Terror Plot’s Mystery Link to Iran

Foreign policy expert Cordesman cautions against rushing to conclusion that Iran was involved.

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It was a plot that could have made “the pages of a Hollywood script,” according to FBI Director Robert Mueller. But, like a bad action thriller, there are several holes in the story about an alleged attempt by two Iranians to kill Saudi Arabian Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir. 

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appeared with Mueller to announce a criminal complaint filed Tuesday against two Iranian men, Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized American citizen, and Gholam Shakuri, a member of Iran’s Qods Force, part of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Holder said in a statement released Tuesday that the complaint “exposes a deadly plot directed by factions of the Iranian government to assassinate a foreign ambassador on U.S. soil with explosives.” However, with details on the case still to come, one foreign policy expert cautions against jumping to conclusions about the Iranian government’s role in the plot.

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“We don’t have the full chain of events yet,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst and the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization. “We don’t know how much the Iranian government was really involved.”

The government of Iran released a statement Tuesday denying its connections to the foiled attack, which was meant to occur at or near the Saudi Arabian embassy, according to breaking news reports from CNN. “History has shown both the U.S. government and the CIA have a lot of experience in fabricating these scenarios and this is just the latest one,” said Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, CNN reports. “I think their goal is to reach the American public. They want to take the public’s mind off the serious domestic problems they’re facing these days and scare them with fabricated problems outside the country.”

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Though the state of Iran has appeared to support terrorist activity in the past, the information released so far by the Obama administration doesn’t necessarily imply that there was a direct involvement by the government itself in this case, says Cordesman. The complaint filed Tuesday paints a limited role for Shakuri, the man connected with the Iranian government, in the planning of the assassination. According to the complaint, Arbabsiar, who was arrested by U.S. officials on September 29 at a New York airport, had been working with a DEA informant in Mexico to orchestrate the attack. Shakuri, the complaint says, was aware of and approved the plot.

It’s possible, Cordesman says, that these men, and especially Arbabsiar, could have been acting alone without the support or knowledge of top state officials. “As you look through the whole chronology, it’s almost impossible to see how anyone could trust--on the basis of the exchanges that are listed--Arbabsiar, because everything that he does comes across as something like a half-organized operation out of the Sopranos.”

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When announcing the complaint, Holder suggested that the state of Iran was indeed behind the plot. “The complaint alleges that this conspiracy was conceived, sponsored, and directed from Iran and constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, including a convention that explicitly protects diplomats from being harmed,” he said. “In addition to holding these individual conspirators accountable for their alleged role in this plot, the United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions.”

The Treasury Department on Tuesday issued financial sanctions on the two men in the Department of Justice complaint as well as three others in the Qods force, suggesting there is more evidence that other top Iranian officials were involved. The State Department is also reportedly working on an international diplomatic response.

Cordesman points out that if it’s proven that the government of Iran was directly involved in planning such an attack, it would be a message for the world, not just the United States or Saudi Arabia. That message would be amplified depending on how a weapon of mass destruction was involved. “This is not simply an attack on the United States, or an attack on Saudi Arabia. To attack a senior Saudi official in the United States indicates that Iran is willing to become a public threat to any moderate Arab regime, not simply the United States,” he says. “That’s why knowing exactly what happened, who in the Iranian government really knew what was going on, how real this plot was as distinguished from perhaps one or two individuals that went outside the boundaries of the Iranian government. All of these issues are critical."