Iran’s pack of lies

This column was printed in Arab News on September 17, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

With the Haj pilgrimage just successfully completed in Makkah with no serious injuries this year, without any Iranian pilgrims, and with Saudi Arabia successfully fighting to stop Iranian domination of Syria and Yemen from taking place, the Iranian government has decided once again to lash out at the Kingdom.

In a shocking and sickening opinion piece for the New York Times this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls on the world to rid the world of “Wahhabism,” using a term that we Saudis have rejected for decades. He falsely claims that Saudi money funds such extremist groups as Daesh and the Nusra Front in Syria. The whole article would be laughable if not for the sinister tone pervading it. Indeed, a British friend of mine was horrified at the piece, telling me that it sounded as if the Iranians were calling for the genocide of all Saudis.

Indeed it is highly ironic that a country that has vowed to export its Islamic Revolution since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, is now accusing Saudis of exporting conflict and death. Everyone is well aware that the Iranians were behind the formation of the Hezbollah guerilla group in Lebanon; and that their support of the Assad regime in Syria has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the civil war there, now in its fifth year.

Zarif brings up the old canard of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US as “proof” that Saudi Arabia is bent on attacking everyone. But the 9/11 Commission report found that no Saudi official gave support to the hijackers. Then he accuses Saudi money of funding extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. The Saudi government has said that some misguided individuals may have donated money to these groups and even fought for them, but that does not mean the government supports them. Far from it. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are deadly enemies of the majority of law-abiding Saudis, with both groups responsible for a string of bloody terror attacks in the country that have claimed many lives.

Zarif claims that the Kingdom is confronting Iran in all of the Middle East in order to contain Iran. That he got right. If there is one country in the region that is fanning the flames of sectarianism it is Iran with its support of Shiite militias in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He falsely claims that Saudi Arabia pines for the return to the days when Saddam Hussein was live and in power. Saudis are not sentimental for the past, but that does not mean that they will sit quietly and allow Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen run roughshod over Sunni communities.

After all, everyone with a few brain cells realizes that the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought in a Shiite-majority government backed by Iran with militias that have killed, intimidated, tortured, extorted, blackmailed, kidnapped and summarily executed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because of their sect. Even the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad has been the target of threats from Shiite militias in Iraq, who have said they would kill him.

Zarif also brings up the old accusation that the Kingdom has exported an intolerant version of Islam by funding the building of mosques and Islamic centers for Muslim communities around the world. This is patently untrue. Here in Brazil, the Kingdom has helped fund more than 50 mosques since the 1970s, most of them staffed by Egyptian imams. No extremist Muslim groups have popped up here, except for a few terrorist suspects that were arrested in July and who were influenced by Daesh through the Internet and not in local mosques.

It is cynical of Zarif to suggest at the end of his screed that the Kingdom can be part of the solution of tackling radical Islam, as if we need his permission or blessing to fight against the misguided monsters of Daesh and Al-Qaeda.

The Kingdom has never been against the Iranian people, but it will not stand still and allow the Iranian government to run roughshod over Sunni communities throughout the Arab world. Cooler heads need to prevail in Tehran to stop the current clash between the two sides, which may ignite into a conflagration much larger than the current one.

Tehran gains more leeway for meddling

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 24, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The lifting of nearly all the economic sanctions against Iran last week was celebrated worldwide as a victory of American and European diplomacy. A victory because Iran has accepted the need to downgrade its nuclear energy program and has pledged to no longer try to develop nuclear weapons.

From Washington to Paris and Moscow, political leaders are patting themselves on their backs as saviors of world peace for having gotten the Iranians to accept their demands and sign the agreement. But they left out of the document a crucial part of what causes most of the tensions in the Middle East: The insistent Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of several Arab countries. Americans admit this failure, but insist that they could not include it in the agreement because of Iran’s objections.

