Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Was Ahmadinejad the real target?

About that Iranian terror plot ...

Yes, I know the proper response to that is "Which Iranian terror plot? They have so many ..." But you know which one I'm talking about.

There are a lot of disturbing facets about this case.  The big issue I am having: plausible deniability.

When you get right down to it, we went to war with Saddam Hussein to avoid the issue of plausible deniability.  After 9/11 -- and remember that the Taliban denied involvement in 9/11 -- the new reality that terrorist groups could be the delivery vehicles for weapons of mass destruction was obvious to everyone, including state sponsors of those groups. 

The nightmare scenario was that someone like Saddam Hussein, who had extensive ties to just about every terrorist group in the Middle East (yes, including al Qaida) and bragged about it, handing off WMD to one of those groups, who would then detonate it in, say, New York City.  The US would look to take out those responsible and Saddam Hussein would say, Who? Me?"  Plausible deniability.

Especially with many in the political community considering this to be a criminal act rather than an act of war, and demanding proof beyond a reasonable doubt before going to war, that would be enough to prevent any actions in the United Nations and possibly even in Congress (remember that Democrat Representative Barbara Lee actually voted against the Authorization for the Use of Force in Afghanistan; the death of 3,000 Americans was apparently not an act of war to her).  The US would thus be unable to act effectively and the attacks would likely continue and even increase.  Understandably, Saddam Hussein was the most likely critter to try such a thing, and since we already had a legal casus belli against Saddam Hussein, the decision to go to war was much simpler.

The Iranian mullahs have been doing this terrorism thing longer than anyone.  They are well aware of how that scenario works.  They could give a nuke (thanks, Obama!) to Hezbo'allah, Hamas or even al Qaida, have them slip it in the US, detonate it, and the mullahs go "Who? Us?"

But they apparently did not do that here.  Instead, the agent was from Quds, a particularly nasty part of the Pasdaran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.  Bob Owens:
Iran, of course, denies any involvement in the plot, while simultaneously promising to defend any Iranian co-conspirators.
Killing Americans is a well established action for the Iranian Quds Force. Operatives trained Shiite Medhi Army militias to attack U.S. forces in Iraq, and were behind the use of explosively formed perpetrators (EFPs), a particuarly deadly kind of roadside bomb encountered in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is also thought to be behind the U.S. embassy and U.S Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983, and in various smaller operations.
Robert Baer:
Just when you think the Middle Easy couldn't get any weirder, along comes an Iranian plot to assassinate the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Washington. The plot has was described by FBI Director Robert Muller as plucked right out of a Hollywood script — if so, it would be a truly awful Hollywood script. None of it measures up to Iran's unsurpassed skill in conducting assassinations. As for motives, there are no convincing ones.
According to the Department of Justice indictment, an Iranian-American used-car salesman attempted to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the hit. Other parts of the plan included bombing the Israeli embassy in Washington, as well as the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Argentina. The Iranian was willing to pay the cartel assassins $1.5 million to murder the Saudi ambassador. But the plot came undone when the man representing himself as a cartel operative turned out to be a paid informant of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The Iranian, who confessed after his arrest, is now behind bars. The other man in the plot, a member of the Quds Force, a secretive special forces unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, remains at large.
Before examining these claims, it's helpful to remember what we know about the Iranian unit implicated in the indictment: The Quds Force was responsible for the truck bombing the Marine barracks in Beirut. It was behind most of the kidnappings in Lebanon in the 1980s, including that of CIA station chief Bill Buckley. It organized the 1992 and1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and cultural centers in Buenos Aires, as well as Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. And most recently, it undoubtedly was behind the execution of five American soldiers in Karbala, Iraq in 2007. In other words, the Quds Force has been happy to target the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. But why so sloppy in this plot when their track record so clearly reflects a deadly professionalism?
In its 30-year history of attacking the West, the Quds Force went out of its way never to be caught with a smoking gun in hand. It always used well-vetted proxies, invariably Muslim believers devoted to Khomeini's revolution. And when the operation was particularly sensitive, they gave the job to Lebanon's militant Shi'ite Hizballah, organization the Iranians themselves had founded and which has an unsurpassed record in political murder. Hizballah has cells all over the world, including in the United States. But the point of it all was that if caught — and they were, more than once — Iran still enjoyed plausible deniability, a commodity in this business worth its weight in gold. So, if this plot was genuine, why didn't the Iranians use tried and tested Hizballah networks and keep Iranian nationals, much less unknown Mexican narcos, out of it?
No plausible deniability here for the mullahs.  The question is why.

