Scary Iran Plot: Making an International Case before Passing the Ham Sandwich Test

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger;

I want to return to something Manssor Arbabsiar’s attorney, Sabrina Shroff, said the other day. “If he is indicted, he will plead not guilty.”

I’ve suggested Shroff may have reason to believe Arbabsiar will get a plea deal before this ever goes to the grand jury. Which would mean no one would ever challenge the government on the many holes in this case [oh hey! that’s me at Atlantic.com]: the claimed lack of taped conversations, the explanation why Arbabsiar cooperated, some holes in the government’s money trail (at least as it appears in the complaint), the remarkable coinkydink Arbabsiar just happened to ask a DEA informant to help him kidnap the Saudi Ambassador, and some perhaps incorrect interpretations of existing tape transcripts.

It would be very convenient for the government if this never went to trial.

But think, for a moment, about the government’s actions in this affair. It rolled out a splashy press conference. Joe Biden has declared no options off the table; Susan Rice is “unit[ing] world opinion” against Iran. And if that doesn’t work, Hillary Clinton will make personal calls followed by onsite teams to persuade allies that this whole plot isn’t a bunch of bupkis.

We have rolled out a giant campaign to use this plot to do … something … with Iran.

But it has yet to pass the ham sandwich test.

Our government has had eleven business days now to subject its amended case to the scrutiny of a grand jury, it had two and a half months to subject its original case to the scrutiny of a grand jury, and it hasn’t yet bothered to do so. We’re sharing our case with the rest of the world before we’re subjecting it to the most basic level of oversight enshrined in our Constitution. Instead of using the legal process laid out in our founding document, we’ve gotten the signature of a Magistrate Judge and run off with it to the rest of the world. And while I have no doubt of the competence of Magistrate Judge Michael Dolinger, the judge who signed the complaint in this case, that’s simply not the way our judicial system is supposed to work. Average citizens are supposed to review the work of the government when it makes legal cases, not just Magistrates.

All of which ought to raise real questions why our government has decided to share these details with the rest of the world, but bypassed the step where they’re supposed to share them with its own citizens.

What Is the Source of Gholam Shakuri’s Urgency?

I’m working on a big post that raises more questions about the government’s interpretation of the Scary Iran Plot.

But for the moment I want to raise an issue that might provide a nugget of plausibility for the larger story. And that’s Gholam Shakuri’s urgency.

According to the complaint, Arbabsiar confessed that when he traveled back to Iran (I’ve taken this to be sometime after July 20, but as I explained here, it may have happened earlier) Shakuri told him the kidnap or kill operation had to happen quickly.

ARBABSIAR was asked to have [Narc] kidnap or kill the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, and told that it would need to be done fast.

Because the government has sealed evidence explaining on what terms Arbabsiar is cooperating, I find his confession to be suspect. But Shakuri does repeat that urgency in the recorded call on October 5 (though note I also find the government’s interpretation of the “code” here suspect, both because it derives from Arbabsiar’s confession and the syntax suggests the FBI Agent is reading a multiplicity of codes to all refer to the assassination).

[After discussing “the Chevrolet”] SHAKURI urged ARBABSIAR “[j]ust do it quickly, it’s late, just buy it for me and bring it already.”

I find the urgency interesting because of several events that would implicate Quds Force power, like the push to sell Bahrain weapons, the negotiations on leaving troops in Iraq and–most notably–the negotiation of a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel on the very day the plot was announced. And remember, the US managed the timing of this, drawing out its denouement over two months after money got transferred and 12 days after Arbabsiar was arrested. I don’t know what role Adel al-Jubeir had in this prisoner swap (Egypt is a key player), but the exchange certainly seems like it would serve Saudi goals of giving Palestine some relief while serving Israeli-dictated US goals of thwarting the PLO UN statehood bid, all while lessening Iranian influence with Hamas.

Frankly, that’s all just based on the coincidence between the announcement of the plot and the prisoner swap.

But it seems that one key to understanding who really sponsored this plot–if there really was one–is understanding Shakuri’s urgency.

