Is an Iranian Drug Cartel Behind the Assassination Plot against the Saudi Ambassador?

As many observers have pointed out, the story given us by Attorney General Eric Holder about the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., makes no sense. Veteran CIA operative Bob Baer, now retired, notes that Iranian intelligence is highly professional and works independently or through trusted proxies, and this sloppy operation simply is not their modus operandi.

The US is alleging that Gholam Shakuri, a known member of the Quds Brigade, the special operations force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, was involved and that he was running an Iranian-American agent, Manssor Arbabsiar, a used car dealer with a conviction on check fraud. Arbabsiar wired $100,000 to a bank account he thought belonged to a member of the Zeta Mexican drug cartel, as a down payment on the $1.5 million demanded by the cartel member for carrying out the assassination.

If Arbabsiar really had been an Iranian intelligence asset, he would have been informed if there’s one thing the US typically monitors, it is money transfers of more than $10,000 (as a measure against drug money laundering). The only safe way to undertake this transaction would have been cash, and no one in the Quds Brigade is so stupid as not to know this simple reality. Moreover, would the Quds Brigade really depend so heavily on someone with a fraud conviction, who was therefore known to US authorities? Expert terrorism deploys “newskins” people who can fly under the radar of police and security forces.

One possibility as to what is really going on here is signaled by the Bloomberg report in the San Francisco Chronicle:

” Arbabsiar also told the informant that the same Iranian sponsors behind the assassination plot also controlled drug smuggling and could provide tons of opium, the federal law enforcement official said.”

In other words, Arbabsiar’s patron, Shakuri, may have had a side business, besides the Revolutionary Guards day job, as an element in an opium- and heroin-running gang bringing the stuff from Afghanistan through Iran and to points west. About half of Afghanistan’s opium and heroin is exported via Iran.

If a rogue Iranian drug cartel with an IRGC cover wanted to hit the Saudi ambassador, then it would be natural for them to reach out to their counterparts, the Zetas in Mexico. Whereas if the Iranian state wanted to assassinate someone, it would be crazy for them to reveal themselves to a Mexican gangster.

So why hit the Saudis? If it was an Iranian cartel, they might be annoyed with the Saudi version of the war on drugs. After all, some of their colleagues may have gotten caught in the dragnet. Or they might be angered that Saudi-backed Sunni militant gangs in Iraq and Syria have grabbed smuggling routes, cutting out the Iranians.

Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility of a direct Iranian government plot. After all, Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet assassinated dissident (and former ambassador) Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC in 1976.

Iranian and Saudi relations have been roiled by the turmoil in Syria, with with the Saudis supporting the opposition. In Bahrain the Saudis helped crush the movement toward greater openness, angering Iranians. And, the wikileaks cables demonstrate that the Saudis behind the scenes repeatedly urged the US to hit Iran. There is something like a cold war between the two regional powers, and this plot could be part of it. But I agree with Baer that it looks too much like amateur hour to likely be the doings of the Iranian government per se.

47 Responses

  1. There are just too many sketchy parts to this story. I am guessing that the truth is closer to the drug cartel angle. Its almost impossible to believe anyone associated with Iranian intelligence or the central govt would put together such a sloppy operation. I think Bob Baer is correct in his assessment that the US Justice Dept may have jumped the gun on this one.

    The drug trade out of Afghanistan is a massive problem for Iran, the US and Western Europe. This issue is probably one where a common purpose exists for both sides and they really should be doing more to support each other’s efforts. Working together on an issue such as this would no doubt create much more room for dialogue in the future. This would surely be better than the status quo, in which the stakes have been raised so high on both sides that there is no room for discussion. As Bob Baer noted, if a bomb had gone off the US would almost certainly been forced to respond militarily, and there does not seem to be a red phone to Tehran. We live in dangerous times.

    • There are two events which have happened which are oddly similar to spy movies and has been a topic in our home in past months and days.

      The Next Man (1976) Sean Connery movie is oddly similar to The murder of al-Mabhouh is striking similar to the plot in Sean Connery’s Movie the Next Man.

