Reflections on the Iranian Assassination Plot
By Scott Stewart
On Oct. 11, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that two men had been charged in New York with taking part in a plot directed by the Iranian Quds Force to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, on U.S. soil.
Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri face numerous charges, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives), conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism transcending national borders and conspiracy to murder a foreign official. Arbabsiar, who was arrested Sept. 29 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, is a U.S. citizen with both Iranian and U.S. passports. Shakuri, who remains at large, allegedly is a senior officer in Iran's Quds Force, a special unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) believed to promote military and terrorist activities abroad.
Between May and July, Arbabsiar, who lives in the United States, allegedly traveled several times to Mexico, where he met with a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) confidential informant who was posing as an associate of the Mexican Los Zetas cartel. The criminal complaint charges that Arbabsiar attempted to hire the DEA source and his purported accomplices to kill the ambassador. Arbabsiar's Iranian contacts allegedly wired two separate payments totaling $100,000 in August into an FBI-controlled bank account in the United States, with Shakuri's approval, as a down payment to the DEA source for the killing (the agreed-upon total price was $1.5 million).
Much has been written about the Arbabsiar case, both by those who believe the U.S. government's case is valid and by those who doubt the facts laid out in the criminal complaint. However, as we have watched this case unfold, along with the media coverage surrounding it, it has occurred to us that there are two aspects of the case that we think merit more discussion. The first is that, as history has shown, it is not unusual for Iran to employ unconventional assassins in plots inside the United States. Second, while the DEA informant was reportedly posing as a member of Los Zetas, we do not believe the case proves any sort of increase in the terrorist threat emanating from the United States' southern border.
One argument that has appeared in media coverage and has cast doubt on the validity of the U.S. government's case is the alleged use by the Quds Force of Arbabsiar, an unemployed used car salesman, as its interlocutor. The criminal complaint states that Arbabsiar was recruited by his cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior Quds Force commander, in spring 2011 and then handled by Shakuri, who is Shahlai's deputy. The complaint also alleges that, initially, Arbabsiar was tasked with finding someone to kidnap al-Jubeir, but at some unspecified point the objective of the plot turned from kidnapping to murder. After his arrest, Arbabsiar told the agents who interviewed him that he was chosen for the mission because of his business interests and contacts in the United States and Mexico and that he told his cousin that he knew individuals involved in the narcotics trade. Shahlai then allegedly tasked Arbabsiar to attempt to hire some of his narco contacts for the kidnapping mission since Shahlai believed that people involved in the narcotics trade would be willing to undertake illegal activities, such as kidnapping, for money.
It is important to recognize that Arbabsiar was not just a random used car salesman selected for this mission. He is purportedly the cousin of a senior Quds Force officer and was in Iran talking to his cousin when he was recruited. According to some interviews appearing in the media, Arbabsiar had decided to leave the United States and return permanently to Iran, but, as a naturalized U.S. citizen, he could have been seen as useful by the Quds Force for his ability to freely travel to the United States. Arbabsiar also was likely enticed by the money he could make working for the Quds Force — money that could have been useful in helping him re-establish himself in Iran. If he was motivated by money rather than ideology, it could explain why he flipped so easily after being arrested by U.S. authorities.
Now, while the Iranian government has shown the ability to conduct sophisticated operations in countries within its sphere of influence, such as Lebanon and Iraq, the use of suboptimal agents to orchestrate an assassination plot in the United States is not entirely without precedent.
For example, there appear to be some very interesting parallels between the Arbabsiar case and two other alleged Iranian plots to assassinate dissidents in Los Angeles and London. The details of these cases were exposed in the prosecution and conviction of Mohammad Reza Sadeghnia in California and in U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks pertaining to the Sadeghnia case.
Sadeghnia, who was arrested in Los Angeles in July 2009, is a naturalized U.S. citizen of Iranian descent who at one point ran a painting business in Michigan. Sadeghnia was apparently recruited by the Iranian government and allegedly carried out preoperational surveillance on Jamshid Sharmahd, who made radio broadcasts for the Iranian opposition group Tondar from his residence in Glendora, Calif., and Ali Reza Nourizadeh, who worked for Voice of America in London.
Sadeghnia's clumsy surveillance activities were a testament to his lack of tradecraft and were noticed by his targets. But even though he was fairly inept, a number of other factors seem to support claims that he was working as an agent for the Iranian government. These include his guilty plea, his international travel, and the facts that he conducted surveillance on two high-profile Iranian dissidents on two continents, was convicted of soliciting someone to murder one of them and then returned to Tehran while on supervised release.