Government Remains Mum about When It First Charged Arbabsiar and For What

Yesterday, I pointed out some oddities of the docket for Manssor Arbabsiar, the accused plotter in the Iran assassination plot. Most notably, the docket for this crime starts with the amended complaint. That indicated there was an original complaint. But the numbering on the docket–which starts with the amendment complaint–suggested the original complaint might relate to an entirely different crime.

bmaz called the court house to try to figure out the oddity. And court personnel did some checking–and consulted directly with the AUSA trying this case–they explained only that there had been a prior complaint in SDNY which Chief Judge Loretta Preska had approved having sealed. The court house offered no insight on when all this happened.

The government’s unwillingness to unseal that original complaint is just another weird aspect of this case, as it suggests Arbabsiar might have been arrested for totally different charges. Or he might have been charged months ago.

To add the curiosity, consider this quote from Arbabsiar’s public defender, Sabrina Shroff.

Mr. Arbabsiar, who has lived in Texas for many years, made a brief appearance in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, dressed in a blue checked shirt and with a pronounced scar on his left cheek. He did not enter a plea, but his lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, said after the hearing that “if he is indicted, he will plead not guilty.” [my emphasis]

Arbabsiar’s lawyer isn’t sure he’ll be indicted? She’s not sure this will ever be presented to a grand jury?

That may indicate the government is already talking plea deal with Arbabsiar (and why not, since he’s been chatting freely about this for two weeks and apparently would prefer to stay in jail than go free).

Which, if that were to happen, would mean–barring the unlikely extradition of Shakuri–none of this questionable evidence would ever be challenged by an antagonistic lawyer a nor evaluated by a jury.

And if that were to happen, then the whole wacky plot, with all its dubious aspects, would serve nothing more than to cause an international incident and keep Arbabsiar in US government custody, potentially on easier terms than the prison term he might have expected for whatever he was charged with in his first complaint.

The Four Month Warning of a Not-Yet Ripe Plot

I suspect Ha’aretz and Reuters think they’re helping build credibility for the Scary Iran Plot by reporting that the Saudis warned the Argentines of the plot four months ago.

Saudi officials advised Argentina four months ago of an alleged Iran-backed plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington and possibly attack the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Buenos Aires, an Argentine diplomatic source said on Thursday.

[snip]

“The Saudis advised us four months ago, at the request of the United States,” the Argentine source told Reuters on condition of anonymity, without providing further details.

[snip]

President Barack Obama was briefed in June about the alleged plot, soon after U.S. law enforcement agents were tipped off by a paid informant, according to court documents.

But it seems to introduce more questions than credibility.

Four months ago–assuming the anonymous Argentine diplomat is correct–would mean they were tipped off in mid-June. As Reuters points out, that may be around the time Obama first got briefed on the purported plot.

According to the complaint, the only piece of evidence the US had at that time was one unrecorded meeting between Manssor Arbabsiar and Narc. The complaint only supports that Narc learned Arbabsiar wanted to attack an embassy–consistent with the possibility of attacking the Saudi Embassy in Argentina–or maybe wanted to kidnap Adel Al-Jubeir, not kill him.

Perhaps the anonymous diplomat is off by a few weeks, and she was tipped by the Saudis in late June, after Arbabsiar had returned to Mexico on June 23, and after Arbabsiar had had another unrecorded meeting or more with Narc.

Even if that were the case, the Argentines (and Saudis) were purportedly warned before any recordings of Arbabsiar’s statements were made and before any money got transferred–in spite of the fact that sources say the Administration didn’t really believe in this plot until that transfer.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials penetrated the alleged plot from the start. But American officials said Wednesday that what persuaded them they were tracking something much more than just idle talk between an Iranian American used-car salesman and a Drug Enforcement Administration informant was the transfer of $100,000 from Iran in July and August as a down payment to set the assassination in motion.

Note, the reference to a July transfer must refer to the receipt of the money by “Individual 1” before Narc had even provided bank data to Arbabsiar, as the actual transfers through NYC happened in August, which also supports the completely unsurprising conclusion that we didn’t need to hear about the transfer from Arbabsiar because we were tracking it electronically.

Nevertheless, do we customarily tell other countries of seemingly improbable plots before we start collecting any hard evidence on those plots?

