The Two Scary Iran Plot Complaints: A Comparison

As I wrote on Wednesday, earlier this month, the government released Manssor Arbabsiar’s original complaint in the Scary Iran Plot. As I showed, comparing the original with the amended complaint reveals that the government tried to hide the roles of Arbabsiar’s brother and several western banks (possibly including Chase) in transferring the money for the plot.

A comparison of the two complaint shows a number of interesting things, which I’ll detail below. But the two most striking details are the complete absence of any mention of Gholam Shakuri in the original complaint and the complaint’s silence on the opium deal that formed part of Arbabsiar and Narc’s discussions.

Remember what I’ve observed before: four of the five charges against Arbabsiar are conspiracy charges which couldn’t be charged without evidence of another conspirator. Now, I expected to see a lot more implicating Shakuri in the second complaint. After all, along with getting a confession during the period when Arbabsiar purportedly waived his Miranda rights, they also got him to make 3 calls to Shakuri that, while they were are inconclusive about whether Shakuri knew of an assassination, make it clear he did know about the transfer of $100,000. But the original complaint doesn’t even include the information at ¶33(d) in the amended complaint showing Shakuri delivering more funds to Arbabsiar (and therefore, not surprisingly, the earlier complaint does not include ¶3(c) claiming the earlier funding was one of the overt acts in this conspiracy). In fact, the only co-conspirator alleged in the first complaint is Arbabsiar’s cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, described as CC-1. Now, I assume the government has a ton of intelligence-derived evidence in this case they don’t want to show us. But in their original complaint, they show very little real evidence of a conspiracy. Which makes Arbabsiar’s “cooperation” all the more striking, given that that cooperation forms the key evidence (at least that we’ve seen) for most of the charges against him.

The complaint’s silence on the drug deal is just as interesting. I had speculated that they might have charged Arbabsiar on trafficking charges and used the threat of hard time to convince him to waive Miranda and flesh out the assassination plot. But obviously that’s wrong; they didn’t include the drug charges in the earlier complaint. So why would the government not charge the Quds Force on efforts to set up drug deals with Los Zetas? Two possibilities are, first, that longer term drug deals are the basis for Arbabsiar’s relationship with Narc; revealing that would damage the story line that Arbabsiar just found Narc by accident. A closely related possibility is that the FBI and DEA had recruited Arbabsiar to set up these deals as a way to infiltrate Quds Force, in which case Arbabsiar would be granted immunity for such things. Or maybe they just wanted to keep the focus tightly on the flashy part of the plot?

In any case, here are the other differences, laid out by paragraph (unless specified, the numbering comes from the amended complaint, which has more paragraphs).

Intro and ¶14. Two different agents wrote these complaints. James F. Walsh Jr, who has been a Special Agent since just September 2004, wrote the original complaint (this article refers to an FBI Special Agent who was probably Houston-based in 2005). O. Robert Woloszyn, who has been a Special Agent since March 1999, wrote the second complaint. In spite of having two different ostensible authors, though, the language is almost exactly the same; for the most part Woloszyn just copied oevr Walsh’s language. That’s one thing that makes amendments so interesting.

¶1, •. The amended complaint describes the start date of the conspiracy “spring 2011,” as compared to the “May 2011” date in the original complaint. That may reflect earlier conversations Arbabsiar had with Quds Force figures revealed in his confession.

¶3(a-c). As noted, the amended complaint replaces the origin of the money–probably a European bank–with “a foreign entity.” And the amended complaint adds language about Arbabsiar’s spending money being part of the over conspiracy.

¶4, ¶6. In the original complaint, this paragraph says the $100,000 money transfer was “as consideration” or “in exchange for an agreement to” commit the murder. In the amended complaint, it describes it as “partial consideration” for doing so. Though both use the phrase “down-payment” in ¶16. Note, too, that the amended complaint makes it clear the Ambassador in question was from Saudi Arabia; in the original complaint, the Ambassador was described to come from “a particular Middle Eastern country.” Just a thought: given how vague the reference to the target is and given that Israel, the other target country, was also referred to as a “Middle Eastern country,” is it possible the target was at one point the Israeli Ambassador, Dr. Michael Oren?

¶16. In the original complaint, Arbabsiar is described as “a citizen of the United States born in Iran.” In the amended complaint, he is described as “a naturalized citizen of the United States who holds both a United States and an Iranian passport.” Perhaps they changed this because the latter formulation might suggest dual loyalties. Perhaps his citizenship has been treated as some negotiating chip (which would almost certainly be the case if Arbabsiar had been an informant at some time).

¶17. The amended complaint includes a paragraph on the Quds Force. I guess that’s for our benefit?

¶18 [note, this is where the numbering for the two complaints diverges]. In the original complaint, Narc’s response to Arbabsiar’s question about Narc’s knowledge of explosives, is that “he indeed knowledgeable with respect to C-4 explosives.” In the amended complaint, they take out the word “indeed.” Now, maybe this change is nothing. But remember, this conversation was purportedly not taped–at least not by Narc. The “indeed” makes it sound like a direct quote. Furthermore, it would seem to suggest a prior basis for Arbabsiar to know that he had C-4 experience–perhaps just what Narc’s purported aunt had told Arbabsiar, perhaps from some other representation Narc had already made to Arbabsiar, or perhaps previous knowledge. Who knows?

¶18 footnote 1. In the original complaint, the footnote doesn’t specify that Narc’s prior charge was in a US state.

