Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The "Iranian" plot

The alleged Iranian plot the feds just busted is raising a lot of skeptical questions. And it should, since we know that there are a lot of neocons, Christian Zionists and liberal hawks who want to push the US toward more confrontation with Iran, even leading to war. Laura Seligman's report on Joe Biden's morning news appearances today concludes with a phrase that in diplomatic terms normally means that military retaliation is being considered:

Biden appeared on ABC's Good Morning America, CBS’s The Early Show, and NBC's Today on Wednesday morning to discuss the event. He called the plot to assassinate the diplomat "an incredibly serious attempt to do something that was really unheard of," saying it violates "all international norms."

He said the U.S. is going to make sure the rest of the world knows exactly what happened and holds Iran accountable for their behavior.

“I think you’re going to see continued isolation of Iran," Biden said on The Early Show. “Their economy is already in deep trouble because of the sanctions that exist and I think what we have to do is unite the entire world against the Iranian behavior.”

Biden said that actions taken against Iran could go beyond the additional sanctions already in place after yesterday’s events, but did not reveal specifics.

"Nothing has been taken off the table," he said on ABC's Good Morning America. [my emphasis]
So the Obama Administration may really be on the verge of doing something stupid. Which means people who don't think war with Iran is a good idea are asking skeptical questions. They of course risk being considered other than Very Serious People. As Glenn Greenwald tweeted today: "To be a Terrorism Expert: 1) repeat US govt claims uncritically; 2) warn how Serious it all is; 3) demand action; 4) ignore similar US sins".

That last point isn't gratuitous. Seymour Hersh has reported on US covert operations in Iran, which should certainly be part of the discussion on this. Ignoring what happens in the world and then suddenly when it intrudes on our general American consciousness to ask in bewilderment, "Why do they hate us?" is only a useful attitude for those who are interested in promoting unnecessary wars.

I haven't yet seen any statements on the case from any of the members of the Senate's War Trinity: John "the Maverick" McCain, Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman.

In his first Salon column on the subject, The "very scary" Iranian Terror plot 10/12/2011, Glenzilla expresses his skepticism in a memorable opening:

The most difficult challenge in writing about the Iranian Terror Plot unveiled yesterday is to take it seriously enough to analyze it. Iranian Muslims in the Quds Force sending marauding bands of Mexican drug cartel assassins onto sacred American soil to commit Terrorism — against Saudi Arabia and possibly Israel — is what Bill Kristol and John Bolton would feverishly dream up while dropping acid and madly cackling at the possibility that they could get someone to believe it.
Why would the supposedly very professional and sophisticated Iranian international operations try to hire a hit man from a Mexican drug cartel to do a sensitive operation like this? I'll insert here that we don't know until we know. But it's a serious question. Here are some worthwhile takes on this.

Juan Cole, Is an Iranian Drug Cartel Behind the Assassination Plot against the Saudi Ambassador? Informed Comment 10/12/2011:

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.
Ryan Reilly in Did Iranian Regime Approve Plot To Have Mexican Drug Cartel Member Kill Saudi Arabian Ambassador? TPM 10/12/2011 expresses a (somewhat garbled) skepticism about the basic claim:

Does the U.S. really think that Iranian leadership signed off on the plan? After all, it seems a likely possibility that you might not know when a general in your Revolutionary Guard's covert division goes off plotting an assassination plot (or, say, when some agents under your command concoct a flawed anti-gunrunning plan that lets guns flow across the Mexican border).

Holder clarified at the press conference that the complaint did not charge that Iranian government leadership knew of or signed off on the attack. But court papers do allege that the plot was coordinated by major players in the Quds Force, the Iran's external special operations unit. [my emphasis]
Cole suggests that an alternative scenario could involve an Iranian drug dealer providing the claimed funding for the plot.

The Christian Science Monitor does a decent job reporting on foreign affairs. But this early article by Howard LaFranchi, How will US retaliate against Iran for alleged assassination plot? 11/11/2011, quotes only two non-governmental sources on options for US response: Matthew Levitt of the pro-war Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and says James Carafano of the pro-war Heritage Foundation.

But this CSM piece by Sara Miller Llana, Iran assassination plot: Terrorists join forces with Mexican drug cartels? Christian Science Monitor 11/11/2011, raises some substantive problems:

But are Mexican cartels really linking up with terrorists?

Mexicans, fiercely opposed to any type of US military intervention despite its growing violence, say the connection between terrorism and drug traffickers is already being overblown, and this will just add to the fodder.

"For a long time the US security apparatus ... has been trying to see if there is any connection between organized crime in Mexico and terrorist organizations," says Alejandro Schtulmann, head of research at the Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis consulting firm in Mexico City. "Mexican criminal groups have no interest in upsetting the US."
This article by David Kenner WINEP The Iranian-Saudi cold war heats up Foreign Policy 10/11/2011 mainly presents a press release from Simon Henderson of WINEP, who asks, "will the Islamic Republic [Iran] persist in what certainly appears to be a newly aggressive policy?"

Jim Lobe, in a good, analytical early article, Iranians Charged in Alleged Plot to Kill Saudi Envoy 11/11/2011, reports:

Regional specialists here expressed bafflement over both the plot and the specific target.

"Let's suppose they succeeded in knocking off al-Jubeir who, to my mind, doesn't have any enemies," said Thomas Lippman, a Gulf expert at the Middle East Institute (MEI). "What would they accomplish besides infuriating the United States and Saudi Arabia? It's been years since the Iranians were in the business of going around and blowing people up."

Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert also based at MEI, agreed that such a plot was neither "consistent of the typical actions of the regime", nor did it appear that "the regime has anything strategic to gain from wanting to do this."

At the same time, he told IPS, "We've seen a number of cases over the years where they seem to act irrationally and incompetently," as in the case of its aborted efforts to ship weapons through Nigeria last year.

"It may be that someone in Iran is trying to undermine any potential for rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran," he said, noting recent clashes between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and officials close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over the former's more forthcoming stance on relations with the U.S.

"The question is, would they go so far as to try to pull something like this off? It doesn't seem consistent with a regime that is generally very cautious and has tended to not want to invite serious U.S. reaction to its actions."
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