There are some explanations for this, even setting aside more tinfoil possibilities (like the Saudis dreamt up the plot and then got Arbabsiar to perform it). The government might, for example, have tape from that May 24 meeting between Narc and Arbabsiar, either taken by Narc or by surveillance in Mexico, that they haven’t revealed in the complaint. The government may have a lot more Sigint from Arbabsiar’s conversations with Quds Forces figures in Iran, though if that’s the case, it means our role performing this plot is even more overdetermined than it already seems. Or it may be we knew directly from Arbabsiar what he was purportedly planning on doing without him having explained it to Narc.

There’s one more interesting aspect of this revelation, if true. Why did we outsource informing Argentina to the Saudis rather than telling them ourselves? Meanwhile, the Argentines remain officially mum about the plot.

Ignatius: CIA Is Involved with the Iran Plot, So It Must Be True!

In the face of near universal ridicule over the Iran plot, the Administration is now trying to shore up the case that this plot is “real.” Many many media outlets are repeating one US official promising multiple sources corroborated the plot (forgetting, apparently, that one source reading a talking point saying he’s got multiple sources is not the same as multiple sources describing credible evidence).

“Multiple” sources have corroborated the report about an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, a scheme the administration is alleging is tied to Iran’s military, a U.S. official told CNN Thursday.

More interesting, the CIA’s mouthpiece, David Ignatius, has been trotted out to reassure us that this is true because the CIA says it is.

But over months, officials at the White House and the Justice Department became convinced the plan was real. One big reason is that the CIA and other intelligence agencies gathered information corraborating the informant’s juicy allegations — and showing that the plot had support from the top leadership of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the covert-action arm of the Iranian government.

It was this intelligence collected in Iran — not tips from someone inside the Mexican drug mafia — that led the Treasury Department to impose sanctions Tuesday on four senior members of the Quds Force who allegedly were “connected” to a plot to murder the Saudi ambassador.

So after going to great lengths to scrub the complaint of any hint that the CIA or NSC was involved in this plot, pretending, for example, that we weren’t tracking where Manssor Arbabsiar was when he traveled abroad, that we weren’t wiretapping his conversations, and that we hadn’t kept a close eye on a car salesman with serial legal troubles and ties to the Quds Force even before this plot, the government has now decided to admit that the CIA was instead central to the plot.

The same CIA that used the equally dubious laptop of death for years to claim Iran had a nukes program. The CIA that dealt Iranians doctored blueprints for nukes. And hell, while we’re at it, the same CIA that overthrew the elected government of Iran to protect BP.

In short, David Ignatius wants to convince us we should believe this plot because the CIA, which has a long history of fabricating or using fabricated evidence to implicate Iran, says the plot is true.

They were better off when they were scrupulously hiding the CIA’s centrality to this plot!

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Gaps in the Iran Plot Docket to Go Along with the Gaps in the Story

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer has some questions about the Iran plot, based partly on what his friend at DOJ said about the lack of record on the purported asassination plot at DOJ.

I did talk to one of my inside guys today and he’s saying that he thinks the same thing–you know why? Because he can’t find any real information and he’s got a clearance. So that tells him that there’s something going on that’s extraordinary by the fact that he’s an inside investigator, knows what’s going on, and yet–I’m gonna quote here, “There’s nothing on this within the DOJ beyond what they’ve talked about publicly,” which means to him there’s something very wrong with it.

The docket in Manssor Arbabsiar’s case at least partly confirms what Shaffer’s buddy said, because there are things that would normally be there but aren’t.

There are a couple of weird aspects to the docket (click to enlarge).

First (and this is what got me looking at the docket in the first place), the complaint is an amended complaint. That says there’s a previous complaint. But that complaint is not in the docket. Not only is it not in the docket, but the docket starts with the arrest on September 29 (notice the docket lists his arrest twice, on both September 29 and October 11), but the numbering starts with the amended complaint (normally, even if there were a sealed original complaint, it would be incorporated within the numbering, such that the docket might start with the amended complaint but start with number 8 or something).

Two things might explain this. First, that there was an earlier unrelated complaint–say on drug charges, but the charges are tied closely enough to this op such that this counts as an amended complaint. Alternately, that Arbabsiar was charged with a bunch of things when he was arrested on September 29, but then, after at least 12 days of cooperation (during which he waived Miranda rights each day), he was charged with something else and the new complaint incorporated Ali Gholam Shakuri’s involvement, based entirely on Arbabsiar’s confession and Shakuri’s coded conversations with Arbabsiar while the latter was in US custody.

