Questions About the Iranian Assassination Plot

Before fingering Tehran for the attempted assassination of a Saudi diplomat, there are a lot of questions to be answered.

When international diplomats travel to other countries, they normally don’t expect to have their personal security jeopardized during their stay. Very rarely are diplomats caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a middle of a warzone without adequate protection or trapped in their embassy surrounded by an angry crowd (Israel’s ambassador to Egypt is the latest exception). Diplomats are especially not concerned with their safety if they happen to work in Washington DC — the most secure city in the entire United States of America.

Unfortunately, normality is hardly universal in geopolitics, particularly when your state has enemies that are more than willing to make your life miserable. This was made abruptly obvious on Tuesday when Attorney General Eric Holder held a news conference detailing the foiling of an Iranian plot designed to assassinate Saudi ambassador Adel al-Jubeir at his favorite Washington restaurant. Much to the delight of Mr Jubeir, the assassination attempt was discovered early enough to arrest the perpetrators and disrupt its execution, thanks to some topnotch investigative work by the FBI.

According to the official affidavit that was released by prosecutors at the Southern District of New York, two Iranians — one residing in the United States and the other in Iran — were involved in the operation. The person doing most of the legwork was a man named Manssor Arbabisair whose status as a naturalized American citizen allowed him virtually unfettered access inside the country. The man whom Arbabisair was conspiring with is named Gholam Shakuri, an Iranian that the United States government has called an official in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) most elite unite — the Quds Force. And therein lies the plot’s direct connection to the Iranian government.

The details of the assassination are remarkable, including Arbabisair’s attempt to enlist the help of a drug cartel to do the shooting in exchange for a hefty $1.5 million in compensation. Unfortunately for Arbabisair, the drug trafficker that he spoke with was an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration who promptly alerted his handlers that an Iranian was prepared to kill a high level Saudi official right inside the Beltway.

FBI director Robert Mueller referred to the Iranian operation as “a Hollywood script.” Indeed, this was no ordinary assassination attempt, where a perfect marksman would step right up to the Saudi ambassador and put a bullet in his chest. Rather, the Iranians were reportedly prepared to use a large amount of explosives to do the job, killing an untold number of civilians and American government officials in the process.

Arbabisair is now in custody, cooperating with interrogators while revealing the most intimate aspects of his effort. Shakuri is still in Iran and therefore free from arrest but his name has moved to the forefront of American intelligence databases.

What the Iranian government, or more specifically the IRGC, hoped to accomplish is another matter. Iran and Saudi Arabia may be rivals in the Middle East; deliberately hatching a plan to kill a senior government official would seem to be a step above Tehran’s normal activities.

Why the Iranians decided to kill Jubeir in the United States instead of in Saudi Arabia is another question that remains unanswered, although an obvious reason would be to embarrass Washington and perhaps cause a rupture in the American-Saudi relationship, allowing Tehran to marginalize two of its key opponent in the region. But a successful operation would surely have led American investigators to the Islamic Republic eventually, for the Iranian intelligence services are known to harbor the most hostile of sentiments toward their Saudi counterparts.

With all of these caveats in mind, we should be asking questions before fully committing to the “Iran tried to kill a Saudi” story. Of course, this type of stunt is not beyond the likes of the IRGC, who have used agents before to conduct killings and bombings. It was only fifteen years ago when the Iranians were accused of bombing the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Tehran’s intelligence network in the 1980s is also known to have killed political dissidents in Europe. Yet in both cases, Tehran used people they trusted and could control. Relying on a used car salesman and a Mexican drug dealer to bomb a Washington area restaurant doesn’t seem to be a part of Iran’s DNA.

This is not to suggest that the Iranians were not involved or that the FBI and Justice Department may be lying about who is ultimately responsible. Rather, it is to shed further light on a very strange story — an operation that, if Iran planned, was doomed to fail from the beginning.

Whatever the rationale, the FBI has scored a big win for their record. Now the world awaits Riyadh’s response.