Why Did the Scary Iran Plotter Speak Directly from a Contested Treasury Department Script?

As I noted on Friday, Manssor Arbabsiar’s cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, who purportedly directed him to arrange a plot with Los Zetas, was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2008, in part for involvement in an attack in Karbala.

Iran-based Abdul Reza Shahlai–a deputy commander in the IRGC–Qods Force–threatens the peace and stability of Iraq by planning Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) Special Groups attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq.  Shahlai has also provided material and logistical support to Shia extremist groups–to include JAM Special Groups–that conduct attacks against U.S. and Coalition Forces.  In one instance, Shahlai planned the January 20, 2007 attack by JAM Special Groups against U.S. soldiers stationed at the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, Iraq.  Five U.S. soldiers were killed and three were wounded during the attack.

But as Gareth Porter pointed out yesterday, there are reasons to doubt the US has proof of Shahlai’s role in that attack. Porter’s original report on this from 2007 describes Michael Gordon trying, unsuccessfully, to get Brigidier General Kevin Bergner to provide real evidence of Iranian involvement in the plot. And he describes David Petraeus specifically denying the claim.

Another indication that the command had no evidence of Iranian involvement in the attack was the statements of the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, on the issue in an April 26 press briefing. Petraeus had referred to a 22-page memorandum captured with the Shiite prisoners that he said “detailed the planning, preparation, approval process and conduct of the operation that resulted in five of our soldiers being killed in Karbala.” But he did not claim that either the document or the interrogation of Khazali had suggested any Iranian or Hezbollah participation in, much less direction of the planning of the Karbala assault.

Later in that briefing, a reporter asked whether Petraeus was “saying that there was evidence of Iranian involvement in that [Karbala] operation?” Petraeus responded, “No. No. No. That—first of all, that was the operation that you mentioned, and we do not have a direct link to Iranian involvement in that particular case.”

At the time Petraeus made this statement, Khazali, the chief of the militia group that had carried out the attack, had been in U.S. custody for more than a month. Despite nearly five weeks of intensive interrogation of Khazali, Petraeus’s comments would indicate that U.S. officials had not learned anything that implicated Iran or Hezbollah in the planning or execution of the Karbala attack

Porter’s post yesterday describes officers subsequently reiterating that the Iraqis, not the Iranians, launched this plot.

In a news briefing in Baghdad Jul. 2, 2007, Gen. Kevin Bergner confirmed that the attack in Karbala had been authorised by the Iraqi chief of the militia in question, Kais Khazali, not by any Iranian official.

Col. Michael X. Garrett, who had been commander of the U.S. Fourth Brigade combat team in Karbala, confirmed to this writer in December 2008 that the Karbala attack “was definitely an inside job”.

Now, perhaps Treasury had additional evidence by the time it sanctioned Shahlai, perhaps not. But suffice it to say the claim that Shahlai had a role in that plot is at least contested, and there is reason to believe it is outright false.

Which is why I find it so interesting that, among the other things Manssor Arbabsiar repeats to Narc about Shahlai, is that he had ties to a bombing in Iraq.

ARBABSIAR further explained that his cousin was “wanted in America,” had been “on the CNN,” and was a “big general in [the] army.” ARBABSIAR further explained that there were a number of parts to the army of Iran and that his cousin “work[s] in outside, in other countries for the Iranian government[.]” ARBABSIAR further explained that his cousin did not wear a uniform or carry a gun, and had taken certain unspecified actions related to a bombing in Iraq. Compare supra ¶ 17. [my emphasis]

That reference back to paragraph 17? It’s a reference to the complaint’s background on the Quds Force. Note the content carefully:

[T]he IGRC is composed of a number of branches, one of which is the Qods Force. The Qods Force conducts sensitive covert operations abroad, including terrorist attacks, assassinations, and kidnappings, and provides weapons and training to Iran’s terrorist and militant allies. Among many other things, the Qods Force is believed to sponsor attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq, and in October 2007, the United States Treasury Department designated the Qods Force, pursuant to Executive Order 13224, for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.

Note, the Treasury designation the FBI Agent refers to is not the 2008 designation naming Shahlai directly in connection to the Karbala plot, but instead an earlier one first designating Quds Force for material support to the Taliban. And even though that earlier designation included a laundry list of Quds Force proxies, it includes Iraq almost as a footnote.

