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Wednesday
Oct122011

The Latest from Iran (12 October): A Plot to Kill the Saudi Ambassador?

See also Iran Analysis: The Plot to Kill the Saudi Ambassador --- Does This Story Make Sense?
Iran Feature: 10 Questions About the "Plot to Kill the Saudi Ambassador to US"
Iran Document: The Formal Complaint over "Plot to Kill Saudi Ambassador to US"
Iran Document: US Account of the "Plot to Murder the Saudi Ambassador to Washington"



Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of FBI Robert Mueller set out the allegations of the Iran-backed plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US


1810 GMT: Space Watch. Sad news from Iran --- the monkey died.

Last week, we reported that Iran had indefinitely postponed plans to send a live monkey into space, without giving any reasons. Hamid Fazeli, head of Iran's Space Organisation, said, "One cannot give a set date for this project and as soon as our nation's scientists announce the readiness, it will be announced."

The rest of the story came out today. Deputy Science Minister Mohammad Mehdinejad-Nouri said, "The Kavoshgar-5 rocket carrying a capsule with a live animal was launched during Shahrivar (23 August to 22 September). However, the launch was not publicised as all of its anticipated objectives were not accomplished.

Mehdinejad-Nouri insisted that the launch of a live animal into space was "strategic, and a priority".

1800 GMT: Supreme Leader Watch. More on Ayatollah Khamenei's speech in Kermanshah today....

The Supreme Leader gave this advice to the Iranian people for Parliamentary elections: "Vote for those who are not connected to the centres of power and wealth".

A video extract of the Supreme Leader's address:

1750 GMT: The Plot. The analyst Gary Sick is sceptical about the claim of Iranian responsibility, "Perhaps this operation is just as it appears. But at a minimum both the public and the Congress should demand more detailed evidence before taking any rash or irreversible action."

This, however, is the take-away sentence: "If Iran is really as stupid and as incompetent as this case implies, then perhaps they are their own worst enemy and not the clever and determined adversary that they are made out to be."

1720 GMT: The Plot (Supreme Leader Edition). A day after the claim of the alleged Iran plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in the US, Ayatollah Khamenei has told an audience, "Recent events in the Middle East are signs of America's defeat in our region. Americans are trying hardly to control Middle East developments but nations are awake now. American policies will fail."

And could this be an allusion to the plot allegations or the $2.6 billion bank fraud? Probably the latter: "The world must be aware of this fact that if an official goes a wrong path in Iran, people will remove him."

Well, if so, the Supreme Leader was quickly back to the notion that the story of the plot was a diverson from other serious matters: "The severe reaction to Occupy Wall Street is showing the real face of those claiming human rights and freedom of assembly. American officials and media were initially silent on Occupy Wall Street, but now they are confessing to it."

1710 GMT: Sanctions Watch. The US Treasury has imposed sanctions on the Iranian commerical airline Mahan Air.

Mahan is accused by the Treasury of “secretly ferrying operatives, weapons and funds” on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. "[Mahan Air is] yet another facet of the IRGC’s extensive infiltration of Iran’s commercial sector to facilitate its support for terrorism,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.

In contrast to the Treasury designation, Mahan has usually been associated with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani since its creation.

The Treasury said that the Tehran-based airline provides transportation, funds transfers, and personnel travel services to the Qods Force, the foreign operations unit of the IRGC. It allegedly transported Qods Force personnel to Syria for military training as well as facilitating “covert travel” by suspected Qods Force officers. Mahan Air crews also facilitated arms shipments and money transfers to evade trade restrictions, according to the Treasury statement.

The Treasury also said Mahan Air provides transportation to Hezbollah in Lebanon and has omitted from cargo manifests “secret weapons shipments” destined for the organisation.

Under the designation, U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in commercial or financial transactions with Mahan Air, and any assets it may hold under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen.

1700 GMT: Picture of the Day. Banknotes circulating in Iran with graffiti calling for boycott of next Parliament's elections:

1650 GMT: The Plot. Former President Mohammad Khatami has said, in a meeting with former officials of the political, security, and intelligence services,"I am as worried as you [about the alleged plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US]. It seems that the trade-offs against our excuses have intensified day-by-day recently."

Khatami added, "Any hostile confrontation with Iran is obsolete and the losses to the people of Iran would be great. Everyone should stand against it."

1640 GMT: Bad Behaviour Alert. The Iranian police report that sales of alcohol and satellite dishes have increased by 26% in the last six months.

1630 GMT: The Plot. Saudi Arabian officials have said Iran will "pay the price" for the alleged plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US.

Speaking in London, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal,a former Ambassador to Washington, said, "The burden of proof is overwhelming... and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this. Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price."

In Tehran, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani has joined the list of regime officials saying that "fabricated allegations" were aimed to divert attention from uprisings in the region to turn Muslim countries against each other: "America wants to divert attention from problems it faces in the Middle East, but the Americans cannot stop the wave of Islamic awakening by using such excuses."