      ‘Mahmoud al-Mabhouh – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
      en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmoud_al-MabhouhMahmoud Abdel Rauf al-Mabhouh (Arabic: محمود عبد الرؤوف المبحوح; … Police in the Emirate of Dubai, where al-Mabhouh was killed, allege that it was … The Dubai police state that al-Mabhou was drugged and then suffocated with a pillow. ..”

      And the current alleged hit on a Saudi diplomat is oddly like “Burn After Reading made in 2008.

      Is someone getting their inspiration from old Hollywood Movies?

  2. To me, the assassination of the Chilean dissident, Orlando Letelier, on American soil by agents of the government of Chile; is more like the assassination of anti-American propagandist, Anwar al-Awlaki, on Yemeni soil by a missile armed drone owned & flown by agents of the US government.

    We also cannot rule out a Keystone Cops operation designed to put Iran in the frame. However, who would want to do that, Baer mentioned a couple of possibilities; Iranian dissidents, and between the lines, the Saudi’s themselves, given the contents of Wikileaked cables from US DoS officers in Riyadh,. It would not be the first time the USA has been suckered into a war.

    There is also the possibility of a US intelligence failure; it’s happened before – Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq WMDs, Iran Air Flight 655. OBL hiding in a Waziristan cave …

  3. Interesting. The US is saying this would have been the first in a series of attacks. I wonder if those would have been in Iran, and not Washington. Would this have been the beginning of a coup by drug cartel elements tied to the Iranian government, Juan? How close is Iran to becoming another Mexico, or even worse, a collapsed narco-state, if at all? Thanks for this!

  4. Thr entire “foiled plot” sounded fishy from the moment the news breathlessly broke yesterday. From what I heard on both BBC News and PBS’ NewsHour, it sounded as if either a rouge element inside Quds who controlled some aspect of the drug trade in Iran or it was amateurs passing themselves off as Qud operatives whose real intent had more to do with drugs or drug money rather than an assassination and bombing plot.

    I suspect that the FBI may have botched this as badly as it botched the “anthrax plots” investigations over the past 10 years.

  5. Dear Professor Cole

    Is it a coincidence that an agreement to free Corporal Shalit has been arranged in Gaza?

    Victor Kotsev wonders if this might not be a precursor to an attack on Gaza that would have ended Shalits life.

    link to atimes.com

    Nevertheless, the sense of urgency is real. Not only is Egypt falling apart, but Syria seems to be in a state of low-intensity civil war that could ignite the region in the near future. Iran according to some accounts is apparently racing toward a nuclear device. A war could put off the prisoner swap deal for years, and there is a real danger that Shalit might disappear.

    Jim Lobe speculates that this Iranian Assasination plot is too good a chance for the crazies to miss, to corner the US into attacking Iran, daft as the idea is.

    link to atimes.com

    I did notice a lot of reminicing about the 1973 war in the Israeli press over the weekend.

    If we see a third straw in the wind it might be time to take a hard look at what is really going on.

  6. The $100,000 was wired, according to the New York Times, while he was visiting Iran. Does the US monitor transactions between Iran and mexico? The DEA knew of it because it was wired to a DEA agent in Mexico.

    NYT also says he was charged with check fraud and that the charge was dropped. He had traffic violations and was convicted of driving without a license.

  7. Thanks for this alternate possibility, Dr. Cole. SoS Clinton was quoted as saying “You can’t make this up”, as if the very weirdness of the alleged plot was proof that it was true.

    We’re in real trouble if “you can’t make this up” becomes our standard for sorting fact from fiction.

    • Clinton may have had her speech prepared by one of Bibi’s allies in the D of S–Bibi said the same thing in his insulting address to the UN General Assembly last month.

  8. The best comment so far comes from Ahmendenijad, who said the U.S. is busy writing another movie script. This ‘terror attack’ is so cheesy and full of holes, the Swiss cheese industry would turn it down.

  9. War against yet another brown skinned and/or Muslim people is Obama’s last card option. Who could vote against the incumbent when we are a NATION AT WAR?

    War against the Muslims is the definitive 1% war. The Zionists have been pounding the drums for war against Iran for years, this is just the latest effort. They are going for the cumulative effect here.