IRGC-Qods Force (IRGC-QF): The Qods Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC; aka Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), provides material support to the Taliban, Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

The Qods Force is the Iranian regime’s primary instrument for providing lethal support to the Taliban. The Qods Force provides weapons and financial support to the Taliban to support anti-U.S. and anti-Coalition activity in Afghanistan. Since at least 2006, Iran has arranged frequent shipments of small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, plastic explosives, and probably man-portable defense systems to the Taliban. This support contravenes Chapter VII UN Security Council obligations. UN Security Council resolution 1267 established sanctions against the Taliban and UN Security Council resolutions 1333 and 1735 imposed arms embargoes against the Taliban. Through Qods Force material support to the Taliban, we believe Iran is seeking to inflict casualties on U.S. and NATO forces.


In addition, the Qods Force provides lethal support in the form of weapons, training, funding, and guidance to select groups of Iraqi Shi’a militants who target and kill Coalition and Iraqi forces and innocent Iraqi civilians.

In fact, the complaint rather neatly avoids mentioning those allegations about Karbala at all, in spite of the fact that one of the people discussed (though not by name) in the complaint was specifically sanctioned by Treasury for that. Then, after choosing not to mention the Karbala allegations in the complaint, within hours of its release, the government was anonymously pushing journalists like Mike Isikoff to talk about that later designation. If they had wanted people to look at that later designation, why hadn’t they included it in the complaint?

So to review, the complaint doesn’t point to the Treasury sanction of the guy who purportedly directed this plot. But it does feature the star plotter mentioning the allegation behind that Treasury sanction, presented from the interpretation the US government has spun. And then, within hours of rolling out this show, the government then points journalists to that Shalai-specific Treasury sanction.

Now, Arbasiar’s allusion to what appears to be the Karbala plot is not fatal to this story. It’s possible he really did learn of the Shahlai’s purported role from CNN (I can’t find their report of the 2008 sanction on Google), though that presumably would have been explicit about his role. It’s possible that, in spite the fact that the government doesn’t necessarily have proof on Shahlai, Shahlai was boasting of it to his cousin.

But I find it mighty curious that the only mention of the sanctions on Shahlai–ultimately, our government’s target in the investigation–come from the star plotter and not the FBI itself.

29 replies
  1. rugger9 says:

    I for one find it very hard to believe a fanatically Shia regime like Iran [knowing that Sunni-Shia violence was in full swing in Iraq going both ways at the time] would make any deal with a fanatically Sunni Taliban [as well as AQ]. There’s simply too much blood spilled to accept that premise, even on the enemy-of-my-enemy basis.

    There’s nothing here except shiny objects. What is being hidden in plain sight here?

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    Great follow-up, Marcy, to Gareth Porter’s story. The “star-plotter” is acting as a cat’s paw for U.S. national security agencies, and we can guess it doesn’t take much to coach him what to say.

    I guess, btw, that Isikoff doesn’t mind being played by his sources… in fact, that’s the game in D.C., isn’t it? To be a power player (in journalism) means to be someone the government selectively leaks to. But that isn’t journalism, in my book. That’s being an accessory to government agencies, an instrument of their spin, or rather, psyops.

    According to Porter’s article, the Washington Post was if anything even worse on this story.

    On Saturday, the Washington Post published a report closely paralleling the Issikof story but going even further in claiming documentary proof of Shahlai’s responsibility for the January 2007 attack in Karbala. Post reporter Peter Finn wrote that Shahlai “was known as the guiding hand behind an elite militia of the cleric Moqtada al Sadr”, which had carried out an attack on U.S. troops in Karbala in January 2007.

    Finn cited the fact that the Treasury Department named Shahlai as the “final approving and coordinating authority” for training Sadr’s militiamen in Iran. That fact would not in itself be evidence of involvement in a specific attack on U.S. forces. On the contrary, it would suggest that he was not involved in operational aspects of the Mahdi Army in Iraq.

    Finn then referred to a “22-page memo that detailed preparations for the operation and tied it to the Quds Force….” But he didn’t refer to any evidence that Shahlai personally had anything to do with the operation.

  3. orionATL says:

    well then it looks like the fbi/doj are not just hyping a bogus plot, but also inserting in their complaint
    bogus charges from outside the plot, e.g., shalai/kebala.

    guess that might have been put there to move “hearts and minds” :) – magistrate judge and/or any grand jury subsequently involved and/or the american media and public.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: See, I think I’d go one further. In past bogus intell ops, I have sometimes found someone speaking ideology in weird places. It’s a sign someone has been hearing from someone they ought not have been.