Both of those scenarios suggest that what we see–the WMD and terror charges–might be totally different charges than what the original complaint included (or just focused less closely on Arbabsiar). In any case, the presence of an original complaint, even putting the docket weirdness aside, makes it pretty likely that Arbabsiar decided to cooperate because of what was in that complaint.

Now look at his status. “Detention on consent without prejudice.” Arbabsiar wants to be in jail. Given that his cooperation and implication of the Qods Force has turned into an international incident, I don’t blame the guy.

All of which does sort of make you wonder what medical attention the court ordered for Arbabsiar.

Now we may find there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why an already funky complaint that goes to great lengths to pretend the spooks weren’t involved in the case when they played an explicitly critical role has some oddities in its docket. But I would suggest–and I hope to at more length tomorrow–that DOJ’s records system might be the wrong place to look for background information on Manssor Arbabsiar.

And at the very least, the gaps in the docket mean that DOJ is currently unwilling to tell us when and on what charges Arbabsiar was first charged, and on what basis he cooperated with the authorities.

Update: This post was tweaked for clarity.

Update: As I was responding to EH, I realized something. As I said to him, the least damning explanation for the two complaints is that the original complaint had the same charges–WMD, terrorism, etc.–but charging just Arbabsiar.

But that’s not right! Three of the four charges are conspiracy charges (the exception was Foreign Travel and Use of Interstate and Foreign Commerce Facilities in the Commission of Murder-for-Hire). Unless the government were preparing a really crazy prosecution theory, you don’t charge just one person with conspiracy. Which raises real questions about what the charges in the original complaint were, particularly given the only evidence they had were money transfers not tied directly to Qods Force. And some tapes (as well as some key conversations that were not taped). The missing tapes would be particularly problematic given that Arbabsiar claims he was not sent to do murder for hire, he was sent to do kidnapping, and those missing tapes might explain how the plot evolved).

Update: I think I finally got the August/September fix right. Thanks, MD.

How a Used Car Salesman’s Alleged Kidnapping Plot Turned into an International Incident

Let me correct something the press has almost universally gotten wrong about the Manssor Arbabsiar plot. He was not originally sent to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US in a spectacular bombing plot. According to the complaint, after Arbabsiar offered up his service to his cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, sometime in early spring, Shahlai asked him to find a drug cartel that would kidnap the Saudi Ambassador. Sometime between that point and July 17, the plot evolved into a kill or kidnap operation, and then a kill operation. But key details of how and when this happened rather curiously were not taped by the informant (whom I refer to as Narc). This raises the possibility that Narc suggested the most spectacular aspects of this plot, both the bombing attempt and the assassination, after he got approached to kidnap Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir. In other words, it is possible that Narc and his government handlers turned this from a kidnapping attempt into a terrorist plot complete with C4, which makes it a WMD plot.

I’ve got a timeline below, but first, a few points. There’s one section of the complaint that obscures the chronology of how the kidnapping plot turned into the assassination plot. Paragraphs 39 a-e describe what Arbabsiar said in his confession, but the events are dated only with the description, “upon his return to Iran.” There’s one period of time that, the complaint makes clear, Arbabsiar was in Iran, from July 20 through September 28; given the complaint’s clear signal he was in Iran in this period and the wiring of the payment, I’ve put the events described in his confession in that period. However, Arbabsiar was “traveling internationally” during another period, from May 30 to June 23, when Arbabsiar likely was also in Iran, so the events (and therefore the decision to assassinate the Ambassador) may have come earlier. I actually think the most likely scenario is that the first part of paragraph 39a–describing him reporting he had “located a drug dealer”–happened in that earlier window, but the other events happened in the later window.

There’s one other very critical issue about whether the assassination plot came from Narc or the Qods plotters. The complaint says clearly that the code name for the Ambassador assassination was “Chevrolet.” But a number of the other conversations with Shakuri (and, indeed, the September 2 call between Arbabsiar and Narc) talk about a building. And the complaint (and some of the quoted comments below) make it clear they were also talking about other operations with Narc. And when Shakuri first talks to Arbabsiar after he’s in FBI custody (remember, he believes Arbabsiar is with Los Zetas), he raises the building, not the Chevrolet, first. I actually suspect–given the discussion of “buying all of it”–that Chevrolet may actually refer to another plot, perhaps a drug deal (see Juan Cole’s speculation this might be about drugs), whereas the building refers to the assassination attempt. But in any case, at the very least it says that if Chevrolet was, indeed, the code, then Shakuri was most interested in the building plot, not the Chevrolet plot when he first talked to Arbabsiar.

