October 30, 2011

Spat over a plot that was not

Washington is clearly unable to sell a credible story about Tehran's intent to plot a major terror strike on U.S. soil.


As angry crowds protesting against corporate greed were piling up in New York's Zuccotti Park and across several European capitals, U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder Jr. decided to hold an extraordinary press conference.

In a hall packed with mediapersons, Mr. Holder on October 11 announced that the U.S. had uncovered a diabolical terror plot, which had Iran's authorisation. He and several unnamed U.S. officials then unveiled details of the alleged plan to kill Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's influential Ambassador to the United States. Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), through its Al Quds subsidiary, they said, had sanctioned the assassination. Implying that Iran had the intent of indulging in state terrorism, the officials asserted that the assassins wanted to kill the Saudi envoy, blowing up a fashionable Washington restaurant, usually crowded and frequented by the city's political and diplomatic elite.

The story about a vengeful, amoral and, in the end, incompetent Iranian officialdom did not end there. The assassination was apparently part of a much larger scheme, which had in its cross hairs the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Washington as well as the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina.

Stretching across three continents, the plot had, apart from one villainous official of the Al Quds force, two characters in its star cast. One was Mansour J. Arbabsia, an absent-minded, second-hand car dealer in Corpus Christi, Texas, and a U.S. mole in the Mexican Los Zetas drug cartel. According to the U.S. officials, Mr. Arbabsia had in August travelled to Iran, from where he wired $100,000 from an Al Quds account as down payment for the assassination. The money, to be followed with another payment of $50,000, was deposited into the account of the informant of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who Mr. Arbabsia and his alleged backers in Tehran mistakenly thought was a Los Zetas member.

On September 29, Mr. Arbabsia was nabbed at the New York airport after he was denied entry into Mexico City, apparently following an American request, and was sent back on a commercial flight. The U.S. officials claim that Mr. Arbabsia was visiting Mexico with the intention of presenting himself to Los Zetas as “collateral” until the drug cartel received the remaining $50,000 after the assassination. On being shown, in custody, an array of photographs, he identified Gholam Shakuri, an Al Quds official, as his handler, the officials claimed.

These sensational allegations have flared tensions between Washington and Tehran. After making a bizarre case against Iran of fomenting terrorism so publicly, the U.S. has painted itself into a corner. It now needs to follow up on its assertions by taking visible action, however calibrated, or lose face doing nothing. The chances are that Washington will pursue a course that is likely to escalate tensions. Mr. Holder hinted at this when he said the U.S. “is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions.” Separately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drove home the Attorney-General's threat by advocating that a “strong message” be sent to Iran that would “further isolate it from the international community.”

President Barack Obama has further upped the ante, dragging the Iranian nuclear programme within the ambit of Washington's risky standoff with Tehran. Mr. Obama is now pressing the United Nations nuclear inspectors to release recent classified data which could suggest that Iran is experimenting with nuclear weapon technology. If information is indeed available with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that can even remotely be interpreted as Iran's attempt to work on atomic weapons, it would once again open up an intense debate — eclipsed by the Arab Spring — on measures, including military, which may be required to contain Iran.

To put the issue into the international spotlight, Saudi Arabia has reported the alleged conspiracy to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon so that it can be considered by the Security Council for further action.

In Washington and Riyadh, a heated debate is under way on a new set of stringent sanctions that can be imposed on Iran. The New York Times has quoted Obama administration officials as saying they are studying a ban on financial transactions with Iran's Central Bank, notwithstanding opposition from China and other Asian countries. Washington is also considering widening the ban on the purchase of petroleum products produced by companies controlled by the powerful IRGC.

Despite the heavy exertions of its overworked spin-doctors, the U.S. may find it difficult to build fresh international pressure on Iran or foist the threat from Tehran on top of its domestic agenda. The problem with Washington's exhortations lies in its inability to sell a credible story about Tehran's intent to plot a major terror strike on U.S. soil. The tale spun by Mr. Holder and the U.S. Justice Department has too many loopholes to be taken seriously.

The former CIA analyst, Robert Baer, who has been following Iran for 30 years, points out that the alleged plot simply does not have the hallmark of an Iranian intelligence operation. In an interview on ABC television, Mr. Baer said he did not believe that the Iranian government was involved in the plot. “This doesn't fit their modus operandi at all. It's completely out of character, they're much better than this.” He stressed that the “careful” Iranians “always use a proxy between them and the operation, and in this case they didn't.”

The American assertion that Mr. Arbabsia, under instructions from the Al Quds, used normal banking channels to transfer $100,000 is hardly believable. Even the most uninitiated in the world of espionage are aware that the U.S. Treasury Department rigorously monitors any transaction above $10,000 as part of its policy to curb drug money laundering. Had Mr. Arbabsia indeed been an intelligence operative, he would have been told by his skilled handlers that he should deal only in cash, which is the only safe option for making clandestine payments abroad. Appearing before a federal judge on Monday in a Manhattan court, Mr. Arbabsia pleaded ‘not guilty' to the charges.

West Asia historian Juan Cole suggests in his blog that instead of being state-sponsored as the Americans officially allege, a feud between drug operatives with affiliations in Iran and Saudi Arabia may be behind the conception of this amateurish plot. He points out that an Iranian cartel funnelling narcotics from Afghanistan “might be angered that Saudi-backed Sunni militant gangs in Iraq and Syria have grabbed smuggling routes, cutting out the Iranians.”

The Iranians, on their part, are incensed at Washington's allegations and have joined the Americans in a dangerous war of words. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has asserted that his country would deliver “an unforgettable response” in case Washington takes “improper actions” against Tehran. He warned American officials not to “entertain delusions” because Iran would take “decisive action” in response to any impropriety on their part.

Referring to the outpouring of protests against economic hardship across the globe, the Ayatollah said the U.S. was using the accusations against Tehran to divert attention from its own financial difficulties. He added, “The people of at least 80 nations have expressed support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, and this is very bitter and difficult for American officials to accept.”

Despite the all-out U.S. effort to raise the alarm on Iran, probably as a diversionary tactic, it is unlikely that Washington's herculean exertions will succeed. The outcry of ordinary working people making the one per cent super-rich in their countries accountable for their misdeeds is striking an emotional chord, and appears simply too powerful to be sidelined by what looks like a fabricated international crisis. Some analysts are of the view that Washington's seeming attempts to channel its standoff with Iran towards a conflict are likely to revive the anti-war movement in the West, which could be fused with the escalating street protests in North America and Europe. “We are fully aware that the concocted terror plot is similar to the Gulf of Tonkin incident which preceded the Vietnam War,” says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, who teaches at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, and is an activist with Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII), an anti-war group.

Over the next few weeks and months, grass-roots groups agitating for peace, democracy and economic justice would be faced with the challenge of forcing the U.S. and Iran to open channels of dialogue so that the movement for fundamental change, which started from Cairo's Tahrir Square and is resonating powerfully throughout the world, is not sidetracked by the rich and powerful before it fulfils its lofty but achievable goals

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