  5. orionATL says:

    i know, i know, i just figured this all out!

    this scarey terrorist plot is just a doj/fbi halloween prank

    so obama and clinton can go around wearing scarey-iran masks.

    lighten up folks, it’s an old american tradition.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: Look, we know they must have been trying to get HUMINT on Shahlai. We know that financially strapped people w/legal problems make good candidates for recruitment. There are reports he had a drug arrest.

    All I’m saying is it’s a distinct possibility, and would make a lot of other things make more sense.

  7. orionATL says:

    well, then it moves from being merely an over-zealous effort on the part of monaco and the dirctorate of national security ( or whatever they call it),

    to being a souped-up terrorist plot designed for propaganda purposes.

    that thought makes me very uncomfortable because it implies the plot has been designed for some larger purpose in the same manner that “wmd-fever” was designed and implemented by the cheney white house.

  8. GregLBean says:

    Hmm, if I understand, what you’ve been saying over the last many weeks is something like, “Don Quixote is now building windmills AND claiming victory in their ultimate defeat.”, all very secret and hush-hush mind you.

    Seems to me others will soon work out that all they need to do is whisper “windmill” and Don will tie himself into knots chasing them.

    And poor Pancho, (represented by the bulk of the US population) watches as her life (and all financial assests) are frittered away.

    Pancho desparately needs to #OccupyTheWorld!

  9. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: Well, let’s see. At the very least, USG has orchestrated the way this would roll out since July. They provided the key details–the fictional restaurant and fictional Senators blown up by fictional C4 that justified WMD and terrorist charges, and probably placed the event in the US (which is not a fictional country).

    So isn’t it clearly that anyway?

  10. GregLBean says:

    @emptywheel: Understood, but for those who have been yelling in the past it must soon become obvious that a whisper causes an equivalent expenditure of Don’s time and money while allowing the whisperer to stay anonymous.

    In this Scary Iranian Plot, for example, Don has expended significant resources, as you outlined in an earlier post, and still can’t be sure who whispered “windmill”, if anyone did, it could just as easily be the echoes of Don’s own brainfart for all he knows.

    Good work btw, I read EW daily.

  11. orionATL says:


    so to what end?

    – u.n. sanctions

    – campaign speeches to the american people

    – more “fearless leader” script ($)

    – israel given go-ahead to bomb

    – issa quits chewing on holder’s ass and just barks

    – setting up a future foreign policy campaign issue.

    – destabilizing internal iranian power balances

    – forcing shahlai’s departure as head of quds

    i refuse to mention war. that is too stupid a move for any american official to even contemplate

  12. orionATL says:


    i NEVER make fun of “tin-foil” hats.

    look thru my postings; i have never used the phrase in my own writing.

    i believe strongly in caring citizens making guesses about what their elected and appointed officials are up to.

    i believe in hypotheses

    i believe in educated guesses and hunches

    i believe in having questions and reservations and suspicions

    i believe in conspiracies

    i believe people in power will occassionally do things you or i would be loath to even imagine.

    i believe every citizen should express his or her suspicions without worrying whether they are “right” -how could we know, when public lying is so pervasive and media acceptance of pervasive public lying is itself so pervasive?

    i ALSO believe it is our obligation, once we have a favored explanation, aka suspicion, conspiracy belief, hypothesis, etc., to keep checking and testing our beliefs to see if there are any good alternative explanations that make more sense.

    so all tin-foil hats are fine by me

    so long as each of us wearing one keeps checking in with the real world to see if there is a better explanation for their original tin-foil hat idea.

    for example, i really do not known why the obama admin has made such a fuss over this very odd matter of arbabsiar “plot”.

    on the one hand i have no compunction at all about assigning bad motives or behaviors to american officials involved in this. there is no historical reason to trust them.

    on the other hand, i am open to less malign explanations than i offer, once the evidence for that shows up.

    i am not wedded to any theory, hypotesis, conspiracy, guess.

    my view is that, as a general rule, lots of citizens wearing tin-foil hats is a sign of lots of public officials “behaving badly”, that is, not behaving in the public interest.

    that is part of what “occupy wall street” is about – that sense of betryal that we ordinary folk have, betrayal by our political and corporate leaders.