  10. Bob Baer is notoriously wrong. In June he predicted an Israeli attack of Iran’s nuclear facilities in advance of Abbas’ bid at the UN General Assembly for a vote for unilateral Palestinean State. In the end, Obama once again managed that there was no longer need for it. Anyway, thanks for background information.

  11. The obvious reason for this set up is to sell Iran as a threat to the US.
    A war on Iran for Israel and the Jews wouldn’t play well with the public.
    Hence this bulls*** sting.

  12. The actual assassination, as I’ve heard it described was to be a bomb at a restaurant in DC, intended to kill the Saudi ambassador, and presumably anyone else near by. Any bomb at any restaurant in DC would be a big deal, but one that killed the Saudi ambassador would be a huge incident, and would attract attention and extraordinary investigation. I find it hard to believe that any “official” component of the Iranian government would want to be the cause of such an attention grabbing event. Even a drug smuggling element of the Iranian military/industrial complex would be insane to intentionally be linked to such an action.

    In contrast, the 1976 assassination by Pinochet, given Pinochet’s close ties to US intelligence, is the opposite. Rather than an enemy of the US killing an ally (of sorts) and official ambassador in the nation’s capitol with a spectacular and messy bomb, this was an “ally” of the US killing one of it’s internal enemies, albeit in a spectacular and messy fashion.

  13. I definitely share your skepticism about the Saudi ambassador to the US being an Iranian hit target? I think the drug cartel link theory is rather weak. Saudi Arabia is not a big drug market and I don’t think they are on the forefront of fighting drug production and transportation from Afghanistan or Iran to the rest of the world. Also, I am not sure how killing one diplomatic official can change anything, especially if the perpetrators did not declare themselves (like AlQaida, which can definitely benefit from hitting Saudi public figures and will be happy to brag about it.)

    The weaker theory still is idea that political motives may be behind an Iranian Government attack on an ambassador (leaving along the amateurish way the plan was supposed to work out.) What was the Mexican Cartel supposed to do, perform the hit? The Iranian Revolutionary Guard need Mexican hit men? And who will take the credit for it, Iran? BTW, what is The Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s history of conducting foreign assassinations of dissidents, foreign enemies (Israelis for example) or foreign officials? Again this is not their MO and not the MO of almost any government that I can think of. Well, Moamar Ghadafi supposedly wanted to assassinate the King of Saudi Arabia at one time. But Ghadafi is a maniac and nothing like the generally cool and strategic thinking Iranians. I think it is absolutely crazy to target any Saudi official on American soil, especially if Americans might be in harm’s way.

    I believe this is a cover story or a pretext for attacking Iran. This rouse plan is supposed to hit two birds; a terrorist attack on American soil that may well kill Americans along with a one Saudi target. This way, both, Americans will be enraged and will demand revenge as well as the Saudis who will inflame Arab and Muslim opinion against the Shiite Iran. There is only one country that badly needs a distraction from its current diplomatic turmoil, increased isolation, worsening domestic conditions and that had an intelligence agency that can think up such plans, and can and very badly wants Iran to be attacked at all cost, ISRAEL. I sure hope the truth will come out soon.

  14. You can make this up and at least a good part of this story was. How much of the news is made up by the media because of a slow news day?

  15. There is a much simpler explanation, that it was an operation completely made up by the FBI. Arbabsiar is just the latest fall guy in a long line of such operations.

    Why would the Iranians use someone with a criminal record?

    • ForEc, why would (allegedly) the CIA “use” the Mafia to try and deliver poisoned cigars or a femme fatale to Fidel Castro? link to edition.cnn.com There’s a lot of Keystone Kops in the staff of the World Security Apparatus… including the FBI using guys with criminal records for all kinds of

      Only thing I get out of the Castro games and this current idiocy and all the other geopolitical jerkmeatery that our “leaders” and our “security apparati” is that once again, the proof is manifest that humans are a dead-end species. A few of us want to just live simple, decent lives, whether we wear Brooks Brothers or Dickies bibs or any of the tribal costumes from the Arab/Muslim world. Then there are the other shites, who do the other thing in their little black ops “We’re So Dangerous” little darkened rooms and corners, and leave people like those who post here to try to figure out, and of course argue over from their tribal perspectives, what the bare facts might possibly, actually “mean.” “Plausible stupidity” is all it is.

