Press conference by Attorney-General Eric Holder. Standing behind him is FBI Director Robert Mueller. (Washington, 11 October 2011)

The media coverage of the case was very carefully orchestrated. The Obama administration clearly intended to make the most of it. On Tuesday, 11 October 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder, flanked by FBI Director Robert Mueller, announced the indictment of a double U.S.-Iranian national for having commissioned a Mexican drug cartel to undertake the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to Washington.

In this press statement, DOJ Secretary Holder stated that the accused, Manssor Arbabsiar, had acknowledged the facts. He admitted to working on behalf of Gholan Shakur, an officer of the Revolutionary Guards based in Iran, who had already transferred some 100 000 dollars to the hired killers as a down-payment on a contract estimated at 1.5 million. Holder stressed that the United States considered Iran, as a state, to be the head of the conspiracy.

For his part, the Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Crimes, David S. Cohen, declared sanctions against five people tied to the plot: Manssor Arbabsiar, Qasem Soleimani (Commander of the Revolutionary Guards), Hamed Abdollahi (officer of the Revolutionary Guards), Shahla Abdul Reza ("cousin"), and Gholam Ali Shakur ("liaison officer"). Note that only two of the five names were mentioned in the indictment, the other three were added by the intelligence services on the basis of unknown evidence [1]

Manssor Arbabsiar, Texan businessman promoted to dangerous terrorist.

Barely fifteen minutes after the end of the statements, the defendant was presented before a federal court in Manhattan while the bill of indictment was distributed among the journalists [2]. It alleged that Manssor Arbabsiar had traveled on ​​24 May, 23 June and 14 July 2011 to Mexico City to meet with a representative of the Cartel and ask him to assassinate the Ambassador. However, the party turned out to be a paid informant who eagerly tipped off the U.S. authorities.

The two appointments and telephone conversations that took place during his last visit were recorded by the informant without the defendant’s knowledge. While in custody, the Iranian authenticated the tapes and made a confession. According to the transcripts, Manssor Arbabsiar admitted he was working on behalf of his cousin, a general of the Al Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who is wanted in the United States possibly for attacks perpetrated in Iraq. The General recruited him in view of his frequent business trips to Mexico, initially with the intention of kidnapping the ambassador rather than having him killed. The Mexican contact allegedly had four men lined up to execute the contract and do a site reconnaissance. Arbabsiar went on to describe the Ambassador’s schedule, habits and his security device. In the end, it was decided to plant a C4 explosive in a posh restaurant frequented by the ambassador and to detonate it during his meal, at the risk of provoking a widespread carnage considering the restaurant’s one hundred to one hundred and fifty regular customers, which included U.S. senators.

The general allegedly dispatched a liaison person to the U.S., probably a colonel by the name of Gholam Shakur, to deliver the cash.

Ultimately, the attack was scheduled for late September. Manssor Arbabsiar intended to go to Mexico to serve as a guarantee during the operation and to pay once completed. However, he was denied admission to Mexico on 28 September and returned to the United States where he was arrested on arrival at New York JFK airport.

During his time in custody, Manssor Arbabsiar accepted to put several phone calls through to Gholam Shakur in Tehran, pretending that the delay was caused by the killers’ further financial requirements. The "Colonel" at first refused to consider an increase evoking possible future contracts, but then said he would check with the upper ranks to see what could be done. Thus, the investigators concluded that the contract had in fact been sponsored by the Revolutionary Guards.

Other elements have appeared in the press that were not reflected in the indictment. The New York Times cited an anonymous official source alleging that the Mexican cartel in question are Los Zetas. The plotters had supposedly also planned to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the embassies of Israel and Saudi Arabia in Buenos Aires. The same source alludes to the possible delivery of tons of opium to the cartel by the Iranians [3]. According to Associated Press, the General referred to is Abdul Reza Shahla, the Iranian commander accused by the Bush administration of being behind the 20 January 2007 bomb attack in Karbala (Iraq) which killed five U.S. soldiers and left three others wounded [4]. Finally, the Washington Post believes it has identified the Café Milano as being the restaurant where the ambassador was an habitue [5].