Early Spring 2011: According to Arbabsiar’s confession, Shahlai approaches Arbabsiar and asked him to work with him. Arbabsiar offers up “that as a result of his business in both Mexico and the United States, he knew a number of people who traveled between the two countries, and some of those people, he believed, were narcotics traffickers. Shahlai responds, “that he wanted Arbabsiar to hire someone who could kidnap the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States and that Arbabsiar should find someone in the narcotics business, because people in that business are willing to undertake criminal activity in exchange for money.”

After that meeting: According to Arbabsiar’s confession, Shahlai provided thousands of dollars for expenses. This is, at least from the detail given in the plot, the last that Shahlai is involved personally in the plot.

May 24, 2011: In one-day trip to Mexico from Texas, Arbabsiar meets with DEA informant posing as a Los Zetas member (Narc). The meeting is allegedly not recorded. After the meeting, Narc told his handlers that Arbabsiar was interested in, “among other things, attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia.” According to Narc, Arbabsiar asked about his expertise, including on explosives. In response, Narc offered up that he was knowledgeable in C4.

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Lisa Monaco Would Like to Thank the Academy

One nice touch of today’s press conference rolling out the latest FBI-created plot (aside from comedy lines like “they had no regard for the rule of law” and “we will not let other countries use our soil as their battleground”) is that the fairly new Assistant Attorney General for National Security, Lisa Monaco, got a speaking role.

That’s certainly not inappropriate; given that this plot was either invented by or targeted at Iran, the NSD would be right in the thick of the action.

It’s the content of her statements, focusing almost entirely on thanking participants in the “investigation,” I find so interesting. She started by thanking her reports in the NSD, particularly the Counterterrorism Section. Then the US Attorney’s Offices in Southern District of NY and Houston. Then the FBI, the DEA, and the NY Joint Terrorism Task Force. After having thanked those groups–two of which (FBI and DEA) are members of the Intelligence Community–she then thanked the Intelligence Community.

Finally, I want to thank the intelligence community for its critical role in this matter. The National Security Division was designed to serve as the place where intelligence and law enforcement come together at the Justice Department. I am proud to say that we served that purpose here. This case demonstrates exactly how the division is supposed to work and should serve as a model for future cases.

(Holder offers less demonstrative thanks to the intelligence community too.) In other words, the head of the NSD, which would handle cooperation between the ops side and the law enforcement side, dedicated one-fifth of her comments, a quarter of her thanks, to the IC members presumably above and beyond the FBI and DEA officers who led this sting.

By itself, that’s not a surprise. After all, even the recent model plane UAV plot the FBI invented would have involved the NSA and CIA closely because the FBI seems to have targeted Rezwan Ferdaus, the plotter, because of his comments in jihadist chat rooms. But by contrast with such operations as that one, the complaint in this case offers no obvious tip to the involvement of the IC.

Sure, there would be intelligence analysts, the experts on the Quds Force (though the FBI agent writing the complaint attributed information on the Quds to Treasury and State declarations and “other ‘open source’ information,” in the same way he attributes information on Los Zetas to “published reports”). There might be Treasury investigators, the people who use SWIFT to track the two international wire transfers that are the primary evidence in the case, but the FBI could probably track the transfers themselves, not least because the transfers ended up in an FBI bank account and I suspect they went through a friendly bank in NYC. You’d think the NSA would be involved, but the informant, who I call “Narc,” taped all the phone conversations himself until Arbabsiar’s arrest, after which the FBI taped his calls. There is a reference to pictures of Quds members, presumably taken by intelligence agencies.

But those are the only visible signs of IC involvement. Indeed, the complaint appears designed to hide any hint of IC involvement and the sting appears designed to avoid any obvious involvement from the IC. That is, from the looks of things, this arrest required less involvement from the IC than Fardaus’.