With the lifting of sanctions, it is estimated that Iran will now have access to $100 billion of its own money, which was frozen in bank accounts abroad for years. This will leave the country with more resources to continue its interference in the Arab world. From Iraq to Lebanon, Syria and even in Yemen, the fingers of the Iranians are everywhere, arming and providing economic and political support to the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias; to Hezbollah; to the government of the dictator Bashar Assad, and to Houthi rebels.

In Syria alone it is estimated that the Iranian government has injected billions of dollars in support of the Assad government, and up to 3,000 soldiers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are fighting there against the Syrian rebels.

In an article in the New York Times this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir insisted that the Kingdom and its Gulf allies will continue to resist Iranian expansion in the region and respond with force to acts of aggression from Tehran.

“The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution,” wrote Al-Jubeir. “The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. (…) It is clear why Iran wants Bashar Assad of Syria to remain in power: In its 2014 report on terrorism, the State Department wrote that Iran considers Syria ‘as a crucial causeway to the its weapons supply route to Hezbollah,’” he added.

The cynicism of the agreement with Iran was echoed by many Saudi analysts. “Khamenei (the religious leader of Iran) traded a bomb he did not have for a document that gives carte blanche to the Revolutionary Guard in the region and stripped the P5 + 1 of any influence over Iran,” Mohammed Alyahya told the British newspaper Guardian.

“Riyadh has decided not to allow Iran to posture itself as the protector of the Shiites in the Arab world as it has been doing since 1979,” wrote Emirati professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in Gulf News. “They (the Saudis) have had enough of Iran’s bullying, and genuinely feel they are being targeted by Tehran as much as by Daesh.”

And the Iranians themselves are now admitting that with the end of economic sanctions, the country will have more money available to help its allies in the region. An Iranian security official told the Reuters news agency that funding for the Revolutionary Guard and its international arm, the Quds Force, would increase.

“It is clear that our leaders will not hesitate to allocate more funds for the Revolutionary Guard when needed. More money (available) means more funds for the Guard,” another Iranian official told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia is seeing a new and decisive leadership in Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who took the throne in January 2015.

The military intervention in Yemen, led by the Saudis to contain the spread of the Houthi rebels, has lasted over 10 months and we show no sign of withdrawing from the conflict. Internally, reacting to the very low price of oil on the international market, our government increased the price of gasoline in December 2015 and, soon after, also increased the tariffs for electricity and water.

This new tough stance of the Saudis will not let the Iranians continue to present themselves to the world as innocents in the region. It is estimated that last year Iran executed a thousand people accused of various crimes. This is much more than the 150 that were executed in the Kingdom last year. From the outside, Iran may seem to be a more progressive country than Saudi Arabia, but behind the scenes it is the ayatollahs who hold power. And it is in Iran where government supporters still chant “Death to America! The United States is the Great Satan,” and not in Saudi Arabia.

From my archive: Saudi Shiites Fear Backlash If War Breaks Out With Iran

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Read my story from 2007 when I interviewed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Awamiyya:

I just returned from a three-day trip to Qatif in the Eastern Province to interview Saudi Shiites and witness their Ashoura festival. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were warm, friendly and intelligent, all too happy to talk with journalists and share their hospitality with me and my colleagues.
Here’s my report:

By Rasheed Abou Alsamh

QATIF, Saudi Arabia – “Hussein, I am so proud to say your name,” chanted the long line of Shiite men dressed in black as they moved slowly up the narrow street of a working-class district of Tarout Island on Monday, the sound of the beating of their chests with their hands and the chants praising Imam Hussein echoing through the air.

Just a few years ago such a scene would have been impossible to see in Saudi Arabia, the Shiites here having long been under the unforgiving thumb of the majority Wahhabi Sunnis. Accounting for around 15 percent of the Saudi population, the Shiites have long been the target of religious edicts, or fatwas, declaring them to be kaffirs, or non-believers. This has led to long simmering tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis here, which came to a head when a similar Shiite procession was violently dispersed by Saudi security forces in Qatif during in the Islamic month of Muharram in 1980 which resulted in the death of 27 Shiites.