The case would appear to be straightforward. However, in a turn of events, Arbabsiar’s attorney Sabrina Shroff told Bloomberg News that her client would plead not guilty [6].

According to CNN, [7], Manssor Arbabsiar, a used-car dealer, does not appear to have any clear-cut political views. His criminal record shows that he was sentenced to a 90-day jail term for a hit-and-run accident in 1987; he was convicted in 2004 for driving without a license and again in 2007 for a speeding offence. On the other hand, KIII-TV reported that charges for theft were brought against him in 2001 but were eventually dropped. The profile that emerges hardly matches that of hardnosed Revolutionary Guard. One of his friends told Associated Press that Manssor could not be the brains behind the operation because he is too blithe for that [8].

The crescendo

In a skillfully organized communications offensive, U.S. officials intervened in rapid succession to comment on and amplify the words of the Secretary of Justice.

Early on Wednesday morning, 12 October, Vice President Joe Biden was on all the major television channels beating the drum, emphasizing the "Iranian plot" on ABC (Good Morning America), CBS (The Early Show) and NBC (Today ). During every appearance, he insisted that the Iranians had crossed the line, violated international law and that they will be held accountable. However, he failed to implicate the Ayatollah Khamenei or Ahmadinejad directly, instilling doubt about possible cracks in the "regime".

The White House press office announced that President Obama had spoken to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia by phone. "The President and the King agreed that this plot represents a flagrant violation of fundamental international norms, ethics, and law. They also praised the work of intelligence and law enforcement agencies that led to the disruption of this plot, and reiterated the joint commitment on the part of the United States and Saudi Arabia to pursue a strong and unified international response that holds those responsible accountable for their actions." [9]

Coming out of a secret meeting, Senator Dianne Feinstein expresses concern over the possible existence of "Iranian plots" in several countries at the same time.

Synchronously, behind closed doors, officials from the FBI, NCTC, CIA, Treasury and State Departments were providing members of the Senate Committee on Intelligence with more detailed information. Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein left the meeting spouting imprecations against Iran. Worthy of special note is that the Senator affirmed not once but twice that this can not be an isolated plot and should be investigated to discover other plots in other countries [10]

The elegance of the method is appreciable: the meeting was closed, yet the reactions were public. They were in response to secret information, which cannot be evaluated or verified. Senator Feinstein can say whatever she pleases without running the risk of being contradicted. In this case, the key aim was clearly to stoke concern abroad in order to mobilize U.S. allies.

Speaking at a conference sponsored by the Center for American Progress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated: "This plot, very fortunately disrupted by the excellent work of our law enforcement and intelligence professionals, was a flagrant violation of international and U.S. law, and a dangerous escalation of the Iranian Government’s longstanding use of political violence and sponsorship of terrorism. This is not just, however, about Iran and the United States or even just about Saudi Arabia. Targeting an ambassador violates the Convention on the Protection and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, which, of course, includes diplomats. Iran is a signatory to this convention. Iran is also in agreement with the Security Council resolutions to implement it. This kind of reckless act undermines international norms and the international system. Iran must be held accountable for its actions. In addition to the steps announced by the attorney general yesterday, the United States has increased our sanctions on individuals within the Iranian Government who are associated with this plot and Iran’s support for terrorism. We will work closely with our international partners to increase Iran’s isolation and the pressure on its government, and we call upon other nations to join us in condemning this threat to international peace and security." [11]

At the daily White House press briefing, spokesman Jay Carney re-echoed the slogan, "It’s a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government’s longstanding use of violence. And we consider an effort to assassinate a diplomat in the United States to be a flagrant violation of international law". [12]

Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Forces, gave it an extra coating by describing the "Iranian plot" as an "act of war" against the United States of America [13]. Several Republican lawmakers readily followed in his footsteps, such as Michael McCaul, Mark Kirk and Peter King.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland announced that State Secretary Hillary Clinton and deputy William Burns have intensified telephone contacts not only with their Saudi and Mexican counterparts, but also with major embassies with the aim to mobilize them against Iran [14].

