What if Arbabsiar Was All About the Drugs, Not Terror?

The extent of the skepticism with which the Iran assassination plot has been met from many different quarters may be unprecedented. It parallels the serious coverage by the mainstream media that the Occupy Wall Street movement is being accorded. (If only those who knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction were accorded the same respect.)

Among those taking strolling, instead of rushing, to judgment is the Council on Foreign Relations. It interviewed Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle East affairs for the Congressional Research Service, who, among other things, addresses the question if Iran’s leadership was in on the plot.

The main element that falls apart dramatically is that the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington was supposed to be carried out by Mexican drug cartel members. Iran has never used surrogates with whom they are unfamiliar. Non-Muslim proxy groups are never used. The Iranians have always used very well-known, familiar groups that are operationally trusted, well integrated into the Iranian strategy, like Hezbollah.

Besides

They would see the drug cartels as vulnerable to making a deal with the United States that would lead to the exposure of the plot, which indeed happened here when [Manssor] Arbabsiar thought he was contacting a member of a Mexican drug cartel, who was a double agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Then a rogue element of the Qods force was responsible, right? Not according to Washington officials, reports the Washington Post.

“We do not think it was a rogue operation, in any way,” [an] official said. But he added: “We don’t have specific knowledge that [Quds Force chief Qassem] Suleimani knew about specific” details of the plot.

Besides, according to a more recent Washington Post article, Arbabsiar’s Iranian cousin

… was Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior commander in Iran’s Quds Force, who. … was known as the guiding hand behind an elite group of gunmen from the feared militia of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. They had dressed as American and Iraqi soldiers and, in a convoy of white SUVs, stormed a provincial government building in Karbala on Jan. 20, 2007. Five Americans were killed and three were wounded in the attack, whose brazenness rattled the military.

Returning to the rogue theory, after addressing another reservation of many, Newsweek/the Daily Beast’s Babak Dehghanpisheh offers his view.

So what gives? Why would the Revolutionary Guards, known for running a tight ship, get involved in such a sloppy caper? The answer may have more to do with Iran’s convoluted domestic politics than their relations with Saudi Arabia and the United States. “There is a portion of the Revolutionary Guards who want to create an external crisis so they can consolidate their power and push to unite different groups inside Iran,” says Mohammad Reza Heydari, the former Iranian consul in Norway who defected last year. “Whether the attack was carried out or not it would have the same effect for this group. They want to scare people about an imminent attack from the West.”

Meanwhile, Arbabsiar allegedly asked a woman with whom he was acquainted whether she could introduce him to anyone who “knew explosives.” She connected him with her nephew, who turned out to be an undercover federal informant.

But, at IPS News, Gareth Porter, one of few commentators to have actually read the charges against Manssor Arbabsiar, reports, in the words of the title of his piece, that the FBI Account of “Terror Plot” Suggests Sting Operation.

Although the legal document, called an amended criminal complaint, implicates Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar and his cousin Ali Gholam Shakuri, an officer in the Iranian Quds Force, in a plan to assassinate Saudi Arabian Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, it also suggests that the idea originated with and was strongly pushed by a undercover DEA informant, at the direction of the FBI.

On May 24, when Arbabsiar first met with the DEA informant he thought was part of a Mexican drug cartel, it was not to hire a hit squad to kill the ambassador. Rather, there is reason to believe that the main purpose was to arrange a deal to sell large amounts of opium from Afghanistan.

In the complaint, the closest to a semblance of evidence that Arbabsiar sought help during that first meeting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador is the allegation, attributed to the DEA informant, that Arbabsiar said he was “interested in, among other things, attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia”.

Among the “other things” was almost certainly a deal on heroin controlled by officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Three Bloomberg reporters, citing a “federal law enforcement official”, wrote that Arbabsiar told the DEA informant he represented Iranians who “controlled drug smuggling and could provide tons of opium”.

But the FBI account of the contacts between Arbabsiar and the DEA informant does not reference any discussions of drugs.

Instead it claims (emphasis added)

… that the mission discussed included murdering the ambassador. But … the absence of any statement attributed to Arbabsiar impl[ies] that the Iranian- American said nothing about assassinating the Saudi ambassador except in response to suggestions by the informant, who was already part of an FBI undercover operation.

Another one of the few commentators to have read the criminal complaint, FireDogLake’s Marcy Wheeler writes about its status as “amended,” which, she explains, means

… there’s a previous complaint. But that complaint is not in the docket. Not only is it not in the docket, but the docket starts with the arrest on September 29 … but the numbering starts with the amended complaint (normally … the docket might start with the amended complaint but start with number 8 or something).

Two things might explain this. First, that there was an earlier unrelated complaint — say on drug charges. … Alternately, that Arbabsiar was charged with a bunch of things when he was arrested on September 29, but then, after at least 12 days of cooperation … he was charged with something else and the new complaint incorporated Ali Gholam Shakuri’s involvement. … Both of those scenarios suggest that what we see — the WMD and terror charges — might be totally different charges than what the original complaint included. … In any case, the presence of an original complaint, even putting the docket weirdness aside, makes it pretty likely that Arbabsiar decided to cooperate because of what was in that complaint.

Finally, the National Interest’s Paul Pillar, a former national intelligence officer, writes about how this plot surfaced at an opportune time for President Obama because it enables him to act even tougher on Iran leading up the election.

However sympathetic one might be to the president’s reelection bid, the administration is playing a hazardous game. First, by offering up this kind of red meat, it risks enabling the meat eaters to push the administration into even more dangerous actions toward Iran. Second, it lowers further the possibilities of improving the relationship and reaching deals with Iran. … Third, it risks a big embarrassment and loss of U.S. credibility if further evidence turns up showing that the Iranian leadership was not involved.