  13. orionATL says:


    i apologize for the long-winded answer above.

    i think you can tell

    i am a big supporter of citizens donning tin-foil hats


    i am an equally big supporter of citizens NEVER, EVER apologizing for having done so.

    when pervasive public lying by public officials diminishes greatly, i might change my opinion.

    as for a smokescreen re dr. ivins?

    sure. why not?

    the fbi/doj have hidden so much from the public in the complaint, as ew, with her relentless, fact-based style has shown, that nearly any guess or hypothesis any of us might conceive could be on the mark.

    most likely this matter has a foreign policy goal, but who the hell knows. so far, nobody in the administration has explained this to any of us voters.

  14. orionATL says:



    if susan rice went a’hunting,

    and she did,

    if secretary clinton went a’hunting,

    and she did,

    then i assume nsa donilon and cos dailey

    sent them on their way.

    the only question then is,

    was this a last-minute, opportunistic effort by the w-h,

    or was it a long-time gestating plan which the w-h took over early on (+- july)?

    then we are back to :

    for what national purpose?

  15. MadDog says:

    Just to add further bizarro news to this story, from the NYT:

    Iran Says Saudi Plot Defendant Belongs to Exile Group

    Iran injected a new twist on Tuesday into the week-old American accusation of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, asserting that one of the defendants really belongs to an outlawed and exiled opposition group.

    The defendant, Gholam Shakuri, identified by the Justice Department as an operative of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, is actually a “key member” of the Muhajedeen -Khalq, Iran’s Mehr News Agency reported…

    From what I’m taking away from this report, the “Muhajedeen Khalq” Iran is referring to is otherwise known here as the MEK, the group that has been designated by the US government for years as a terrorist organization, and which a numerous US Neocons (and others) have been attempting to get said designation removed.

  16. Bob Schacht says:

    Jeh Johnson (with Harold Koh?) on C-SPAN right now (taped by Heritage.org), speaking about the U.S. Policy of detaining terrorism suspects. Really depressing. It seems like the Obama administration has found its John Yoo. Or maybe two of them. And the Imperial Presidency that Nixon could only dream of is now in place. And Johnson is all distressed about Congressional oversight sausage-making, resulting in depriving the presidency of some of its powers.

    But a lot of this evil is based on the damned AUMF, which I wish that Congress would just rip up.

    Bob in AZ

    Bob in AZ

  17. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And continuing on with my comment (2 link rule maximum, doncha know), see this recent Op-Ed in the NYT from former FBI Director Louis Freeh in support of removing the terrorist designation from MEK:

    Tehran’s Foes, Unfairly Maligned

    So you don’t miss it, this wee item is important to note in Freeh’s Op-Ed:

    “…Though I have on some occasions received speaker’s fees or travel expenses from sympathizers of the Mujahedeen Khalq, my objective analysis as a career law enforcement officer is the only basis for my conclusions…”

    From what I’ve read over time about the “Free MEK” movement’s supporters here in the US, many are former high profile US Defense and Intelligence busybodies with hardcore Neocon credentials, and more importantly, many seem to have accepted mucho dinero from “Free MEK” financial backers.

  18. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And do note that a MEK spokesperson says the Iranian report is itself an Iranian scam of longstanding nature. Iran, MEK says, always blames everything bad on the MEK.

    We shall see…or perhaps we won’t. *g*

  19. emptywheel says:

    @emptywheel: If it comes to that, Iran will kill Shakuri, giving us no excuse to say he didn’t see justice, and also making themselves look like the Rule of Law country in this.

    As if either one is.

  20. lysias says:

    @MadDog: The Turkish Weekly report on this MEK report seems to have the Mehr News Agency account giving details about Shakuri’s forged Iranian passport, allegedly according to Interpol:

    I‪nterpol has found new evidence showing that the number two suspect in connection with the alleged Iranian government’s involvement in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington is a key member of the terrorist Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), the Mehr News Agency has learnt.‬

    Gholam Shakuri was last seen in Washington and Camp Ashraf in Iraq where MKO members are based.

    The person in question has been travelling to different countries under the names of Ali Shakuri/Gholam Shakuri/Gholam-Hossein Shakuri by using fake passports including forged Iranian passports. One passport used by the person was issued on 30/11/2006 in Washington. The passport number was K10295631.

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