Baer again:
The possible explanations are disturbing as the plot itself. One would be that the Iranian regime has lost control of the IRGC. In that scenario, the convoluted internal political calculus of Iran's internal power struggles would prompt the faction the plot to have Iranian fingerprints all over this, in order to provoke a confrontation with Washington — in their minds, such a confrontation would be the only way to reunify Iranians behind Khomeini's revolution.
Another possibility is that this is the work of the Iranian opposition, presumably intending to frame the regime, and draw the United States into conflict that would bring down the mullahs. The Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen e-Khalq, which remains on the U.S. list of international terror organizations despite a strenuous lobbying effort to get itself delisted, is perfectly capable of pulling something like this off.
Washington Post:
As Iranians struggled Wednesday to comprehend an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, analysts here agreed that even if U.S. charges of official Iranian involvement were true, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government likely had nothing to do with the scheme.
The security organizations that the United States says were behind the alleged plot — the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite special operations branch, the Quds Force — are well beyond Ahmadinejad’s influence. And leaders associated with them have played key roles in attacking Ahmadinejad during his recent rift with powerful Shiite Muslim clerics and commanders who helped bring him to power.

Amid new levels of infighting within Iran’s opaque leadership, Ahmadinejad at present wields no influence over the country’s two main intelligence and security organizations: the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are firmly under the control of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Even against the backdrop of this power struggle, Iranian dissidents and analysts are hard-pressed to come up with reasons for any of Iran’s leaders to undertake such a risky plot. Even if carried out successfully, it probably would have been quickly blamed on Iran, the analysts noted.
The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday accused “elements of the Iranian government” of conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador. In addition to an Iranian American who was arrested in New York, officials named two alleged Iranian conspirators as Quds Force officials: Gholam Shakuri and Abdul Reza Shahlai. Shakuri, who was identified as a deputy to Shahlai, was charged in the case. Both remain at large. U.S. officials declined to say how high in the Iranian leadership they think the conspiracy goes.
Iranians interviewed Wednesday suggested various possible culprits in the alleged plot, ranging from the CIA to Revolutionary Guard elements to a rogue faction within Iran’s power structure.
“There are those within the Guards with some degree of independence,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, a political scientist critical of the government. “But I cannot point any fingers in this bizarre plot that only hurts Iran.”
Andrew McCarthy:
It is surprising to hear suggestions that Iran has suddenly crossed a line by — allegedly — plotting to kill a Saudi diplomat on U.S. soil. As Iranian provocations go, this one is pretty tame. I related the history here a couple of years ago, and the best accounting is found in Michael Ledeen’s books — most recently, Accomplice to Evil. To highlight just a few things: Iran killed 19 members of our air force at Khobar Towers in 1996; it has had a working relationship with al Qaeda since the early nineties; it was likely complicit in the 9/11 attacks (a matter the 9/11 Commission strongly suggested — but on which neither the Commission nor anyone else in government followed up); and Iran has been plotting against and killing American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade. Compared to that rich record of direct attacks against Americans, the current plot is no more than par for the course.
Barry Rubin:
There are some points that would make one question this whole garish tale. Most important:
–This does not match past Iranian practice. Many “experts” think this is the clincher, but precedent is not always a reliable guide. Things change. Be careful on this point.
–Why should some Iranian-American businessman in Texas be a key Iranian agent? It’s called secret agent work for a reason. A sleeper cell should not be obvious. And he did have a relative in the Revolutionary Guards.
–Why didn’t Iran use its own assets? I think this is a stronger argument. The whole thing is amateurish. Even if Iran was going to do this, it would have developed these contacts and not immediately entrusted some drug gang official that one of their guys barely knew. Wouldn’t they have preferred to use Middle Easterners and Muslims?
–What was the Iranian goal? Certainly, Iran has been threatening the United States with dire consequences for a while. But why the sudden decision to escalate? Revenge for sanctions? And what was their plan for concealing Iranian involvement if the attack did happen? One can explain such a change, but one cannot explain it very well. This raises questions, but again is not a definitive answer.
(If I had to make a guess–and it is too early–I’d speculate that the Iranian agent(s) involved didn’t have full authorization to organize such attacks but that’s speculation.)  
If Iran knew that it would have been found out and was intent on committing an act of war on the U.S. and Saudi Arabia anyway, why not do something closer to home where their odds of success are much better? They could have tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in any number of Middle Eastern countries where the Quds Force might more easily infiltrate. They could have targeted Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, who’s been making trouble for their pal Assad by showing solidarity with local protesters. They could have plotted some sort of spectacular attack against U.S. troops in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, either large scale a la the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings or smaller scale a la the kidnappings and murders of five American soldiers/a> in Karbala four years ago. The Quds Force is Iran’s A-team, equivalent to the Mossad in Israel. As Robert Baer, a former CIA analyst, told WaPo, “If they wanted to come after you, you’d be dead already.” And yet, their big idea for striking a blow against the Great Satan and its Wahhabist puppet in Riyadh was to … hook a used-car salesman from Corpus Christi up with an alleged member of a Mexican drug cartel? Seriously?


