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.
Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1069/re93.htm