Which I assume is the point: to create the appearance of an FBI arrest that seems entirely unmotivated by underlying intelligence plots.

And yet unnamed agencies in the IC got prominent kudos for their “critical role in this matter.”

With that in mind, I wanted to point to a few interesting details in the complaint.

Perhaps most interesting, the complaint’s account of how a seeming incompetent like Arbabsiar got sent out to negotiate ties between the Quds and Los Zeta indicates Arbabsiar suggested he get involved, not his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai (described here as Iranian Official #1).

ARBABSIAR told Iranian Official #1 that as a result of his business in both Mexico and the United States, he (ARBABSIAR) knew a number of people who traveled between the two countries, and some of those people, he (ARBABSIAR) believed, were narcotics traffickers. Iranian Official #1 told ARBABSIAR that he wanted ARBABSIAR to hire someone who could kidnap the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States and that ARBABSIAR should find someone in the narcotics business, because people in that business are willing to undertake criminal activity in exchange for money.

And note how, at the start, Shahlai wanted only a kidnapping? Arbabsiar and Narc turned it into an assassination. And Narc offered up the C4 that is the entire basis of the WMD complaint (and, more largely, the terrorism charge).

Note, too, how it was orchestrated such that Arbabsiar would be in custody making calls back to Iran that would capture Arbabsiar’s co-conspirator, Gholam Shakuri, in the plot (every single one of these charges is a conspiracy charge, so getting some evidence against Shakuri was critical to even charging Arbabsiar without having him engage in an actual attack). The explanation was that Narc wanted something–either more money or Arbabsiar’s presence in Mexico–as a guarantee of the remainder of the $1.5 million payoff before he’d order the hit. Shakuri advised against Ababsiar traveling to Mexico.

SHAKURI stated that no more money should be given to [Narc], and advised ARBABSIAR against traveling back to Mexico. SHAKURI said that ARBABSIAR was responsible for himself if he did travel.

Then, when he was in custody pretending to be in Los Zetas custody, Arbabsiar called Shakuri and told him Narc wanted more money–presumably a ploy by the FBI to get Shakuri reconfirming the plan for the plot and his involvement in the money transfer. But Shakuri rejected that request.

SHAKURI then stated: “You said it yourself, they–from our point of view of–when we get our merchandise, we get our merchandise.” SHAKURI added, “We have guaranteed the rest. You were our guarantee.”

If this were a real plot and Los Zetas were really playing hardball for a bigger advance, then Shakuri’s decision might well have gotten Arbabsiar killed. At the very least, Shakuri’s refusal to pony up any more advance money suggests some ambivalence about the operation (or Arbabsiar’s life).

Now, it’s not clear when Arbabsiar decided to cooperate with the FBI–only when he was arrested (and promptly waived Miranda rights), or back in the spring when he proposed reaching out to Los Zetas to his cousin and along the way turned a kidnapping into a terrorist attack.

But it seems clear that someone orchestrated this sting from behind the scenes to create the appearance of a Quds-sponsored terrorism plot in the US. And for that reason, among the other players and directors and cinematographers Lisa Monaco thanked at the press conference, she also thanked the IC for the critical role they played in orchestrating the show.

The Iranian Plot: Bank Transfers of Mass Destruction

I’m sorry, but I’m having a really difficult time taking this latest terrorist plot seriously. Not just because the story is so neat, tying together all the enemies–the drug cartles and Iran–we’re currently supposed to hate, but because it elicited such comical lines from Eric Holder and NY US Attorney Preet Bharara about assassinating other government’s officials (like, say, Qaddafi’s son) and doing battle on other country’s soil (like, say, the entire world) and not taking sufficient precautions to prevent civilian casualties.

But just to unpack what the government claims it found, here’s the amended complaint.

The big action that, the government suggests, proves the case involves two bank transfers:

On or about August 1, 2011, MANSSOR ARBABSIAR, a/k/a “Mansour Arbabsiar,” the defendant, caused an overseas wire transfer of approximately $49,960 to be sent by a foreign entity from a bank located in a foreign country to an FBI undercover bank account (the “UC Bank Account”). Before reaching the UC Bank Account, the funds were transferred through a bank in Manhattan, New York.