[A] Quds Force operation, whether or not authorized by the regime, still should have been more professional than this. If they’re looking to goad America into war for whatever political reason, a successful operation that blew up a few ambassadors/buildings would have gone a lot further than this failed attempt has.
Indeed.  It's almost as if they wanted to be found out.  Maybe they did?

Kenneth Pollack:
If true, it would suggest three important things about Tehran’s thinking that take us beyond what we already believed:
1. That the regime believes it is already locked in an undeclared covert war with the United States—perhaps believing that the United States was behind the Stuxnet virus that set back Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the killing of several Iranian nuclear scientists on Iranian soil. Alternatively, the regime may believe that the Israelis were behind those acts, but that the U.S. (and Saudi Arabia) egged them on.
2. That the regime is willing to go way beyond anything it has ever done before to strike blows against the United States in this war. For instance, in the 1990s, the last time the regime (mistakenly) reached a similar conclusion, the most it did was to detonate a truck bomb outside an American military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen. The Saudi-American tie was there in this attack as well, but at that time, the Iranians stayed off American soil.
3. That the regime may no longer be concerned about a massive American conventional military retaliation. In the past, that fear has been an important restraint on Iranian action against the United States. Again, if true, this plot suggests that the Iranians may believe either that the United States is so consumed with its own internal problems and so determined to avoid another war in the Middle East that the American people would not countenance any action that might risk escalation with Iran. Alternatively, it may suggest that Iran believes its nuclear program is far enough along to deter conventional American military retaliation.
Short story long: Iran is saying, "We can strike you anywhere.  The US can no longer protect you."  A pretty chilling message if you're in the Middle East, especially if you're a member of the House of Saud.