The ensuing sectarian strife led many Shiite notables in Saudi Arabia to go into exile after the Saudi government threatened to imprison them.

But following a breakthrough meeting with King Fahd in Jeddah in September 1993, the Shiites were promised that action would be taken on a long list of demands.

“Many Shiites were released from prisons, given back their passports and allowed to travel again following the 1993 agreement,” said Tawfiq Alsaif, considered the right hand man of prominent Shiite religious leader Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar. Both fled the country in the early 1980s and were core members of the Islamic Revolution Organization in the Arabian Peninsula, of which Saffar was the spiritual head.

Alseif says that he is mildly optimistic that things are changing in this ultra-conservative kingdom, bringing improvements in the lives of all Saudis, and not just for the Shiites.

“The religious establishment is still strong and they pressure the media and government to stick to the old ways,” said Alseif. “But they cannot hold back the wave of change that modernity is bringing to Saudi Arabia in the form of the Internet, travel abroad and a huge range of satellite television channels.”

Indeed in 2005 the first municipal elections held in this country in over 40 years, Shiites won most of the seats in areas where they are a majority and are now not stopped from openly marking Ashoura in some areas. But the fact that most of the freedoms they have now can be easily taken away from them by the Saudi government has many Shiites worried about the future and demanding that their rights be enshrined in law.

Jafar Al-Shayeb won the elections in Qatif and is now the president of the Qatif Municipal Council. He too lived in exile for many years and returned to the country in 1993. He stressed that the demands of Saudi Shiites were local ones calling for more civil and religious rights, and not linked to the regional tensions caused by the civil war in Iraq and America’s tense standoff with the Shiite powerhouse that is Iran.

“We want to be able to serve as a minister of state, to join the military, represent the kingdom abroad as diplomats, get jobs in local companies, build our own mosques and print our own religious books,” said Al-Shayeb.

He said the fact that Shiites had not reacted adversely to the fatwas attacking them was a sign of political maturity that did not exist in the past.

“We are now separating ourselves from problems like the sectarian strife in Iraq. There is a better understanding between the Shiites and the government,” he said.

But not all Shiites in Saudi Arabia agree with this line, with many of them accusing Al-Shayeb and others like him of having been co-opted by the government into lessening Shiite demands and stopping any sharp criticisms of the government.

Sheikh Nimr al Nimr is one of the critics of the dialogue that Al-Shayeb and Sheikh Saffar have been having with the government, insisting that Shiites in Saudi Arabia will only get their rights by fighting for them as the government has only begrudgingly given them the few freedoms that they now have because of outside pressure.

“The government is not going to give us our rights; the people are going to have fight for them. If people fight for their rights, they have to expect to pay the price for it such as being imprisoned and losing their jobs,” explained Sheikh Nimr, who himself had only just been recently released from a brief spell in jail for his outspoken views.

The division between the Saudi Shiites is due in part to economic differences that have left a large portion of the Shiite community in a state of financial desperation. Sheikh Nimer is one of those living in a poorer area, so poor in fact that he was not able to hold nightly Husseiniyas, or religious lectures that are held during Ashoura, because he did not have access to a building in which to hold it.

In contrast, Sheikh Saffar held daily Husseiniyas in a brand new, three-storey building in Tarout that is owned by a local family.

“If Sheikh Saffar and his followers think things are improving for Shiites that is their opinion, but I don’t agree with them,” said Nimr.

Some Saudis believe that the Shiites here are being used as pawns by the United States in its ongoing occupation of Iraq and growing confrontation with Iran.

“Don’t tell me that things are getting better. They are going backwards for the Shias,” said Ibrahim Al Mugaiteeb, the president of an independent human rights group.

“There are 250,000 Shiites in Dammam but there is only one mosque for us. There are thousands of unemployed and poor Saudis committing suicide over their debts,” said Al Mugaiteeb.