On her Twitter account, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN, Susan Rice, announced: "Together with a team of U.S. experts, I’m briefing individual members of the #UN Security Council today on the disrupted #Iran plot".

Wendy Sherman and David S. Cohen at Senate hearings on Iran sanctions.

On Thursday 13 October, chance would have it that a meeting had long been scheduled by the Senate Committee on Banking on the theme: "Addressing Potential Threats from Iran: Administration Perspectives on Implementing New Economic Sanctions One Year Later" [15]. Wendy Sherman, former assistant to Madeleine Albright and current Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, provided an update on the sanctions in force against Iran to dissuade it from developing a military nuclear program and explained the contours of the new US effort. She signified that key State Department officials stood ready to instruct their partners across the world to hinder all movement and activities of the Revolutionary Guards abroad. The goal behind this staged event is thus clear: to prevent Iran from exporting its revolution.

The elusive motive

When he intervened alongside the Secretary of Justice, the FBI Director compared the case to "a Hollywood screenplay," a parallel that struck all commentators. True, action movies are not always coherent, but with a good suspense and plenty of hot pursuits, the viewer has no time to think. But this time the set up against Iran is too gross to pass under the radar. For starters, what was the motive?

Asked by the Washington Post, Iran specialist at the Rand Corporation, Alireza Nader, voiced skepticism, indicating that the scenario didn’t make sense. Above all, "Why would Iran assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington?" [16]. It is indeed totally absurd, Ambassador Adel A. Al-Jubeir being a confidant of King Abdullah with whom Iran is endeavoring to maintain the best relations possible. Such an attack would inevitably weaken the monarch in favor of the Sudairi clan, the bitter enemies of Tehran. In short, for Iran to sponsor his murder would be like shooting itself in the foot.

Same story from another expert at Rand, Strayer University Professor Rasool Nafisi, interviewed by The New York Times. According to him, under no circumstances would the Revolutionary Guards operate on U.S. soil. Besides, he pointed out, the last operation attributed to Iran in the United States dates back to the turbulent period of the revolution in 1980 with the assassination of an opponent.

On CNN, Professors Jamsheed K. and Carol E. B. Choksy deciphered this contradiction. Citing an anonymous U.S. source, the two experts posited that the Revolutionary Guards would have acted on their own steam to sabotage the Iran-US rapprochement advocated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his new Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, and announced by them on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Accordingly, the plot would have been sponsored by Generals Qassem Soleimani and Ali Jafari, Revolutionary Guard commanders, and by Oil Minister General Rostam Ghasemi, all three among Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s most faithful followers [17].

This type of comment could be read either as war propaganda or as intellectual fraud in that it sounds very smart, but is in no way substantiated. Regardless, it appeals to the media and hoodwinks distracted viewers. Added to this are the series of talk shows with experts jumping on the bandwagon to parrot the Eric Holder and Joe Biden line: its incoherence does not indicate that the plot is a fabrication, but that an internal strife is pitting Iranian leaders against each other. The differences of opinion and rivalry between the Iranian political figures were quickly blown out of proportion and given a U.S.-centered interpretation as if they were about war and peace between Washington and Tehran. Such comments implant the idea that a number of rogue elements in Iran seek armed confrontation and that, under these conditions, the U.S. must act preemptively.

A Hollywood script? No doubt, but for a B movie

In spite of all these efforts, the staging of the "Iranian plot" is running out of steam. Certainly, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, denounced Iran’s meddling in world affairs. British Prime Minister David Cameron, the French, Dutch and Kosovo Foreign Ministers expressed their deep concern. Then nothing. Just the awkward silence suggesting that many embassies have had enough with U.S. shows.