      Does it really matter? Some things just ARE, more’s the pity…

    • Forensic Economist is almost certainly correct. Given what we know about all parties, and the complete lack of evidence for the FBI’s story, the most reasonable explanation is that the whole thing is just bullshit.

  16. This incident smells really bad. The timing, contemptuously
    convenient. Iranian Intelligence is much more sophisticated
    than this. Come on America. Don’t buy in to this or any
    strong reaction against Iran for one minute. That war, is
    NOT in OUR interests.

  17. Oh yes and I forgot this one:

    Homegrown Terror Threat “Manufactured”: NYU Study

    “The study, published by the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the school’s International Human Rights Clinic, shows that government informants egged on the Muslims to try to commit the acts of terror. While juries concluded the men committed the actions on their own accord, the judge overseeing one of the cases remarked that there was “something decidedly troubling about the government’s behavior” and that the informant went to great lengths to goad one defendant into taking part in the plot.”

    Exactly what happened here…
    link to therightperspective.org

  18. Thanks for this great article!

    This “Assassination Plot” story has way too many holes in it and it’s so amateurish on so many levels to be carried out by an Evil entity such as I.R. Government with it’s 34 long dark years record of imprisoning,torturing & killing of innocent and unarmed Iranian citizens + beating the Super Powers in Foreign policies and getting away with it on all levels so far … Somebody is laughing at I.R. now to make them look so stupid with this plot story… lol :D)Having said that, The only other biggest Cartel (aka Saudis…) , the no.1 producers of oil, the richest people in the world with their 5000 family members who rule a country with so much poverty & over 90% of it’s (27 million) population still living in the stone age of 1400 years ago… are equally as Evil as Islamic Republic occupiers of Iran!! I hope they both go down in Trash cans of world history known as two of the worst (dangerous) entities of 21 century known to mankind! Love & Peace on Earth…

  19. Sad to say that Obama Administration is no different that Bush Administration. Whenever there is change for any form of negotiation, someone in the US administration torpedoes it. Remember the Axis of Evil speech right when Khatami started his Dialog with west’s campaign? It seems this time is around preventing any form of dialog over nuclear issues

    link to reuters.com

  20. As our lawyer friends say in these situations – “Cui bono?” – “Who benefits from this?”

    What advantage would accrue to the Iranian government from killing the Saudi Ambassador to the USA?

    I’m not convinced by the supposed drugs connection, other than the possibility that Gholam Shakuri had second career as a dealer.

    An FBI screw-up seems by far the most likely explanation (and avoids having to posit a conspiracy theory to explain anything).

    My second theory – and I realise it does bring in the conspiracy angle – is that Mossad had a hand in it. Recently they have had a track record of incompetence second to none (apart possibly from the CIA). And, to return to the concept of “cui bono”, extreme right-wing Israeli hawks would like nothing better than to mount an attack on Iran, especially if it were to finesse the USA into joining in the enterprise.

  21. This does sound like an operation completely made up by the FBI.

    On the other hand, in 2008 Onion anticipated the 2011 dust-up between Ahmadinejad’s truther moment and Al Queda (in the Onion parody, the Al Queada operative complained about an American truther not giving Al Queada credit for the attacks, but the substance in the Onion story was the same) so maybe anything is possible these days.

    As for Shalit, I can’t help but notice that the numbers mentioned remind me of the “We are the 99%” protests, except that based on the ratios of the prisoner exchange (1000 Palestinians for one Israeli), the Israelis are not just the 1%, they appear to be the 0.1%.

    I’m all for sending all prisoners home, including Shalit, but I support the 99% because I think safety, health, and security should be guaranteed to the extent we can for all and not just for the favored few.

  22. Saudi Arabia has an envoy in Iran — why not kill the one in Iran instead of hiring the Mexican mafia? Ridiculous story. Then the US government says Iran has a wide network around the world – then why would they need to hire the Mexican mafia?!?

  23. Since Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was teaming up with Iran and Obama visit her to alert about dealing with Iranian regime (among other issues) should we trust an administration “story” who hire CIA assassins to act in the name of freedom?