The human rights activist, who has been jailed several times for his work, says that he wants transparent trials for the 9 Shiites in prison for the 1996 Alkhobar Tower bombing in which 19 US Marines were killed and 372 people wounded. According to Al-Shayeb they are still in jail and have not been tried or convicted yet.

“The Americans were quiet all of this time about the 9 Shiites in jail here, but now that they are escalating their confrontation with Iran they have revived the issue of the Alkhobar bombers by linking them to Iran,” said Al Mugaiteeb.

And if war breaks out between the US and Iran, where will the loyalties of the Saudi Shiites lie? That is a question that few Shiites here were willing to discuss frankly. Most insisted that their loyalties would be to Saudi Arabia, with only Sheikh Nimr admitting that if war broke out with Iran most Shiites here would support Iran.

Despite the many differences in the Shiite community, the bottom line is that all of them want to be able to practice their religion freely, openly and with dignity.

“In school I remember having to answer questions on exams that asked if Shiites were nonbelievers,” recounts Mohammed Al Khabbaz, a young Shiite in Tarout. “I always answered ‘no’ because I knew I had to in order to pass the test. I just wish that one day soon we won’t have to do that anymore.”


Why we need a deal with Iran

An official from Iran's Atomic Energy Organization speaks on his mobile phone in front of uranium enriching centrifuges at an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran on April 20, 2009. (Reuters photo)

An official from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization speaks on his mobile phone in front of uranium enriching centrifuges at an exhibition of Iran’s nuclear achievements at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran on April 20, 2009. (Reuters photo)










By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

As the deadline looms for the announcement of some sort of nuclear deal between the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany on the one hand and Iran on the other, there has been much agonizing in the Middle East and in the US of how this may be a bad deal for the Gulf countries, Israel and the US. Bad because US President Barack Obama is allegedly being too soft in the negotiations with the Iranians, in the hope of reaching a landmark agreement that will be a lasting legacy of his presidency, even if it is detrimental to American interests.

First we had the shameless appearance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the US Congress on March 3, lecturing American politicians on the dangers of a bad deal with Iran. Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the House of Representatives, visibly displeased by his remarks said his speech was “condescending” and “an insult to the intelligence of the United States.”

Then we had the letter written by 47 Republican senators on March 9 addressed to the leaders of Iran warning them that any nuclear deal reached between Obama and Iran, that was not approved by the US Congress, could be revoked by the president who is elected to office in 2017, and that Congress could modify the terms of the agreement.

For sure the growth of the Iranian nuclear program, and the discovery of a secret, military component of it in 2002, has led many critics to be wary of Iran’s true intentions. No one really doubts that the country needs nuclear energy to produce electricity, just as Gulf countries are investing in nuclear energy for the same reasons. By doing so, both Iran and the Gulf countries will be able to divert much less crude oil to produce electricity, and be able to export that oil where they can get much more money for it.

In 2006, Iran had only 164 centrifuges that it uses to produce uranium. Today it has more than 15,000. Jeffrey Lewis, a director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the US, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine recently that the reluctance of American hawks to reach a nuclear deal with Iran over the past ten years is what has allowed, in part, the Iranian nuclear program to expand so aggressively. “One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another – but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a ‘better’ deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us,” writes Lewis.

If the deal is agreed to, Iran would freeze its nuclear program at current levels for the next ten years, allow more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the US and the UN would lift many of the economic sanctions that have made life so difficult for all Iranians. Some critics are worried that the Iranians are only bluffing in the current negotiations, claiming that their only goal is to get the sanctions lifted, and that as soon as they are the Iranians will ramp up their nuclear program once again. In order to avoid this happening, the US could lift some of their sanctions temporarily for six months, subject to inspections of Iranian nuclear installations. If they passed, then the sanctions would remain lifted for a further six months. That way the threat of the sanctions returning, and the use of regular inspections, could be a good way to keep the Iranians on their toes and make them stick to the agreement. It would also allow the US to retain the stick of sanctions, which are notably easier to lift than to impose.