On or about August 9, 2011, ARBABSIAR caused an overseas wire transfer of approximately $49,960 to be sent by a foreign entity from a bank located in a foreign country to an FBI undercover bank account (the “UC Bank Account”). Before reaching the UC Bank Account, the funds were transferred through a bank in Manhattan, New York.

And based on those transfers, one unsuccessful attempt to enter Mexico, and a lot of talk between an informant and one of the defendants, we’ve got another terrorist plot.

Admittedly, there’s a backstory to how that $100,000 got transferred.

As the FBI tells it, back in May, Manssor Arbabsiar traveled to Mexico to meet with a guy he thought was a member of Los Zetas but was instead a narcotics convict-turned-informant I’ll call “Narc.” As always with these narratives, the FBI doesn’t explain how Arbabsiar happened to choose Los Zetas for his hit squad, as implausible as that is. It says only that Arbabsiar’s cousin told him that people “in the narcotics business … are willing to undertake criminal activity in exchange for money.” How plausible would a drug hit on the Saudi Ambassador be? Furthermore, don’t Iranians have their own more subtle ways of working?

Nevertheless, we’re led to believe it is plausible and not at all overdetermined that the cousin of an Iranian spook would launder their assassination through a Mexican drug cartel.

In their first meeting, Narc offered up that he was skilled in the use of C4. This is important, because unless you have explosives, you can’t charge that someone wanted to use WMD. Semi-automatics or poison–which might be more apt weapons to assassinate a Saudi Ambassador (particularly since at one point Arbabsiar specified he’d prefer no civilian casualties)–legally don’t offer the same benefits. In fact, in spite of the fact that Arbabsiar is alleged to have originally sought to have the Ambassador kidnapped or killed, and said, “it doesn’t matter” in response to Narc’s offer to shoot or bomb the Ambassador, Arbabsiar still got that magic WMD charge.

Note, that first meeting took place on May 24. There were other meetings in June and July. It’s only a later meeting–a July 14 meeting–that the complaint first describes as being taped. That’s important not just because these earlier conversations always tend to be illuminating (the complaint notes that Arbabsiar “explained how he came to meet” Narc but doesn’t provide that detail), but also because those earlier, possibly untaped conversations describe the other targets.

Prior to the July 14, 2011 meeting, CS-1 had reported that he and ARBABSIAR had discussed the possibility of attacks on a number of other targets. These targets included foreign government facilities associated with Saudi Arabia and with another country, and these targets were located within and outside of the United States.

These include, according to reports, Israel.

The complaint makes a point to repeatedly provide “proof” that Ababsiar’s plot was paid for by the Iranian government.

This is politics, so these people [ARBABSIAR’s co-conspirators in Iran] they pay this government . . . he’s got [ARBABSIAR’s cousin has got] the, got the government behind him . . . he’s not paying from his pocket.

And the complaint describes Narc describing the fictional plot that Arbabsiar was going to pay for. Narc had all the touches: a fictional restaurant, frequented by fictional Senators, and hundreds of other diners. Just so as to provide Arbabsiar with an opportunity to say he was okay with the death of those fictional Senators, if it had to happen that way.

But here’s the thing I really don’t get.

This complaint charges Arbabsiar and Ali Gholam Shakuri, who is apparently a Colonel in the Quds force. But the whole plot was originally conceived of by his cousin (called “Individual 1” or “Iranian Official 1” in the complaint), who is a Quds General “wanted in America.” In addition, Arbabsiar spoke with another high-ranking Quds official. His cousin provided him the money for the plot, and directed him to carry it out.

And the FBI has evidence of the cousin’s involvement; as part of Arbabsiar’s confession (he waived the right to lawyer), he said,

men he understood to be senior Qods Force officials were aware of and approved, among other things, the use of [Narc] in connection with the plot; payments to [Narc]; and the means by which the Ambassador would be killed in the United States and the casualties that would likely result.

So the FBI had a Quds general directly implicated by his own cousin in a terrorist attack in the US, and another senior Quds official at least tangentially involved. But they don’t indict those two, too? (Note, Fran Townsend just tweeted that Treasury imposed sanctions on these guys; will update when I get that information. Update: see below.)