Larijani told Parliament, "These claims are vulgar. We believe that our neighbors in the region are very well aware that America is using this story to ruin our relationship with Saudi Arabia."

1525 GMT: Cartoon of the Day. Nikahang Kowsar intervenes on "The Plot" --- his donkey says to President Ahmadinejad, "Hey brother, this Mexican dope has influenced you. You will be blown up":

1520 GMT: Sanctions Watch. The South African company Sasol , the world's top maker of motor fuel from coal, has said it is reviewing its investment in Iran and has no plans for further expansion in the country.

Sasol said in a filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission last week that there was a possible risk that sanctions may be imposed on the company by Washington, the European Union and the UN because of its investments in Iran.

"We have initiated a review of our activities in and with Iran. We do not currently intend to expand such activities,' Sasol said in the filing.

Sasol has a 50% stake in the Arya Sasol Polymer company, a joint venture with Pars Petrochemical Company of Iran. The company produces ethylene and polyethylene, used in the production of plastics.

1509 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. Fars reports that President Ahmadineajd has cancelled a trip to Bushehr in southern Iran on Friday. No substantive reason was given.

1505 GMT: The House Arrests. Patricia Lambert, an official of the European Union, has told the opposition that EU representatives want to meet Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi --- held under strict house arrest for almost eight months --- in Tehran.

1454 GMT: Parliament Watch. Conservative MP Ali Motahari, a leading critic of the President, has offered his resignation to the Parliament because his initiative for the interrogation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not been permitted.

Motahari said he could no longer protect the rights of the people who elected him.

1446 GMT: Press Watch. Scott Lucas checks in to find that Meysam Nili, managing director of the "hard-line" Raja News, has been arrested on a complaint from Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani.

1442 GMT: The "Distraction from Occupy-Wall-Street" Alert! The official Iranian response to the allegations being made against it are, so far, predictable, confrontational, and problematic. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Iran has sent a defiant letter to the UN secretary General Ban Ki Moon that did not address any of the allegations being made but instead suggested that the allegations are designed to be a distraction from Obama's domestic problems. The letter characterized these problems as an American society in decline.

The Supreme Leader Khamenei made similar statements today in Kermanshah, where he characterized this crisis as an attempt to distract the world from the facts, which are, according to Khamenei, an Islamic Republic on the rise while the West is on the decline.

These sentiments were also echoed on the floor of the Iranian parliament.

"No doubt this is a new American-Zionist plot to divert the public opinion from the crisis Obama is grappling with," the chairman of Iran's National Security and Foreign Policy committee in parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said on Wednesday.

"Americans are seeking to derail the public opinion from the Wall Street uprising," said Mr. Boroujerdi, according to Fars News Agency, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guard. Iran "has never pursued or adopted the policy of assassination, and it rather is a victim of terrorism. Therefore, the US officials' allegation is nothing but a big lie."

This is how the Iranian regime has been reacting for quite some time. However, these tactics will only intensify the impression that many western leaders have that Iran is a guilty party that is an enemy and must be confronted.

1415 GMT: With Scott Lucas on the road, James Miller takes the liveblog. And guess what story we'll start with...

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has warned the world against confronting Iran over this crisis. The smack talk has begun:

"We are not seeking confrontation; our policy is cooperation and interaction. If they want to impose a confrontation upon the Iranian nation, the consequences of this issue will be more severe for them," Salehi told reporters after a cabinet session, the ISNA news agency reported.

"We do not want confrontation. [But] if they want to confront us and impose something on us, it will be the end of them. If they have the power to throw a punch, we have the power to smack [them] in a way that they would not be able to stand up," Salehi said.

0740 GMT: The "Plot". Just in case you thought the story was not bizarre enough:

The alleged plot [to kill the Saudi Ambassador] also included plans to pay the [Mexican] cartel, Los Zetas, to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina, according to a law enforcement official.

The plotters also discussed a side deal between the Quds Force, part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Los Zetas to funnel tons of opium from the Middle East to Mexico, the official said.

Reuters has a timeline from 24 May to October, beginning with "One Iranian, Manssor Arbabsiar, met in Mexico with someone posing as an associate of a violent international drug trafficking cartel, but who in reality was a confidential informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration."

The New York Times has a background article on the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards.

0725 GMT: The "Plot". More on the significance of the US allegations, not in the formal complaint but in the complementary announcement of sanctions on individuals (see 0450 GMT)....

Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards, appears to be named simply because he is head of the Revolutionary Guards.

However, the statement claims Hamid Abdollahi, "a senior IRGC-QF officer", "coordinated aspects of this operation" and "oversees other Qods Force officials", including Abdul Reza Shahlai.

0720 GMT: The Iranian Ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, has written UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon:

The Iranian nation seeks a world free from terrorism and considers the current US warmongering and propaganda machine against Iran as a threat not just against itself but to the peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region. The Islamic Republic of Iran warns against the implications of this horrible scenario and submits that the continuation of such divide-and-rule policies could have detrimental effects on peace and security.