For sure, Iran’s continued expansion of influence in the Arab world, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is extremely worrying to the Gulf Cooperation Council member states and is unacceptable. Already in Iraq, a vast network of Shia militias from Iran have been deployed to ostensibly fight the menace of the Islamic State forces, but many see it as a strategic move to effectively make Iraq a satellite-state of Iran.

In the end, a nuclear deal with Iran, even one that is not liked very much by all parties, will be better than no deal. A deal allows the continued presence of IAEA inspectors in Iran and keeps Iran engaged with the rest of the world and the expectations that come with it of acting reasonably responsibly. We all know that a nuclear deal will not necessarily mean renewed diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, as the Supreme Leader of Iran still believes that America is the Great Satan. So all of us in the Gulf can breathe easy again and not worry that a nuclear deal with Iran will suddenly eclipse the relationship that the US has had with Gulf countries for decades.

The cold war between the US and Iran just warmed up

Here is a translation of my column that appeared in Portuguese on January 13, 2012, in O Globo newspaper of Brazil:


The announcement by Iran earlier this month that it could close the Strait of Hormuz, was an aggressive reaction to the new US law signed by President Barack Obama on the last day of December, which says the US may impose sanctions on any country in the world having financial dealings with the Iranian Central Bank.

Soon after the EU announced it would impose sanctions on Iranian oil imports to the continent. Both actions were seen in Tehran as a declaration of economic war against the Islamic Republic. A few days earlier, just before Christmas, the United States announced the sale of a package of F-16 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia and other weapons worth a fantastical $30 billion, part of a wider arms sale of $60 billion to the kingdom.

That was not by chance. For decades now a permanent Cold War of containment between the US and Iran has been taking place in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East with the Gulf Arab countries always in the forefront of this battle.

The conflict between the West, the Sunni Arab kingdoms of the Gulf, and Iran has been ongoing for 33 years, ever since the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the pro-American dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Since the beginning of the rule of the ayatollahs, Iran has tried to export its Islamic revolution to the rest of the Middle East. This led Iranian pilgrims to hold annual anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations during the Haj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, beginning in 1981. They culminated in a deadly confrontation with Saudi security forces in 1987, which left 400 pilgrims dead and thousands wounded. After this tragedy, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran for several years, and relations have been rocky ever since.

Iranians have always had a predilection of wanting to help their co-religionists and the weak in the Middle East, leading Iran to support economically, diplomatically and morally the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and even the Sunni Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. But this has led to a frontal collision with American and Saudi interests in the region.

The Iranian nuclear program, which was started in the 1950s by the Shah with American aid, and resumed in the 1980s by the ayatollahs, which even received technical assistance from Argentina, is the pivot of the latest confrontation between Iran and the West. The US, France, Britain and Germany have accused Iran of developing nuclear energy to make atomic bombs, a charge Tehran vehemently denies.

The reality is that Iran needs nuclear power to produce electricity to meet the needs of its nearly 74 million citizens. Even the UAE and Saudi Arabia announced last year the beginning of civilian nuclear energy programs worth billions of dollars with support from the US and South Korean and French companies. All these countries are embarking on the wave of nuclear power to release valuable oil reserves, now used to generate electricity for their people at subsidized prices, for export.

Although Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted in an interview with CBS television this month that the Iranians are not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, but a nuclear capability, the beaters of the drums of war, unfortunately, seem to have the advantage for now in Washington.

It is ironic that a Democratic president, Obama, has been far more belligerent towards the Iranians than the Republican President George W. Bush was. But the problem here is that the US is sending mixed signals, claiming that it wants a dialogue with the regime of Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, while threatening Iran with a possible attack on its nuclear facilities if it does not stop trying, allegedly, to develop a nuclear weapon.

Observers in the region have said they do not think Iran will block the Strait of Hormuz, as they would be the biggest losers, given that their biggest buyers of oil are India and China. In any event, the UAE are almost ready with their pipeline that bypasses the Strait of Hormuz and, when ready in June, will carry oil from Abu Dhabi directly to the Gulf of Oman. Saudi Arabia has a ready network of pipelines that could carry crude oil to the Eastern Province ports on its western Red Sea coast.

