Reasons for Suspicion Run Deep on Political & Legal Grounds
The United States last week turned the U.N. Security Council into a courtroom. It wanted to try Iranian suspects before foreign governments in the bizarre story of an alleged assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Behind closed doors in the council chambers U.S. officials admitted the story was “hard to believe.” This is according to a Western diplomat who was among the council ambassadors shown evidence by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was accompanied by officials of the F.B.I., CIA and the State and Justice Departments.
It isn't known whether the CIA official revealed classified information that went beyond the F.B.I. criminal complaint in the case, which was made public. The U.S. isn't normally in the habit of sharing intelligence at the U.N.
Reuters quoted a U.S. official saying classified wire transfer documents used to pay for the alleged assassination had “some kind of hallmark” showing they were approved by Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the elite Iranian al-Quds Force. Because the circumstances of the story are so strange, one cannot rule out forgery by Iranian agents working for the U.S.—or for another government that may have even fooled at least some U.S. authorities. Just recall the forged Niger uranium document that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
The Clinton administration in 1999 went to court in the Southern District of New York in U.S.A. v. bin Laden in the African Embassy bombings. I covered the trial and saw al-Qaeda operatives on the witness stand. They were convicted by a civilian jury. The Bush administration ridiculed criminal trials for the crime of terrorism and insisted it was a national security matter without any need to test innocence or guilt in a courtroom.
When the Obama Justice Department wanted to try terrorism suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the same New York court, the Right howled until Obama backed down. The handling of this alleged Iranian plot appears to be a weird hybrid between a criminal proceeding and a rush to judgment to convince foreign governments of two suspects' guilt before they are even indicted. The U.S. is also inferring a sovereign state is involved, rather than merely rogue individuals, who, incidentally, are innocent until proven guilty.
Though the U.S. admitted the story seems far-fetched, U.S. allies Britain, France, Germany and Colombia said they believed Rice's U.N. presentation. These countries may be ready to support new sanctions against Iran—or other action, even though each of them presumably guarantees due process in their legal systems.
Rush to Judgment
On the day the alleged plot was revealed, and before a Grand Jury has even been empaneled, Downing Street issued a statement “congratulating” U.S. authorities on the “successful operation to disrupt a conspiracy to attack diplomats” in the U.S. “The United Kingdom is in close touch with the U.S. authorities on this case. We will support measures to hold Iran accountable for its actions," the British statement said. It did not prefix conspiracy with “alleged,” and assumed proof that the plot was already underway when “disrupted,” dismissing the possibility it was suggested to an Iranian-American suspect by the U.S. informant, posing as a Mexican drug gangster.
Russia and China, who hold Security Council vetoes, must be convinced of Iran's guilt to vote for increased U.N. sanctions. So far they aren't. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's U.N. envoy, said after being briefed by Rice, "I’m not an expert, but we’re going to look at it very, very seriously. We have sent all the information received to Moscow. There will be contacts, and they’ll look at it very seriously.” Wang Min, the deputy ambassador of China, said, "They’re still investigating, right?”
Even a U.S. official admitted to Reuters that “a lot of people basically feel really suspicious about this.” He questioned the White House's motive for “ratcheting this thing up so quickly” by going to the Security Council.
Reasons for Doubt
The reasons for the suspicion run deep on both political and legal grounds.
Politically, unless Iran is suicidal it makes little sense to provide the U.S. with a ready-made pretext for war. The alleged plot antagonizes the three countries that would likely be involved in an attack on Iran: the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. The F.B.I. complaint claims the suspects also wanted to bomb the Israeli embassies in Washington and Buenos Aires. Israel says it feels threatened by Iran's support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statements questioning the Holocaust and wanting to return Israel to the Palestinians. It is Israel and the U.S. that constantly threaten Iran. Overthrowing the Iranian regime would extend Israeli and U.S. control of the region.
Probably for that reason Iran has never attempted a terrorist attack on U.S. soil before. Unless it wants war, it would be an odd time for it to start. Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ray Takeyh, hardly a Teheran defender, wrote in his book, Hidden Iran, that Iran has largely been out of the terrorism business in the Gulf since the mid-1980s and has adopted a more pragmatic foreign policy since.