Sadeghnia's profile as an unemployed housepainter from Iran who lived in the United States for many years is similar to that of Arbabsiar, a failed used car salesman. Sadeghnia pleaded guilty of planning to use a third man (also an Iranian-American) to run over and murder Sharmahd with a used van Sadeghnia had purchased. Like the alleged Arbabsiar plot, the Sadeghnia case displayed a lack of sophisticated assassination methodology in an Iranian-linked plot inside the United States.
This does raise the question of why Iran chose to use another unsophisticated assassination operation after the Sadeghnia failure. On the other hand, the Iranians experienced no meaningful repercussions from that plot or much negative press.
For Iranian operatives to be so obvious while operating inside the United States is not a new thing, as illustrated by the case of David Belfield, also known as Dawud Salahuddin, who was hired by the Iranian government to assassinate high-profile Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabaei in July 1980. Salahuddin is an African-American convert to Islam who worked as a security guard at an Iranian diplomatic office in Washington. He was paid $5,000 to shoot Tabatabaei and then fled the United States for Iran, where he still resides. In a plot reminiscent of the movie Three Days of the Condor, Salahuddin, who had stolen a U.S. Postal Service jeep, walked up to Tabatabaei's front door dressed in a mail carrier's uniform and shot the Iranian diplomat as he answered the door. It was a simple plot in which the Iranian hand was readily visible.
There also have been numerous assassinations and failed assassination attempts directed against Iranian dissidents in Europe and elsewhere that were conducted in a rudimentary fashion by operatives easily linked to Iran. Such cases include the 1991 assassination of Shapour Bakhtiar in Paris, the 1989 murder of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna and the 1992 killing of three Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.
All that said, there was a lengthy break between the Iranian assassinations in the West in the 1980s and 1990s and the Sadeghnia and Arbabsiar cases. We do not know for certain what could have motivated Iran to resume such operations, but the Iranians have been locked in a sustained covert intelligence war with the United States and its allies for several years now. It is possible these attacks are seen as an Iranian escalation in that war, or as retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran, which the Iranians claim were conducted by the United States and Israel.
South of the Border
One other result of the Arbabsiar case is that it has re-energized the long-held U.S. fears of foreign entities using the porous U.S.-Mexico border to conduct terrorist attacks inside the United States and of Mexican cartels partnering with foreign entities to carry out such attacks.
But there are reasons this case does not substantiate such fears. First, it is important to remember that the purported Iranian operative in this case who traveled to the United States, Arbabsiar, is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He is not an Iranian who illegally crossed the border from Mexico. Arbabsiar used his U.S. passport to travel between the United States and Mexico.
Second, while Arbabsiar, and purportedly Shahlai, believed that the Los Zetas cartel would undertake kidnapping or assassination in the United States in exchange for money, that assumption may be flawed. Certainly, while Mexican cartels do indeed kidnap and murder people inside the United States (often for financial gain), they also have a long history of being very careful about the types of operations they conduct inside the United States. This is because the cartels do not want to incur the full wrath of the U.S. government. Shooting a drug dealer in Laredo who loses a load of dope is one thing; going after the Saudi ambassador in Washington is quite another. While the payoff for this operation seems substantial ($1.5 million), there is no way that a Mexican cartel would jeopardize its billion-dollar enterprise for such a small one-time payment and for an act that offered no other apparent business benefit to the cartel. While Mexican cartels can be quite violent, their violence is calculated for the most part, and they tend to refrain from activities that could jeopardize their long-term business plans.
One potential danger in terms of U.S. mainland security is that the Arbabsiar case might focus too much additional attention on the U.S.-Mexico border and that this attention could cause resources to be diverted from the northern border and other points of entry, such as airports and seaports. While it is relatively easy to illegally enter the United States over the southern border, and the United States has no idea who many of the illegal immigrants really are, that does not mean that resources should be taken from elsewhere.
As STRATFOR has noted before, many terrorist plots have originated in Canada — far more than have had any sort of nexus to Mexico. These include plots involving Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, a Palestinian who was convicted of planning a suicide bombing of the New York subway system in 1997; Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested when he tried to enter the United States with explosives in 1999; and the so-called Toronto 18 cell, which was arrested in 2006 and later convicted of planning a string of attacks in Canada and the United States.
Moreover, most terrorist operatives who have traveled to the United States intending to participate in terrorist attacks have flown directly into the country from overseas. Such operatives include the 19 men involved in the 9/11 attacks, the foreigners involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the follow-on New York landmarks bomb plot, as well as failed New York subway bomber Najibulah Zazi and would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. Even failed shoe bomber Richard Reid and would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to fly directly into the United States.
While there is concern over security on the southern U.S. border, past plots involving foreign terrorist operatives traveling to the United States have either involved direct travel to the United States or travel from Canada. There is simply no empirical evidence to support the idea that the Mexican border is more likely to be used by terrorist operatives than other points of entry.