The West along with Israel, which has felt threatened by Iran ever since Ahmajinedad said some years ago that he wanted to push the Jewish state into the sea, are undertaking a subversive war against the Iranian nuclear program with a series of murders of Iranian nuclear scientists, the latest this Wednesday, and the introduction of viruses to sabotage Iranian computers.

Everyone knows how disastrous to the whole world a war between Iran and the West would be, but still there are many in the US government who want to bet on tightening sanctions on Iran so strongly that it would lead to regime change in Tehran. But Iran has survived more than 30 years of economic sanctions and a bloody eight-year war with Iraq. The Iranian people see their nuclear program with nationalist pride, so any attack on Iran would strengthen popular support for the regime.

What the world needs urgently is the intervention of regional powers like Brazil and Turkey in order to defuse the tension between the West and Iran, which if ignored will possibly lead to a disastrous and totally avoidable war.

Subversion or entrapment?

Did Mansour Arbabsiar really plan to have the Saudi ambassador to the US killed? On October 24, 2011, he pleaded not guilty in a US federal court.

The announcement last week of the arrest of an Iranian suspect in New York, accused of plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US, raised more questions than answers as to how far up in the Iranian government the knowledge and consent to this plot went, and whether Iran would actually risk a military attack on itself by undertaking a terrorist attack on US soil. It also marked an escalation of tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, who are in a struggle for power and influence in the Middle East.

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced at a press conference in Washington on 11 October that Iran had planned to bomb a Capitol Hill restaurant to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir and later attack the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington and in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Both Holder and US Vice President Joe Biden said that Iran had to be “held accountable”.

Holder said that the plan “was conceived, sponsored and directed from Iran” by a faction of the Iranian government, and that it was a flagrant violation of US and international law. Two days later US President Barack Obama said that the US would be able to support all of its allegations of Iranian involvement. “Those facts are there for all to see,” he said at a White House press conference. He also said that further restrictions should be placed on Iran, which is already suffering under sanctions imposed earlier because of fears that its nuclear energy programme has a military side to it. Iran denies that is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran dismissed the charges as “childish” and an attempt by the US to increase international isolation of the country. “All of these pressures are aimed at stopping us from advancing,” said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the alleged plot was “a meaningless and useless accusation against some Iranian nationals in America.”

Nevertheless, Iran seemed to backtrack a little on 17 October when it said it would look at any evidence from the US. “We are prepared to examine any issue, even if fabricated, seriously and patiently, and we have called on America to submit to us any information in regard to this scenario,” said Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Mansour Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old used car salesman from Texas, a dual US-Iranian citizen, and Ali Gholam Shakuri, a member of the Al-Quds Force, the covert action branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, were named in the five-count criminal complaint filed in a federal court in New York last week, charging them with conspiracy to kill a foreign official and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, a bomb, among other charges. Arbabsiar was arrested at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport in late September after being turned back from Mexico, while Shakuri remains at large in Iran.

According to the criminal complaint, Arbabsiar had approached a man he thought was a member of the Zetas Mexican drug cartel and offered to pay him $1.5 million to carry out the bombing in Washington to kill the Saudi ambassador. Unknown to him, the supposed cartel contact was an undercover agent for the US Drug Enforcement Administration. According to the US government, Arbabsiar arranged for two wire transfers of $50,000 each into the bank account of the informant, as a down payment for the assassination. The agent later revealed his identity to Arbabsiar and recorded several phone conversations that the Iranian-American had with Shakuri in Iran.

Much skepticism about the authenticity of the alleged plot was voiced by many in the US, especially when press reports appeared about the life Arbabsiar had led in the US, including his many failed business ventures and a marriage that ended in divorce. Given his bumbling attitude and lack of involvement in politics, many analysts said he seemed an unlikely choice to carry out such a terrorist plot.