Gary Sick, a Columbia University Iran analyst, told CNN: “I find this alleged Iranian plot very hard to believe. In fact, this plot, if true, departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures. At a minimum both the public and the Congress should demand more detailed evidence before taking any rash or irreversible action.” Former CIA Middle East operative Bob Baer told the network: "Everybody is looking for evidence that there is going to be a confrontation with Iran. Everybody is jumping on this as a sign of conflict to come. But there are many questions here that need to be answered."
Operationally, it is odd that the professional al-Quds Force would use a hard-drinking, Iranian-American used car salesman in Texas, a man who often lost his cell phone and keys and couldn't find socks to match, to contract a Mexican drug gang to carry out such an elaborate terrorist plot.
“It is difficult to believe that they would rely on a non-Islamic criminal gang to carry out this most sensitive of all possible missions,” said Sick. He said Iran's history of assassinations were of Iranian counter-revolutionaries in the 1980s, and “the bombings were always carried out by trusted proxies — normally a branch of Hezbollah. Iran’s fingerprints were always concealed beneath one or more layers of disguise. So why were they all of a sudden so sloppy? Why would they take this risk now?”
"There are very few groups operationally better than Iran’s Quds Force,” added Baer. “They know what they are doing. The only proxies they use are ones they’ve vetted. They don’t let their own citizens get involved. It would be completely uncharacteristic for Iran to be caught red handed."
Legally, the alleged Iranian plot should be seen in the context of a growing trend of F.B.I. sting operations targeting Muslim-Americans. There have been 17 such cases since 9/11, including the framing of a 19-year old Somali-American in Seattle who the F.B.I. talked into blowing up a “car bomb” last year at a Christmas Tree lighting. The bomb was fake. The prison sentence was real.
On the night of May 20, 2009 I returned home to my apartment in the Riverdale section of New York City to find the Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and top F.B.I. officials holding a press conference on the steps of a synagogue directly below my living room window. It became clear early on in the press conference that the F.B.I. had recruited the “terrorists,” chosen the “targets,” made the “bomb” and then brought the “suspects” to the synagogue where they were promptly arrested as they were about to plant the fake device. My question in the press conference about whether this was a sting operation was ignored. Afterward I spoke privately with a high-ranking F.B.I. official who told me an informant wearing sandals had been sent to a mosque in a poor black neighborhood of depressed Newburgh, New York. He proceeded to recruit locals for the “job.”
Most newspaper and television accounts of the incident omitted these details, reporting that the F.B.I. had “disrupted” a terrorism attack already underway. That burnished the F.B.I.'s image. They had saved us. But there is a big difference between the F.B.I. stopping a terrorism plot already hatched, and instigating one on its own from scratch. There were probably only two groups that could have planned the synagogue “bombing”: al-Qaeda and the F.B.I. And it wasn't al-Qaeda.
This distinction was lost on the residents living near the synagogue. When told that the entire thing was contrived and carried out by the F.B.I., in effect keeping Americans frightened, one resident said, “I don't care. I have a right to be afraid!”
It later emerged in court that the F.B.I. had paid as much a $50,000 each to the men to pull it off. They had also fed them marijuana. Colleen McMahon, the federal judge hearing the case, disagreed with the jury's guilty verdict.
She said: “The essence of what occurred here is that a government understandably zealous to protect its citizens from terrorism came upon a man [the supposed terrorism ringleader James Cromitie] both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own … It [the F.B.I.] created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry, and then made those fantasies come true … The government did not have to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot - there was no nefarious plot to foil.”
Judge McMahon said the defendants were “not political or religious martyrs,” but “thugs for hire, pure and simple.” But they were sentenced for life nonetheless. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed complaints from Muslim-America leaders that the stings were stoking anti-Muslim sentiment.
Sting operations are illegal in some countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands. There is a fine line between a sting and entrapment, which is difficult to prove in court. It must be shown that the police provoked or talked the suspects into committing a crime, which they otherwise wouldn't have committed. A sting is not entrapment if a suspect has been engaged in the crime in the past and is set up to be caught at it again.