¶22(c) adds both the description of which particular country Arbabsiar’s country “had taken certain unspecified actions relating to a bombing in,” naming Iraq. And adds the reference back to ¶17, which (as I’ve noted, is a new paragraph). Given that the way Arbabsiar seems to have been speaking from a contested Treasury Department script here, I find the emphasis notable. Also, as noted, the reference in the original complaint is to CC-1, not “Arbarbsiar’s cousin, showing that the FBI believed they had implicated Shahlai more directly in this plot than they appear to have in the amended complaint.

¶23 footnote 7. There are two differences in the bracketed comments here. In the original complaint, the bracket describing that the government that Shahlai worked for was “presumably of Iran,” whereas the amended complaint removes the “presumably.” And in the amended complaint, the bracket describing what intelligence service Shahlai was working “like” specified it was a non-Iranian service. This change is, IMO, one of the most significant. As I have noted, the FBI interpretation of a related passage from the same meeting–which reads “[ARBABSIAR’s co-conspirators in Iran] they pay this government”–seems to misread the passage, stating that it proves Shahlai was being paid by Iran rather than paying it or another government. Now we learn that another reference presented as a clear tie between Shahlai and Iran is not so clear as the amended complaint suggests. Now, I have suggested that the earlier misreading might reflect this was a rogue plot, backed by some other government (maybe Iraq, for example). While ESL issues are likely one of the factors here, what does seem clear is the tie between Shahlai’s ties to Iran with regards to this plot are weaker than claimed.

¶23(d). As noted, this entire paragraph–describing Shakuri’s involvement in Arbabsiar’s funding–is new to the amended complaint. Presumably, the government either didn’t need to present Arbabsiar’s early funding as part of the conspiracy, or just needed to add it to shore up the evidence against Shakuri, which is of course, their necessary tie to Quds Force.

Original ¶32. As is obvious, everything from amended ¶33–describing Arbabsiar’s arrest in JFK–is new. The original complaint leaves off with the description of Arbabsiar boarding “a plane in a foreign country, bound for Mexico.” So this complaint was seemingly written as he was in transit between Iran and Mexico (or possible en route to the US).

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    EW, your 4th paragraph ends unexpectedly with “Or maybe they” and the Amended Complaint link in paragraph 1 produces a “Page not found” response.

  2. MadDog says:

    From your earlier post EW, you wrote:

    “…¶22c: A 5-character word modifying “bank” that–the amended complaint makes clear–is a US bank…”

    I’m betting that missing 5 characters is “Texas”.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Couldn’t be. First, because the syntax is wrong–the quote is “the account number … in XXXXX Bank … and the U.S. routing number.” It has to be a name.

    Plus, when referring to regions in both these complaints, they’re more general: Middle Eastern and European rather than something else.

  4. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I should have done my homework better. *g*

    What is actually redacted there appears to be 7 characters total. I’m guessing you used the sentence directly below it and the bolded letters in the words “number associated” to identify the 7 character count with a space in the first and last character positions.

    So after finally paying attention to the detail (Wakeup MD! A hangover isn’t a good enough excuse!), I agree that “Texas” doesn’t work because it would syntactically have to be the letters and spaces for ” a Texas ” which would require 9 characters. With the first and last characters as spaces, that leaves your “5 character” name as the only game in town.

    Your theory regarding ” Chase ” again fits like a glove.

  5. MadDog says:

    Now that I’ve been refreshed by my nap (hangover cure # 1), back to business.

    “…Remember what I’ve observed before: four of the five charges against Arbabsiar are conspiracy charges which couldn’t be charged without evidence of another conspirator. Now, I expected to see a lot more implicating Shakuri in the second complaint…”

    If we use the NYPD’s latest terrorism arrest of Pimentel as an example, it may be that the US government too had initially planned on using Arbabsiar’s interaction with the government’s confidential informant “Narc” as the crux of their conspiracy charges, but that higher-ups decided that it was too risky a strategy and that lead to their attempts after Arbabsiar’s arrest to more explicitly tie Shakuri via the wiretapped phone calls into concrete conspiracy links.

    Just from the material released in the complaints, it doesn’t sound to this NAL that the second strategy was really very effective. If all the US government’s conspiracy evidence with respect to Shakuri is in the complaints, it seems like it could be described as arguably murky.

    The Shakuri side of the wiretapped conversations in the amended complaint tends to sound too circumspect or guarded to definitively substantiate a conspiracy to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US.

    Instead, the Shakuri side of the wiretapped conversations ends up being about “buy[ing] the car” and “when we get our merchandise”, both sounding far more innocuous than killing an Ambassador.

  6. MadDog says:

    EW describes various differences between the original complaint and the amended complaint with regard to the Iran. A summary of those differences seems to implicate a US government effort to heighten, if not outright exaggerate the extent of not only Iranian involvement, but official Iranian government involvement.

    No one can miss the less-than-coincidental timing of implying official Iranian government involvement in this plot with the renewed blustering “War on Iran” ranting out of Israel, and with the newly polished recycled IAEA reporting on Iran’s nuclear efforts.

    Given the latter two events, can one be surprised by suspicion that the former event has been politically influenced against Iran by a heavy-handed US thumb on the scale?

  7. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Yah, I should have paid more attention to the 2nd page of that NYT piece where it says the following:

    …There is a practical advantage to bringing the case in New York State court: state prosecutors said they were allowed to charge Mr. Pimentel with a conspiracy, even if he were acting with just the informant; federal law does not permit charging such a conspiracy…

    I knew I had read that before, but not where.

    Just for accuracy’s sake, I’d love to have one of our resident Legal Eagles nail this “federal law does not permit” thingee down in specific detail. Sometimes what is included in press reports ends up being only partly accurate.

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