Gary Sick served as Middle East adviser on the U.S. National Security Council under President Carter. He is best known for having crafted the secret agreement between presidential candidate Reagan and Iran ("October Surprise").

On CNN, Gary Sick, formerly in charge of the Iran desk at the National Security Council, noted that: "Iran has never conducted — or apparently even attempted — an assassination or a bombing inside the U.S. And it is difficult to believe that they would rely on a non-Islamic criminal gang to carry out this most sensitive of all possible missions. In this instance, they allegedly relied on at least one amateur and a Mexican criminal drug gang that is known to be riddled with both Mexican and U.S. intelligence agents." [18] Indeed, Los Zetas are made up of former Mexican military elements, some of whom were formed by the United States at the School of the Americas.

On a lighter tone, former CIA agent Robert Baer joked about this grotesque scenario with Time Magazine. How does the Obama administration expect any one to believe that an elite force like Al-Quds would have outsourced this operation to a car salesman and a Mexican criminal organization? This sounds more like the type of hype the Mujahedeen e-Khalq [19] have specialized in and that Washington rides on with enthusiasm [20].

While everyone can see that the Obama administration invents or recycles false accusations to harden the tone vis-à-vis Tehran, it is also imperative to understand that it is a policy of containment, not war. Paradoxically, this sudden fever is a sign that the U.S. no longer have the capacity to confront Iran and prefer to press their partners to give up any relationship with Iran.

On Al-Jazeera, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad slyly concluded that: In the past the US administration claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They said it so strongly, they offered and presented documentations and everyone said: ‘Yes, we believe in you. We buy it (...) Now is everyone asking them, were those claims true? Did they find any weapon of mass destruction in Iraq? They fabricated a bunch of papers. Is that a difficult thing to do? The truth will be revealed ultimately and there will be no problem for us at that time".

titre documents joints

USA vs Arbabsiar and Shakuri
(PDF - 2.5 MiB)

[2See downloadable document at the bottom of the article.

[3"U.S. Accuses Iranians of Plotting to Kill Saudi Envoy", by Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, The New York Times, 11 October 2011.

[4"How an alleged plot to assassinate Saudi ambassador was discovered along the Mexican border", Associated Press, 12 October 2011.

[5"Iranian plot may have involved ambassador’s favorite restaurant. Cafe Milano?", by Roxanne Roberts et Amy Argetsinger, The Reliable Source, The Washington Post, 11 October 2011.

[6"Iran behind alleged terrorist plot, U.S. says", by Jerry Markon and Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, 11 October 2011.

[8Friend: Suspect in ambassador plot ’no mastermind", Associated Press, 12 October 2011.

[9"Summary of Obama’s Call with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia", The White House, 12 October 2011.

[10"Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Iranian Plot : ‘There May Be a Chain of These Things’", by Sunlen Miller, ABC News, 12 October 2011.

[11"American Global Leadership at the Center for American Progress", by Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Department of State, 12 October 2011.

[12"White House Press Briefing," by Jay Carney, 12 October 2011.

[13"A top Senate Dem says Iran plot may be act of war", Associated Press, 12 October 2011.

[14" Daily Press Briefing," by Victoria Nuland, U.S. State Department, 12 October 2011.

[16Washington Post, op cit.

[17"Terror plot aids Iran hardliners, fuels enmity with U.S.," by Jamsheed K. Choksy et Carol E. B. Choksy, CNN. 12 octobre 2011.

[18"Did Iran launch a plot against the U.S.?," CNN, 12 October 2011.

[19See our dossier on the Mujahedin-e Khalq.

[20"Washington Bombing Plot Is Out of Character for Iran’s Professional Killers," by Robert Baer, Time Magazine, 12 October 2011.