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Was it real or Hollywood?

Many people have found it hard to believe that the assassination plot outlined by the US Justice Department is real. In fact, Justice Department officials say the plot was so Hollywoodish, they didn't believe it at first.

The Justice Department finally took it seriously because of two developments.

First, accused plotter Manssor Arbabsiar, viewed as a bumbling nobody, was able to produce $100,000 as a down payment for the murder plot--and that money came from a bank account that the FBI had previously identified as a Qods Force account and was already monitoring. That told the FBI that Arbabsiar was actually in contact with Iran's Qods Force and not just playing around on its own--although it didn't prove the payment was made for a murder.

Second, after Arbabsiar was arrested, the FBI had him make two telephone calls to the Qods Force officer Arbabsiar claimed was his contact and the man from whom he got directions. Talking in code language over the phone, that Qods Force officer told Arbabsiar it was important to speedily carry out the planned assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, thus clearly linking the Qods Force to murder.

The phone calls and the payment from the Qods Force account convinced the FBI that Arbabsiar was not some confused man acting out a spy fantasy but actually was under the aegis of the Qods Force, which is the overseas arm of the Pasdaran.

Those two factual developments, however, didn't answer the howls of disbelief from many.

The most common complaint was that the plot outline didn't make sense and didn't fit the way the Islamic Republic had operated in the past.

Critics said the plot was amateurish, using a businessman with a record of repeated failures and a reputation for bumbling as the key figure.

Analysts said the Qods Force was a very professional organization and wouldn't be so foolish as to pursue such an inane plot.

Still others ask why Iran would want to carry out a murder from which it would gain next-to-nothing but could stand to lose much if it ever were exposed.

The criticisms bore much merit.

The modus operandi was strange. So far as is known, Iran never before tried to work with drug gangs. Traditionally, Iran has hired Lebanese Shias through Hezbollah to carry out many of its plots around the world. That is very well known. It is so well known that if any Lebanese Shia is caught in a crime, it is immediately assumed he was put up to it by Iran.

In fact, the Islamic Republic has now resorted to using Iranians in some cases instead of Lebanese Shias. In the weird bomb plot in Thailand that was exposed last February, the Thai police have named only Iranian nationals. Indians say it was an Iranian who planted the magnetic bomb on an Israeli car in New Delhi last year.


In the United States, it would be logical for Iran to look for someone not so easily traceable back to Iran to carry out its plans. In that sense, the approach to a Mexican drug cartel makes sense.

But it was weird that the Qods Force used Arbabsiar, who knew nothing about intelligence or Mexican drug cartels, as its contact. The key reason Arbabsiar was chosen was that he is a cousin of the senior Qods Force officer who recruited him.

But why recruit Arbabsiar when he had no links to drug traffickers? It is possible that Arbabsiar told stories in Tehran and pretended to have contacts in Mexico. He appears prone to exaggeration. In one of the conversations he had with the FBI informant he thought was a major cartel figure, Arbabsiar boasted that his cousin was a "general" in Iran. The cousin is a colonel, however. So, it is possible the Qods Force hired Arbabsiar thinking he had contacts they did not.

But why would the Qods Force even think about assassinating a Saudi diplomat? What's to be gained? Intelligence organizations always assess risk--what's to be gained against what could be lost. Killing a Saudi official whose duties don't directly involve Iran policy would give little benefit to Iran. Being exposed in such a plot--especially a murder plot on US soil--could lose Iran a great deal.

But one might also ask why Iran launched two major bombings in Buenos Aires in the 1990s--one that destroyed the Israeli embassy and the other leveling the community center for the Argentine Jewish community. Iran stood to gain nothing from those two bombings. Yet it went ahead with them.

The Islamic Republic was also implicated previously in attacks on a half dozen Saudi diplomats. All those attacks took placed in the early 1990s when Iran-Saudi relations were especially poor following the killing of almost 400 Iranian hajjis in Mecca by Saudi police gunfire. In that case, the motive was likely punishment. The Iranian link to several of those attacks is unproved, but in one case in Bangkok, the Thai police caught the Iranian gunman--an instance where Iran used an Iranian rather than a Lebanese Shia to do its dirty work.

An attack on Ambassador Adel al-Jubair might well have been conceived as punishment as well. The initial contact by Arbabsiar with the man he thought was a drug cartel operative was made last May. The previous December, WikiLeaks released a US diplomatic cable in which Jubeir was quoted as talking about Iran and saying "cut off the head of the snake." Jubair clearly said that he was repeating what King Abdullah had told Americans earlier. But that may have been garbled in Tehran, where Jubair might be seen as a leader of the Saudi anti-Iran policy.

The bottom line for many critics has been that this was an unprofessional operation while the Qods Force is seen as a skilled professional group. That reputation is based chiefly on its work in Iraq where Americans have had eight years to watch how Iran trains and supports bands of Iraqis in attacks on Americans.

But that has not been true of all Qods Force operations by any means--especially those outside the Middle East. The murder of former Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar was carried out by an Iranian who later left his notebook with all his contact information in a telephone booth. The killer was later caught, tried and jailed, proving a great embarrassment to Iran.

The gangland-style shooting of four leaders of the Kurdish rebel movement in Berlin's Mykonos restaurant was also bungled, in part because an Iranian who was one of the gunmen was caught, much to Iran's embarrassment.

The two bombings in Buenos Aires were executed professionally, but one must ask why Iran bothered when there was so little to gain.

In short, the assumption that the Qods Force is all that professional when working outside its own backyard is open to question.

An Obama Administration official told The Washington Post the sloppiness of the assassination plot might mean the regime is getting more desperate and striking out with less thought. "We're used to seeing them do bad things, but this plot was so bizarre, it could be a sign of desperation--a reflection of the fact that they're feeling under siege," he said.

David Albright, who follows Iran's nuclear program as the head of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, DC, said he saw increasing erratic behavior by Iran in that area as well.

Cut off by UN sanctions from easy procurement of needed technology, Iran is fumbling, he said. "Their procurement efforts are less thought-through and they're getting caught a lot more, which suggests they are more desperate."
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Title Annotation:Arbabsiar: Accused assassin plotter
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Oct 26, 2012
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