The relationship revealed in the criminal complaint between the U.S. informant and the Iranian-American target, Mansour Arbabsiar, is crucially important. In the Bronx synagogue case, for instance, the F.B.I. approached and befriended the targets. In this case, U.S. officials say Arbabsiar approached a U.S. informant he thought was in the Zeta drug gang, because he knew the man's aunt.
The F.B.I. complaint makes no mention of this. It only says the two met on several occasions and spoke on the phone. There's no mention of the aunt. This is one of the fishiest parts of the government’s story. Of all the drug gang members in Mexico and Texas, what are the odds that Arbabsiar would happen to chose one that was a paid undercover U.S. agent?
It would seem more likely that the informant approached him.
But what a lucky break for the government. Here is Arbabsiar running into the feds' arms with an order from his cousin back in Iran, Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior commander of the al-Quds Force, to at first kidnap the Saudi ambassador. It later became an assassination attempt.
The government's case rests partly on two wire transfers from Iran for around $49,000 each as a down payment to the would-be assassins. The money went into a dummy Justice Department account. It is impossible to believe a leader of the al-Quds Force wouldn't know that every transaction into or out of the U.S. of more than $10,000 is investigated. The criminal complaint even quotes the less-sophisticated Arbabsiar saying he would have to “send ten thousand, ten thousand, ten thousand. I don't wanna send it to one guy, one shot.” It appears that these wire transfers were intended to be discovered and raises the possibility they were actually sent by foreign agents from Iran, violating U.N. sanctions making such transfers illegal.
The F.B.I. claims it wire-tapped Arbabsiar saying he wanted the ambassador dead. After his arrest he supposedly confessed the whole thing, after oddly waiving his right to an attorney. Despite the confession, his attorney now says he'll plead not guilty. Why would he change his mind?
Arbabsiar's friends nicknamed him Jack because of the kind of bourbon he swigged. He has a petty criminal record and his friends say he was constantly hustling for money. The used-car dealer spoke from the U.S. on wiretapped telephone conversations with his cousin in Iran about the operation, referring to it in code as the sale of a Chevrolet. Gareth Porter suggests the real operation was a drug deal. NBC News quotes law enforcement officials saying it was a drug deal, at least initially. Defense attorneys might well argue that the informant himself may have later suggested the assassination.
Gary Sick questions whether such a phone conversation could have even taken place. “Whatever else may be Iran’s failings, they are not noted for utter disregard of the most basic intelligence trade craft, e.g. discussing an ultra-covert operation on an open international line between Iran and the U.S.,” he said.
The complaint says it was the informant's idea where to kill the ambassador: in a D.C. restaurant, whose name U.S. officials say was made up. Perhaps like much of this story.
Calling the non-existent device to blow up the phony restaurant a “weapon of mass destruction” in the complaint is also misleading and politically charged. WMD usually mean chemical, biological and nuclear weapons—none of which the complaint suggests would be used. It is especially charged as the U.N. has three times imposed sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment in its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
Unlike the previous stings, which ruined the lives of Muslim Americans and unnecessarily frightened the American population, this case has the potential to terrify the people of Iran and the entire Middle East.
Emerging from the Security Council last week, Mohammed Khazaee, Iran's ambassador to the U.N. and the highest-ranking Iranian official in the U.S., told me Washington was clearly using the alleged plot to build a case against his nation. I asked him if that meant war. “That would be a very dangerous game,” he told me. "Iran is a very strong country. We can take care of ourselves."
George W. Bush in his memoirs admits he was unable to attack Iran because of a National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had ceased trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. Bush declined to give Israel the bunker busting bombs they would need to strike underground Iranian nuclear facilities.
It was revealed only last month that the Obama administration instead has indeed delivered the bunker busters.
The government’s case may not stand up in a New York federal courtroom. But that might not matter, since the Iranians are already guilty in the court of U.S. public opinion and in the foreign ministries of U.S. allies. The damage might be done before the legal process in this fantastic case plays itself out.
Joe Lauria is an author, foreign affairs correspondent and investigative reporter. He has covered the United Nations for 19 years for numerous newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Montreal Gazette and the Johannesburg Star. Joe is a member of the Sunday Times of London's investigative unit. He is co-author of A Political Odyssey, a look at America’s defense industry and the false threats it thrives on.
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