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Mounting Questions on Iran Terror Plot

Interviewee: Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle East Affairs, Congressional Research Service
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 13, 2011

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Soon after Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrest of Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar in connection with an alleged Iran-directed plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, administration officials had harsh words for Iran, but many experts voiced skepticism (NYT). Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service, says he and many of his peers believe that elements of the plan--such as the alleged intent to use a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the killing--simply don't comport with what they know "about the way Iranians conduct terrorist attacks" and "the way they implement them." Katzman also notes that the attack, if it had succeeded, would have drawn a strong retaliatory U.S. response, which is something Iran "does not want."

Much skepticism (CNN) has been expressed by Iran experts about the Iranian government's role. Do you share it?

I'm extremely skeptical. There are a number of dimensions to this complaint that don't seem to fit with what's known about the way Iranians conduct terrorist attacks, the way they decide on terrorist attacks, and the way they implement them. There are a number of dimensions to this that argue against the idea that this was some sort of dedicated plot approved and thought through at high levels of the Iranian government

Can you run us through some of these inconsistencies?

The main element that falls apart dramatically is that the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington was supposed to be carried out by Mexican drug cartel members. Iran has never used surrogates with whom they are unfamiliar. Non-Muslim proxy groups are never used. The Iranians have always used very well-known, familiar groups that are operationally trusted, well integrated into the Iranian strategy, like Hezbollah.

It's illogical that they would subcontract a plot like this to the Mexican drug cartels. They're not Muslim. The Iranians don't have a lot of familiarity with these cartels. They would see the drug cartels as vulnerable to making a deal with the United States that would lead to the exposure of the plot, which indeed happened here when Arbabsiar thought he was contacting a member of a Mexican drug cartel, who was a double agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The second element that doesn't add up is the plot's origination with this Texas car salesman of Iranian origin. The Iranians almost always use active members of the Quds Force, or Iranian surrogate organizations. They do not go to ex-members or retired members, or relatives of members to carry out dedicated and organized plots.

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The third aspect is that this plot might have involved a fairly sizable bombing that could very well have killed a number of people in Washington. The Iranian regime would have known that had it happened, it would have triggered calls for immediate military action against Iran. All the experts like myself would say that that's not something the Iranians want. At all levels, this falls apart as something that the Iranian leadership thought through, knew about, and approved.

Could it have been an amateur plot? There was a lot of money transferred--some $100,000 as a down payment.

I don't dispute that the person who was arrested may have indeed told the story that he told, and I don't dispute that he may have been in contact with people in the Quds Force, and I don't dispute that there may have been money that changed hands. What I am disputing is the idea that this was a fully embedded and thought-through plot that had backing at the high levels of the Iranian regime.

Yet Vice President Joseph Biden went on television saying this was an "outrageous act" (TheHill) by Iran's government.

At all levels, this falls apart as something that the Iranian leadership thought through, knew about, and approved.

Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton made the same comments (VOA). She called it "an Iranian escalation." I can't comment on the administration's response, but I can say that certainly with more study and more analysis they may ultimately either walk back some of what they've said or soften it, or in some ways just simply drop it. The questions I have outlined are themes being put forward by other experts who know about Iranian terrorism and really know how Iran acts and operates.

Have there ever been any Iranian plots on American soil?

There was the assassination of Ali Tabatabai in 1980, a former press attachť in the Shah's Iranian embassy in Washington. But that was very early in the revolutionary regime.

How bad is the Iranian-Saudi relationship? Why would they want to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington? He's not even a member of the royal family.

That aspect of the alleged plot is actually the one that is most logical. Not specifically that they would go after Ambassador Adel Al Jubeir, but that they would be going after the Saudi regime and Saudi high officials. There's clearly strategic competition, or worse, between these two nations, so [for Iran to be] trying to hurt the Saudis is something that makes sense to us as experts.

The Saudis of course have accepted this story without reservation.

As have Iranian opposition groups. As have any number of people who are against the Iranian regime.

And some U.S. groups that would like to attack Iran. Given all the doubts by experts, it's almost like the experts and the government aren't on the same page at all.

It does seem to be very strange. My peers [and I] are all sort of shaking our heads saying: This just doesn't add up to what we know about Iranian terrorism, and we think we know Iranian terrorism because we've been writing on it and watching it for a very long time.

The views expressed in this interview are solely those of Kenneth Katzman and do not represent those of the Congressional Research Service.

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