Iran Delivers a Wake-up Call
October 17, 2011
Last week, the Obama administration revealed that it had caught an Iranian-American used car salesman conspiring to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and possibly carry out attacks on Saudi and Israeli diplomats in Argentina. At first glance, the plot did not jibe with familiar patterns of Iranian behavior. However, that reveals the folly of relying on the past as a predictor. The lesson for the United States and neighbors in this hemisphere is that Iran’s government is not ready to be trusted.
According to Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement, planning seemed disorganized, and the man, Mansour Arbabsiar, acting with a cousin and another member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, sought out the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas to carry out the plot. In contrast, previous operations in this part of the world seem to have been coordinated with Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and have suggested careful preparation and the collaboration of trusted middle-eastern expatriates belonging to Hezbollah or other radical Islamist groups.
Preparations for the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center bombings that occurred in Argentina during the 1990s supposedly took place in Paraguay’s Tri-Border Area, a smuggler’s paradise, an obscure Hezbollah hideout, and a place where footprints would be difficult to trace. Despite cell phone records and signal intercepts, Iranian senior leader complicity was never conclusively proven.
In 2007, a Shia leader and three other men were arrested in Trinidad and Tobago for conspiring to blow up fuel tanks at New York’s JFK International Airport. According to trial records, the imam arranged for one of the men to seek advice from Iran’s revolutionary leadership. He reportedly met with a cleric who had served in Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires at the time of the community center bombing. That testimony would seem pretty damaging to the regime, except that the meeting and whatever was said would be hard to corroborate.
In the current plot, the perpetrators and their alleged sponsor took few precautions. They coordinated actions in South Texas and Mexico, where police drug investigations, informant networks, and telephone intercepts would be highly likely. They also supposedly discussed attacks against foreign diplomats in Argentina, where investigations continue into the 1990s embassy and Jewish community center bombings.
And Mexico’s Zetas, while known for violent assassinations among competing drug traffickers, are unlikely choices to carry out bombings of fortified, heavily watched targets. Even though Mexican cartels may have drug dealings in U.S. cities and others throughout the Americas, they lack experience in international terror operations.
Perhaps the patterns in this case are less obvious. The Buenos Aires bombings, if indeed they could be traced to someone in Iran’s government, had the effect of dooming President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s conciliatory outreach to the West. Even now, disputes between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, including accusations of sorcery, suggest Machiavellian maneuvering by rival factions within the government. For its part, the JFK Airport caper showed a similar willingness to assist those who devise terrorist plans on their own. Or, perhaps going beyond trusted networks represents a new model for clandestine operations.
As for threats in the hemisphere, the Zetas get our immediate attention because they are among the region’s most violent drug traffickers and have tentacles that reach into most major cities. They are dangerous in their own right and deserve U.S.-Mexican efforts to defeat them along with other violent cartels. Fortunately, the Zetas were never really involved, as we are told the Iranian car salesman only talked to an informant.
Not so for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are committed to defending the interests and policies of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. As owners of much of Iran’s manufacturing sector, their members are already embedded in joint ventures such as tractor factories, cement plants, and housing projects in nearby countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. For now, their activities attract little notice. But that could change, as it did in Arbabsiar’s case.
Iran’s government, which claims to speak for the people, could dispel fears by repudiating the plot and cooperating in an investigation. For now, it is petulantly denying involvement. Whether or not the caper fits familiar contours, the United States and its friends and neighbors in the Western Hemisphere should be on their toes.
Stephen Johnson is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.