If only they had picked the right Mexican: Why I think the Iran-Saudi terror case is for real

Kenneth Timmerman President, Foundation for Democracy in Iran
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As I watched Attorney General Eric Holder’s miserable performance at the joint press conference he called with FBI Director Robert Mueller and other DOJ officials on Tuesday to announce the Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States, it was hard to believe the case they were alleging.

I have tracked Iranian terrorism for almost 30 years, and I’ve never seen such sloppy tradecraft as what the feds were alleging in this case. The chief terror operator for Iran’s dreaded Quds Force was an Iranian-American used-car dealer with a rap sheet from Texas, who traveled back and forth to Iran to see his family? Really?

And this “mope,” as some in DOJ are calling him, was so plugged into the highest levels of the Quds Force terror masters that they sent him $100,000 in two wire transfers from an overseas bank, in spite of post-9/11 “know your customer” rules supposed to automatically report to the feds any wire transfer over $10K? Hard to believe.

Making matters worse was Holder’s performance. After the fake humility (standing aside from the podium to see which official journalists addressed their question to), he lingered on and took one square in the face about the impending congressional subpoena for Fast and Furious. After a curt reply, he walked off the stage and shut down the show.

It all smacked of a political contrivance. And that’s a shame. Because Holder’s performance — even his presence, really — did a disservice to the men and women who investigated this case in the FBI and the Southern District of New York, and who laid out the facts (at least, some of them) in a 21-page charging document.

Here is what convinced me:

1) The Cousin

The “mope” (a.k.a. 56-year-old defendant Manssor Arbabsiar) claims he is the cousin of a very senior terror master within the Quds Force, and refers to his “cousin” repeatedly in the indictment. Cousin Quds was “a big general in [the] army” who was “wanted in America” and had been “on the CNN.” He was the one who asked the “mope” to find someone to carry out the assassination of the Saudi ambassador (what was he thinking?). DOJ should have identified the cousin, but referred to him only as “Iranian Official #1.”

It took a simultaneous press release by the Department of Treasury to identify the cousin as Abdul Reza Shahlai. His rap sheet? According to Treasury, which originally designated him as an international terrorist in 2008, Shahlai was a “deputy commander” in the IRGC-Quds Force and planned “Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) Special Groups attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq.” One of the attacks he planned was the 2007 raid in Karbala during which Iranian-trained operatives posing as American soldiers abducted and eventually murdered five U.S. soldiers.

Shahlai is the real deal. He’s no two-bit player, or opposition plant trying to embarrass the regime. (For more on Shahlai, see Thomas Josceleyn’s excellent article at The Long War Journal.)

2) The Top-Level Approval

Buried on page 18 of the indictment is the following passage:

“SHAKURI advised ARBABSIAR that an individual whom ARBABSIAR understood to be the leader of the Qods Force (hereinafter “Iranian Official #3”), was aware of what ARBABSIAR was doing and that he (ARBABSIAR) could meet with Iranian Official #3 in the future.”

Shakuri is the other defendant in the case, and is currently a fugitive. He served as a courier for Arbabsiar’s cousin, and brought $15,000 in cash to Arbabsiar to cover his expenses while they were waiting for the $100,000 wire transfer to be made into the DEA informant’s bank account from a non-Iranian bank.

This passage clearly suggests that the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador was officially sanctioned by Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the notorious commander of the Quds Force, a man identified by the Guardian newspaper as the true power behind the Islamic Republic regime.

3) The Phone Calls

Arbabsiar didn’t just make these claims in meetings with the wired-up DEA informant he thought worked for a Mexican drug cartel he hired to carry out the attack. The FBI convinced Arbabsiar to cooperate with the investigation after they arrested him, and got him to phone Shakuri in Iran on Oct. 4 and again on Oct. 5 so they could record the two of them discussing the plot and the payments to the Mexican assassin. Pretty good.

4) The Target

Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, D.C., has been a close adviser to King Abdullah since he was the crown prince, and has long urged Saudi Arabia and the United States to take more vigorous actions against the Iranian regime. In a November 2007 State Department cable, now available at WikiLeaks, Jubeir warned U.S. diplomats that talks with the Islamic Republic, then underway in Baghdad, would only embolden the Iranian regime and would lead to more terrorism. Instead, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia should “confront Iran,” he urged.

Al-Jubeir was one of the rare diplomats who dealt with Iran who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid that more talk would produce “moderation.” Without a doubt, he was a thorn in the side of the regime.

As to the plot itself, the indictment makes clear that the Iranian godfather of the plot preferred a clean assassination of Jubeir, but in the end, rather liked the idea of a truck bomb or some other bomb attack that would kill dozens or more at the popular Washington, D.C. restaurant where the ambassador frequently ate lunch.

What if the attack had succeeded and the Iranians had wired the bomb so it blew up the attacker with it? Drug dealers kill people in Washington, D.C. every day. And undoubtedly, there could have been someone else at the restaurant who might have been a target of such a gangland attack (a U.S. senator? A DOJ official?).

A really big truck bomb would have created chaos. Who knows if law enforcement would discover evidence linking the spattered remains of the bomber to the Iranians. Maybe the Saudis would figure it out and take it as a warning — that their “aggressiveness” and pro-American stance might have a cost.

I doubt Qassem Suleimani and his cohorts are worried that President Obama is going to order any meaningful U.S. retaliation. After all, he has never retaliated with any force when Quds Force operatives have killed Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq (nor did President Bush, for that matter).

The Iranians are probably thinking that even with their failure, the gamble made sense. It shows they can carry out such plots and get away with them — if only they pick the right Mexican.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is an investigative reporter, author, and President/CEO of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran. His books and an illustrated bio are available at KenTimmerman.com.