to CS-1 that he also had a “high-ranking” cousin in the Quds Forces, “a general” with covert ops experience in Iraq “wanted” by the US. Gholam is said to be this man’s deputy. Other Quds Force members were also involved and allegedly identified by Mansour, though the US government refuses to publicly disclose specific information about such individuals.

Mansour was recently arrested at JFK airport and, according to the complaint, waived his Miranda rights to give interviews to US authorities, which form the basis of the testimony in addition to statements by CS-1.

The allegations of this plot surface at a very tense time in US-Iranian relations. With a presidential election approaching, candidates are grandstanding to “show” their “toughness” towards Iran. The IRGC is being accused of having a hand in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain’s civil conflicts, the later two of which Saudi Arabia has intervened in, partly in the name of “containing” Iran. Furthermore, US politicians and media outlets are increasingly questioning Iran’s alleged ties to al Qaeda, support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and the progress of Tehran’s nuclear program. The Israeli government is also rattling sabers over the program, which the last US National Intellignece Estimate on concluded Iran is years away from producing nuclear weapons.

The announcement also comes at a tense time for Attorney General Holder, who has recently come under fire over the failure of a US government gun-running program involving Mexican cartels called Operation Fast and Furious. Undoubtedly, Operation Red Coalition will boost his standing among members of Congress. Whether it deters them from their investigation of his part in Operation Fast and Furious is another thing entirely. Even with the arrest of Mansour, we can likely expect to see more complaints from US politicians that the Obama Administration is “undermining” US security by being “weak” in the face of Iran.

Secretary of State Clinton told reporters that this plot “crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for.” Attempting to perhaps inject a bit of levity into what is, by any standards, an outlandishly roundabout, Blofeld-esque plot, said in a press conference that “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?”

The Iranian government has not tried to make light of the incident, though. They have refuted the allegations, accussing the US of running “a comedy show” and of trying to drive a wedge between Riyadh and Tehran (as though there wasn’t one a mile thick already). Saudi Arabia will be recalling its ambassador to Iran, Reuters reported.

The Cable reports that executive branch departments are “developing new measures against the Iranian government that are to be announced ‘within hours,’” including new international sanctions. Members of Congress are reported to be pushing for a new round of sanctions against Iran as well.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.