The US allegation is, obviously, a politically-motivated move and a showcase of its long-standing animosity towards the Iranian nation. The Islamic Republic of Iran categorically and in the strongest terms condemns this shameful allegation by the United States authorities and deplores it as a well-thought evil plot in line with their anti-Iranian policy to divert attention from the current economic and social problems at home and the popular revolutions and protests against United States long supported dictatorial regimes abroad.

0715 GMT: The "Plot". We have now posted two features about the alleged Iran-backed plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US --- Thomas Erdbrink asks 10 questions and James Miller assesses the possible scenarios: a scheme at the highest levels of the Iran regime, a frame-up by the US, or a third alternative?

Muhammad Sahimi adds some further questions: "If [Iran] really intends to harm Saudi Arabia, due to the increasing tension with the Riyadh government, why should it try to do it here in the United States and in Washington? Why not attack the Saudis embassies in, for example, chaotic locations in the Middle East, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen? Why not carry out a sabotage operation against Saudi Arabia's oil fields in the eastern part of the country, where the Shia population is centered?"

And Sahimi says, "The indictment refers to [Gholam] Shakuri as an 'Iranian official'. I could not find any information on this "official," nor have I ever heard of him."

Same here.

0445 GMT: The "Plot". Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of Parliament's National Security Commission, has claimed that the US Government is "trying to distract the public from the uprising of the people on Wall Street". He said the accusations can only be a "lie" against Iran, a "victim of terrorism".

Iran’s Ambassador to the U.N., Mohammad Khazaee, said Iran “strongly and categorically rejects these fabricated and baseless allegations". He claimed the "warmongering" US authorities were carrying out an “evil plot in line with their anti-Iranian policy to divert attention from the current economic and social problems at home and the popular revolutions and protests against United States’ long supported dictatorial regimes abroad.”

It should be kept in mind that the US move is operating at two levels. There is the formal complaint against the Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar and the member of the Revolutionary Guards, Gholam Shakuri. Then there is the expansion of sanctions against individuals --- re-naming the head of the elite Quds Force of the Guards, Qasem Soleimani, and naming Hamed Abdollahi and Deputy Commander Abdul Reza Shahlai.

None of the three is named in the official complaint, although it refers to Shahlai as a high-ranking Guards official who is a "cousin of the suspect" Arbabsiar. 

Shahlai has previously been accused of planning an attack in January 2007 by an Iraqi militia, the Mahdi Army, aimed at American soldiers in Karbala, south of Baghdad. In that attack, up to a dozen fighters got into the provincial government building and opened fire. One U.S. soldier was killed in the initial attack and four others were abducted and later found shot to death.

0430 GMT: The "Plot". A preliminary hearing has been set for 25 October for Manssor Arbabsiar, the Iranian-Ambassador alleged to be at the centre of the plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US.

0422 GMT: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comments on the alleged Iran-backed plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington

0420 GMT: Hold the presses --- Iran is back in the headlines of the US press.

And it is not even about the nuclear programme.

The revelation of the complaint by the US Department of Justice in a New York court that an Iranian-American, Manssor Arbabsiar, and a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Gholam Shakuri, schemed to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US seized the attention of the press. The Administration followed up with a press conference --- including Director of the FBI Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder --- to lay out the allegations and to put out the political message that Tehran has been "isolated" by the exposure of its plotting.

Here's the snapshot of the alleged plot:

According to the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday, members of Iran's Quds Force, an elite Revolutionary Guard unit, tried to hire what they thought was a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi envoy. The complaint said that Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian American living in Texas, flew to Mexico and, at the behest of the Quds Force, agreed to pay a man he believed to be a cartel operative $1.5 million to kill the ambassador. Over time, the plot focused on bombing an unspecified restaurant the ambassador frequented, the complaint said.

The "cartel member" turned out to be a confidential informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He reported the solicitation to U.S. law enforcement and recorded his conversations with Arbabsiar, officials said.

Arbabsiar gave the man a down payment of about $100,000 and told him the plot should go ahead even if 100 or more bystanders would die in the explosion, the complaint said. "They want that guy done, if the 100 go with him," he allegedly said....

The fact that the man the Iranians allegedly contacted was an informant allowed U.S. officials to monitor the conversations from the outset in May, officials said.

"Was it a lucky break? Yes," said a U.S. law enforcement official, "but everybody jumped on it."

So is it a legitimate complaint about a brash --- I would say foolish --- scheme by Tehran (and if so, how high up the Iranian regime), a bold political move by Washington, or both?

A counter-terrorism specialist puts out the advice, "Lesson One: wait a day or so before compiling these kinds of analyses about breaking natural security news.  Lesson Two: make sure you have time to read the full criminal complaint before writing about any terrorist plot."

We will keep both in mind --- the full criminal complaint is posted in a separate entry, as is the press release from the US Department of Justice --- but we may have a preliminary analysis later today.

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