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

Is an Iranian Drug Cartel Behind the Assassination Plot against the Saudi Ambassador?
by Juan Cole, Ovtober 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.

One possibility as to what is really going on here is signaled by the Bloomberg report in the San Francisco Chronicle:

” Arbabsiar also told the informant that the same Iranian sponsors behind the assassination plot also controlled drug smuggling and could provide tons of opium, the federal law enforcement official said.”

In other words, Arbabsiar’s patron, Shakuri, may have had a side business, besides the Revolutionary Guards day job, as an element in an opium- and heroin-running gang bringing the stuff from Afghanistan through Iran and to points west. About half of Afghanistan’s opium and heroin is exported via Iran.

If a rogue Iranian drug cartel with an IRGC cover wanted to hit the Saudi ambassador, then it would be natural for them to reach out to their counterparts, the Zetas in Mexico. Whereas if the Iranian state wanted to assassinate someone, it would be crazy for them to reveal themselves to a Mexican gangster.

So why hit the Saudis? If it was an Iranian cartel, they might be annoyed with the Saudi version of the war on drugs. After all, some of their colleagues may have gotten caught in the dragnet. Or they might be angered that Saudi-backed Sunni militant gangs in Iraq and Syria have grabbed smuggling routes, cutting out the Iranians.

Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility of a direct Iranian government plot. After all, Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet assassinated dissident (and former ambassador) Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC in 1976.

Iranian and Saudi relations have been roiled by the turmoil in Syria, with with the Saudis supporting the opposition. In Bahrain the Saudis helped crush the movement toward greater openness, angering Iranians. And, the wikileaks cables demonstrate that the Saudis behind the scenes repeatedly urged the US to hit Iran. There is something like a cold war between the two regional powers, and this plot could be part of it. But I agree with Baer that it looks too much like amateur hour to likely be the doings of the Iranian government per se.

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