  24. I believe to understand this one has to consider motive and fallout. What would Iran gain by a public assassination? Who would benefit from a botched plan? A negative benefit in the first and not Iran in the second. This has a ripe smell of
    rotting fish.

  25. Barring the possibility of a fabricated story by the US intelligence, and assuming that some organization indeed did their best to carry out an actual attack, it would seem that this incompetent dude was the best asset at their disposal. That certainly is not descriptive of the Iranian Quds Force. A much more plausible scenario (again, barring conspiracy theories involving the US government) would be if MEK members posing as Quds Force agents lured an impressionable troubled Iranian man to carry out the attack or get caught trying, believing all along that he was a Quds Force agent. They have the personel on the ground in Iran, the funding capacity, and the political motive as their past covert operations and their pro-war lobbying efforts in the US have shown.

    Since the main suspect is apprehended and his identity and connections in Iran are presumably well-known, the US should simply demand an arrest warrant for the other suspect via interpol, share intelligence with Iran and ask Iran’s cooperation to investigate the source of his funding. At this point, I doubt there’s any one more fervently trying to get to the bottom of this than the Iranian intelligence itself.

  26. Juan,

    I did a big timeline of all this and note two or three really critical bits.

    First, the original instruction for Arbabsiar was not to KILL Jubeir, but to kidnap him. The process by which that evolved into an assassination plot are obscured in the complaint. And critically, the meetings before it was an assassination WERE NOT TAPED. At the very least this raises the distinct possibility that the idea for a kill and explosives (and therefore the WMD charge) came from the DEA/FBI. And there’s no direct evidence that Shahlai, as opposed to his deputy Shukari, was involved after it became an assassination plot.

    In addition, the FBI interpreted this phrase, “so these people they pay this government,” to be proof that Iran was paying for this. But it seems to suggest something else entirely, that 1) the plotters were paying some kind of protection money to someone, and 2) that there was another (non-Iranian) government involved. It also made me wonder whether there’s a Moqtada al-Sadr tie here, not least bc of negotiations on troops in Iraq and Shahlai’s earlier sanction for ties w/Sadr. Could they be referring to Qods paying Iraq?

  27. The first thing that occurred to me when reading about this matter was that it is wondrously convenient for a development of the war on drugs in Mexico. If you can link proper terrorist activity with the Mexican cartels then you are able to aim the full military-eavesdropping capabilities of the US towards that low intensity conflict south of the border. It is my understanding that, until now, there has been open cooperation only between civilian law enforcing agencies in both countries. The terrorism story line thickens the plot as it –I presume- enables a completely different policy towards crime in the hemisphere. ¿Could it be that in the not so distant future Reaper drones unleash hell from above in the mountains of Chihuahua or Sinaloa? One could argue that paramilitary gangs like the Zetas are a much more urgent example of clear and present danger for democracies in North America than the machinations of a backwards regime on the other side of the planet. I think the cartels are being corralled into a proper war.

  28. Murder Plot, hatched by whom – Iran or FBI?
    The ‘Iranian plot’ to kill Saudi Ambassador in Washington DC in a crowded restaurant is indeed outrageous. A couple of Iranians have been arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder. Supposedly, they were seeking help from Mexican drug pushers for execution of their plot. If this is true and Iran is involved, then Iran should be condemned vociferously.

    However, the FBI sounded most unconvincing in their press briefing and this plot appears more like a script for a Hollywood movie than a real thing. Also, killing Saudi Ambassador is beyond comprehension as he is not a member of the ruling family. Had the plot been to kill a visiting Foreign Minister or a Prince, that would have been far more convincing.

    So, is it a real plot or have some renegade intelligence operatives/contractors hatched it in Washington DC to put Iran into the dock as all else has failed? President Obama should have this investigated thoroughly and if it turns out to be bogus, he should fire all those involved and charge them criminally.

    US politicians, who are the biggest stumbling block to America’s prosperity have been ‘outraged’. That extremist neo-con representative from New York, Peter King wants America to be ready to launch an attack on Iran. US could do well without extremists like these, who have caused America’s bankruptcy by shouting out for ill advised wars.