The complaint may suggest they had an entirely different plan. After Arbabsiar was arrested on September 29, the FBI had him call Shakuri on several different occasions–October 4, October 5, and October 7. Claiming to be in Mexico has guarantor for the remaining 1.4 million promised for the hit, Arbabsiar told Shakuri–the complaint describes, “among other things”–that Narc wanted more money. Shakuri refused to give it to him, reminding him that he was himself the guarantee Narc would get paid. Before Abrbabsiar purportedly went to Mexico, Shakuri had warned him not to go.

All this suggests the FBI was after something else–though it’s not clear what. The obvious thing is that they would use Arbabsiar as bait to get first Shakuri and possibly his cousin.

But I also note that the complaint refers to the cousin and the other Quds officer as men Arbabsiar knew to be Quds officers–as if they might be something else.

In any case, this indictment seems like a recruitment gone bad. If so, should we really have told the world we’re using Los Zetas members we flipped to try to recruit Iranian spies?

Update: This Treasury release explains who the other Quds officers are.

Here are the allegations Treasury made as justifications for the new sanctions designations:

Manssor Arbabsiar

Arbabsiar met on a number of occasions with senior IRGC-QF officials regarding this plot and acted on behalf of senior Qods Force officials – including his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai and Shahlai’s deputy Gholam Shakuri – to execute the plot. During one such meeting, a $100,000 payment for the murder of the Saudi ambassador was approved by the IRGC-QF. After this meeting, Arbabsiar arranged for approximately $100,000 to be sent from a non-Iranian foreign bank to the United States, to the account of the person he recruited to carry out the assassination.

Qasem Soleimani

As IRGC-QF Commander, Qasem Soleimani oversees the IRGC-QF officers who were involved in this plot. Soleimani was previously designated by the Treasury Department under E.O. 13382 based on his relationship to the IRGC. He was also designated in May 2011 pursuant to E.O. 13572, which targets human rights abuses in Syria, for his role as the Commander of the IRGC-QF, the primary conduit for Iran’s support to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate (GID).

Hamed Abdollahi

Abdollahi is also a senior IRGC-QF officer who coordinated aspects of this operation. Abdollahi oversees other Qods Force officials – including Shahlai – who were responsible for coordinating and planning this operation.

Abdul Reza Shahlai

Shahlai is an IRGC-QF official who coordinated the plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir, while he was in the United States and to carry out follow-on attacks against other countries’ interests inside the United States and in another country. Shahlai worked through his cousin, Mansour Arbabsiar, who was named in the criminal complaint for conspiring to bring the IRGC-QF’s plot to fruition. Shahlai approved financial allotments to Arbabsiar to help recruit other individuals for the plot, approving $5 million dollars as payment for all of the operations discussed.

Update: Max Fisher also thinks this stinks.

But, for all the plausibility that Iran might be willing to blow up a Saudi ambassador, it’s not at all apparent what they would gain from it. Iran has never been shy about sponsoring terrorism, but only when it was within their interests, or at least their perceived interests. It’s hard to see how they could have possibly decided on a plot like the one that Holder claimed today.

What would it really mean for Iran if the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. were killed in a terrorist attack in Washington? The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been bad and getting worse since the start of the Arab Spring, with the Saudi monarchy working increasingly against the democratic movements that the U.S. supports. A senior member of the royal family even threatened to cut off the close U.S.-Saudi relationship if Obama opposed the Palestinian statehood bid, which he did. If the U.S. and Saudi Arabia really broke off their seven-decade, oil-soaked romance, it would be terrific news for Iran. Saudi Arabia depends on the U.S. selling it arms, helping it with intelligence, and overlooking its domestic and regional (see: Bahrain) abuses.

If the U.S.-Saudi alliance fell apart, the Shia-majority Islamic Republic of Iran would have an easier time pushing its regional influence against Saudi Arabia, especially in some of the crucial states between the two: Iraq, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran would be able to reverse its increasing regional isolation and perhaps flip some Arab leaders from the U.S.-Saudi sphere toward its own. The best part of this, for Iran, is that it probably wouldn’t even have to do anything: the U.S.-Saudi special relationship, if it collapses, would do so without Iran having to lift a finger. The dumbest thing that Iran could possibly do, then, would be stop the collapse, to find some way to bring the U.S. and Saudi Arabia back together. For example, by attempting to blow up the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil.

 

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