That was my initial thinking.  And it remains a possibility.  But then I read Claudia Rosett:
Did Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know about this plot for a terror attack in Washington? The timing is startling. It was coming to a head in late September, right around the time of, or just a few days after, Ahmadinejad’s Sept. 19-24 visit to New York, for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
As we are now informed, U.S. authorities were on to the terror plot, and Arbabsiar’s erstwhile Mexican cartel contact was an undercover informant working not to arrange a bombing in D.C., but to thwart it. But presumably the Iranians didn’t know that. Arbabsiar, as he shuttled between Texas, Mexico, and Iran, during the months in which he was allegedly arranging the attack, apparently didn’t know the plot was already blown. Anyone on the Iranian side might have been counting down the days, or the hours, expecting that scenes of murder, rubble, and bloody mayhem, accompanied by international uproar, would soon be emanating from the American capital.


Here are a few highlights of the timeline, as set out in the complaint. On or about Sept. 2, Arbabsiar was asking the undercover agent if “the building is getting painted” — a code phrase which according to the complaint was a way of asking “whether the arrangements to kill the ambassador were still underway.” On or about Sept. 20, Arbabsiar in a phone call told his erstwhile cartel connection that in two or three days he would head to Mexico to serve as human collateral for payment for the hit; meanwhile, “Don’t wait for me. Get ready…”
On Sept. 28, Arbabsiar tried to travel to Mexico. He was denied entry, and flew on to New York’s JFK Airport. There, when he got off the plane, federal agents arrested him. A few hours later, he confessed to taking part in the alleged assassination plot. On Oct. 5, from federal custody, he placed a monitored and recorded phone call to his alleged co-conspirator in Iran, Quds Force official Gholam Shakuri, who expressed impatience to get the assassination done, saying “do it quickly, it’s late.”
Late? Late for what? By late September, and even more so by early October, there’s an urgency that comes across in the recorded exchanges detailed in this complaint. Was it simply a matter of wanting to get the attack over and done with, maybe before anything went awry? Or did the impatience reflect some bigger scheme and broader timetable, in which a horrific assassination in Washington was to prepare the way for the next step? Iran’s regime is, after all, in the business of terrorizing, deceiving and defying its way toward nuclear weapons, dominance over the Middle East and deep reach beyond.
As it is, while Arbabsiar on Sept. 20 was telling his erstwhile Mexican cartel connection to “get ready” to carry out the terror attack in Washington, Ahmadinejad on that same day was settling into the Warwick Hotel in New York. Over the next few days, he hosted a banquet at the Warwick, spoke to the UN General Assembly, held a press conference, and departed just four days before Arbabsiar tried to enter Mexico to provide human collateral to guarantee payment to a Mexican drug cartel for what he, and Iran’s Quds Force, allegedly believed was an imminent terror attack in Washington.
Perhaps Ahmadinejad didn’t know about the attack his own regime’s terrorist Quds Force had planned for America this season. But the U.S. government did know. And no matter how compelling the lofty business of the UN General Assembly in New York, it is beyond madness that while “elements” of Iran’s government are overseeing and bankrolling the final stages of what they believe is an imminent terrorist attack on Washington, the president of that government is bunking down in well-protected comfort in New York.
Let's turn her scenario on its head.  There is a terrorist attack in Washington that, based on what we now know, is easily traced to Iran, while Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is in New York City.

In that scenario, what happens to Ahmadinejad?

Under diplomatic rules, I think Ahmadinejad would be allowed to return to Iran.  But under a war theory, he could ostensibly be in the military chain of command and thus subject to capture.  Under a criminal theory, Ahmadinejad is part of a criminal conspiracy and could be stripped of diplomatic immunity and subject to arrest.  Regardless of diplomatic rules, a good portion of the American public, not to mention the Saudis, would be calling for his head.  Literally.
I'm not entirely certain of the rules here, and I don't know that this scenario has ever taken place.  But it seems clear that an Iranian terrorist act in Washington while Ahmadinejad was in New York would put Ahmadinejad in physical danger.

If Ahmadinejad indeed has no control or authority over the Quds Force, and in fact knew nothing of this plot being carried out by the Quds Force, then that leads me to what will sound like a rather bizarre series of questions:

Was someone in the Iranian government, through this rather convoluted plot, trying to get the US to take out Ahmadinejad? If so, why?

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