    US media, once again sounds like Administration’s mouthpiece, rather than a credible independent and respectable source of news as was the case in the days of Mr. Walter Cronkite. No wonder American public has lost faith in the media and 71% say, they get their facts wrong. Where is the investigative journalism and where are fact checks before reporting such a story?

    This may well be an Iranian plot, but unfortunately (and despite all the hyped up noise in DC), Iran may get away with it. Because US credibility is zero after repeated lies about WMD and after repeated denials of inflicting extreme torture at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghuraib and Bagram. Many around the world feel, this may just be another conspiracy hatched in Washington DC.

    One more reason could be that with Russian & China flexing muscle at UN Security Council, US hegemony is severely challenged. If it can be shown that Iran is behind this, Russia & China could be persuaded not to veto/water down a resolution on Iran.

    The strange irony of it all is that President Obama’s ill advised UN Ambassador, stormed out of the Security Council over Russia & China’s veto while openly threatening and getting ready to veto Palestinian application for UN membership.

    • This plot is beginning to look more bogus with each passing hour and with the additional hype from media. Unfortunately, US media has copped out and not done its research to establish the varacity of these claims.

  29. Another scenario

    1. USA broadcasts it will veto Palestinian UN Membership.

    2. The Saudi regime informs the US that in that even, then in order to maintain its leadership role in the Arab world it may have to downgrade their relationship … ?

    3. So the USA and the Saudi regime fabricates this alleged Iranian plot.

    4. The Saudi regime boasts that only its special relationship with the US has been able to prevent arch enemy Iran from using weapons of mass destruction to kill Saudi citizens on American soil.

    5. Now the Saudi regime has the cover it needs when it doesn’t make a song & dance if/when the US veto’s the Palestine UN membership. With the bonus that it may provoke the US led war against Iran longed for by the Saudi regime.

  30. Always refreshing to see a more informed and thoughtful analysis, thanks Prof. Cole!

    It seems important to me when one undertakes historical study as well as reading of scandalous contemporary events to not compress a government proxy, agent, sympathizer (or whatever we might call Manssor Arbabsiar) that these allegiance claims become transmutations to claims for causality and confusion in agency: ie it does not follow that mere favor toward Iran over the US is in some way an action of exchange i.e. exchange of personal agency for the mantel of agency not as an individual but a COUNTRY! It seems dubious that a country —any country— can fully sublimate all individual agency —yes, I know we can find some examples, but the point is merely to provide an alternative possibility with higher probability of actuality.

    As absurd as this entire situation seems there is a polish of the US taking advantage of a uniquely situated individual who can easily be conflated as Iran itself, not as an individual —recall the ease to conflate individual agency to state agency— and with this turn of political magic the US gains both gold star for the prevention of terrorist attack, some claims to help succor and solidify Saudi favor, and obtains currency for further sanctions on Iran.

    Love to know what others think. Thanks for the wonderful blog Prof. Cole!

  31. As with the Salman Rushdie affair, and the Hostage Crisis this could also be a part of an internal power struggle with a faction trying to spoil budding relations or deals with US/Saudi.

    Creating a foreign policy crisis that makes Iran more isolated has been a tactic used by factions of the Iranian government against other factions of the Iranian Government.

  32. Great analysis but you forgot the main point: What on earth does Iran have to gain from assassinating the Saudi Ambassador anywhere, let alone on US soil?

    This story is one of those media bombs like the missing Syrian gay blogger, the babies thrown out of incubators, the Gulf of Tomkin, the mutilated Syrian woman, etc. etc. – which all turned out to be complete fabrication.

    US officials are already banking on this stinker by calling to impose more sanctions on Iran.

    Cui Bono?

  33. Yes. If Dick Cheney were still in office, I would simply assume that this story came from there. Like … um … the story re: yellow cake uranium shipments from Niger to Iraq, back in about 2002?? Who stands to benefit if this story is believed by the US media?

  34. This whole affair reminds me a bit of the attempted assassination of US Ambassador to Lebanon John Gunther Dean in 1980 in which Israeli intelligence was alleged to have perpeutated the plot in an effort to disrupt negotiations with the PLO and undermine Lebanese sovereignty.

    link to informationclearinghouse.info

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