Gareth Porter, an investigative reporter for the Inter Press Service in Washington, says he believes that Arbabsiar was possibly caught in a sting operation to implicate Iran in a terror plot on US soil. He wrote that a close reading of the amended criminal complaint filed by the US government against Arbabsiar and Shakuri suggests that the idea of assassinating the Saudi ambassador was suggested to Arbabsiar by the undercover DEA agent upon the urging of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “On 24 May, 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,” wrote Porter.

As Porter points out, Iran is the main transit point for opium that is grown in neighboring Afghanistan, and Mexican drug cartels have reportedly stationed agents in the Middle East to buy heroin and send it on to Mexico and then into the United States.

“It could very well be true that Mr Arbabsiar was involved in drug trafficking of some nature, but it is highly unlikely that US intelligence or law enforcement personnel would have added charges concerning the bomb plot in question without any evidence whatsoever,” said Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and former deputy director of the State Department’s Middle East and South Asia Intelligence Office.

Iran has been accused of masterminding many terrorist attacks in the past against US, Saudi and Jewish targets, including the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy by Hizbullah guerrillas in Beirut, the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 US soldiers, a 1992 suicide attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people and injured 242, and the 1994 attack on a Jewish community centre also in Buenos Aires that killed 85 and wounded hundreds.

Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former head of intelligence in the kingdom, said the burden of proof was “overwhelming” and clearly showed Iranian responsibility for the plot. Saudi Arabia announced on 15 October that it was making a formal complaint to the United Nations Security Council about Iran’s alleged involvement in the plot. Yet it was unclear what the Security Council could do, apart from condemning Iran’s alleged involvement in the plot, which in any case would probably be vetoed by China and Russia. On 17 October, UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-Moon said he had passed correspondence concerning the alleged plot from the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran to the Security Council.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have increased since March of this year when Riyadh sent troops into Bahrain to help put down the Shia rebellion in that country. Saudi officials have repeatedly claimed that Iran was the instigator of the riots in Bahrain, something Iran has denied. But an advisor on security to the Saudi government, Nawaf Obaid, told a US news service last week that the Al-Quds Force member Shakuri was well known to Saudi officials as one of the officers who directed Iranian support to the Shia in Bahrain. “The officer does exist, and we have known him for a while,” said Obaid.

Several analysts said that Saudi Arabia could retaliate against the alleged Iranian plot by flooding the market with more oil, helping the opposition in Syria, which is a key ally of Iran in the Arab world, or funding Arab and Sunni separatists within Iran itself.

“I think Saudi Arabia will give more help to the opposition movement in Syria now,” said Jamal Khashoggi, the head of the Al-Arab news channel, in an interview with the BBC from Riyadh.

“The Saudis don’t have many options,” said Kenneth Katz, a Middle East expert in Washington. “If they wanted to be vindictive they could flood the market with oil, driving down prices and thus hurting Iran and helping the US. They could also do more in Syria and could help the Sunni opposition in the Baluchistan province of Iran and the Arab groups in southwest Iran,” he added.

“The most effective sanction to impose against Iran would be a blacklisting of Iran’s Bank Markazi (or central bank) by the US and as many other countries as possible from the world financial system,” said White. “If even just the US and its allies were to forbid all banks and firms from having dealings with Bank Markazi, this alone would have a serious impact on Iran’s ability to export oil, conduct other business internationally, and possibly even destabilise Iran’s national currency.”

It is doubtful that the US or Saudi Arabia would want to start a full-on armed or economic conflict with Iran, given the instability it would bring to the region and the disastrous effect it would have on global oil prices. The Obama administration is already trying to pull out American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and is well aware of Iran’s ability to foment trouble in both countries through the use of allies and proxies.

The world will probably never find out the whole truth about the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, but both the US and Saudi Arabia have Iran on notice that they will not tolerate any more hostile actions from Tehran. How far a fractured leadership in Iran is willing to heed this warning is anyone’s guess.

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