Two days later, and the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a senior Saudi diplomat is still the wildest story told in years. But is it true?
After yesterday's consideration of the different theories that have been floated, my assessment is that only two hold any water: this was either planned by the Iranian regime from the highest levels, or it was planned by rogue elements within or associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, albeit without the knowledge of the political and religious leadership.
Let's start from what we know.
According to the documents released by the US Government --- the initial complaint, and the statements released by the Treasury Department --- five individuals have been named as agents allegedly connected with this plot. Let's examine each of them in turn:
The biggest name on the list is Qassem Suleimani: Major General, commander of Special Forces, Quds Force, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. This is the organization that, according to Washington, ordered the attack. Here is the consequence of Suleimani being named: if Suleimani knew about the plot, then this was either an attack officially sanctioned by the larger leadership, or one of the most powerful men in the IRGC has gone rogue.
The plot really begins with Abdul Reza Shahlai. According to the Treasury Department documents, Shahlai is a senior commander in the IRGC Quds force, and he already has quite the reputation for mischief. According to Treasury Documents, "Shahlai was designated by Treasury in September 2008 pursuant to E.O. 13438 for threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the Government of Iraq":
Iran-based Abdul Reza Shahlai, a deputy commander in the IRGC-Qods Force-threatens the peace and stability of Iraq by planning Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) Special Groups attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq.
Shahlai has also provided material and logistical support to Shia extremist groups-to include JAM Special Groups-that conduct attacks against U.S. and Coalition Forces. In one instance, Shahlai planned the January 20, 2007 attack by JAM Special Groups against U.S. soldiers stationed at the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, Iraq.
Five U.S. soldiers were killed and three were wounded during the attack.
In late-August 2006, Shahlai provided material support to JAM Special Groups by supplying JAM Special Groups members with 122mm grad rockets, 240mm rockets, 107mm Katyushas, RPG-7s, 81mms, 60mm mortars, and a large quantity of C-4.
Shahlai also approved and coordinated the training of JAM Special Groups. As of May 2007, Shahlai served as the final approving and coordinating authority for all Iran-based Lebanese Hizballah training for JAM Special Groups to fight Coalition Forces in Iraq. In late-August 2006, Shahlai instructed a senior Lebanese Hizballah official to coordinate anti-aircraft rocket training for JAM Special Groups.
So, according to the US military and intelligence community, Shahlai is a ruthless operative, capable of executing insidious attacks. He has links to Hezbollah (more on this later) and he has this important X-factor: his cousin, Mansour Arbabsiar, the man now in custody, is an American naturalised citizen with US and Iranian passports.
According to the formal complaint, Arbabsiar was the guy doing all the legwork. He travelled between Iran and the US to set up the operation. He wired $100,000 from an overseas bank, through New York, to the undercover Federal Government account. He contacted the link with the Mexican paramilitary group, Los Zetas, who were to carry out the assassination --- a link who happened to be an FBI informant. All of this occurred as Arbabsiar, with his cousin Shahlai already on the US Government radar, was possibly already under surveillance.
Abdul Reza Shahlai (Iranian Official 1 in the DOJ complaint) approaches his cousin, Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen with dual Iranian citizenship living in Corpus Christi, Texas, to carry out a kidnapping plot against Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al Jubeir. Shahlai is a deputy in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF), previously designated by U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for his involvement in a January 20, 2007 attack against U.S. soldiers stationed in Karbala, Iraq. Arbabsiar tells Shahlai that he has contacts in the United States and in Mexico, some of whom he believes to be narcotics traffickers.
At this point, Arbabsiar travels from Texas to Mexico on 24 May, where he meets with a member of Los Zetas, the infamous Mexican paramilitary group. Think of them as Green Berets turned drug dealers. Los Zetas are ruthless, unchecked, and probably bored, as they have grown from the military wing for a single cartel to arguably the most powerful people in Mexico in short order. They have also been connected with a plot to kill the President of Guatemala. In other words, if you were going to hire somebody to kill somebody, Los Zetas would be a good bet.
Unfortunately for Arbabsiar, the contact he eventually met up with was CS-1, an FBI paid informant. According to the initial complaint, Arbabsiar inquired about the use of C-4 explosives against the Saudi embassy, and CS-1 said that he was an explosives expert.
According to the filing agent, the FBI has the travel records of this trip to Mexico, and the affidavit of CS-1, the paid informant had previously been arrested and was granted amnesty for his co-operation. CS-1 was a trusted agent whose material had previously been independently collaborated, and he was paid for his services.
According to Arbabsiar's travel records, he moved internationally between 30 May and 23 June, including a trip to Iran. After this he goes back to Mexico, and according to CS-1, Arbabsiar reveals that his contacts in Iran wants the death of the Saudi Ambassador, for which they are willing to pay $1.5 million. After completion, CS-1 would be paid for additional attacks. According to the complaint, CS-1 recorded the audio of some of the meetings (on and after July 14th), and Arbabsiar confirmed the details of this narrative after he was arrested.
At around this point in time, Arbabsiar revealed that his cousin, a man wanted in the US, had coordinated this plan, and members of his organisation had wired the $100,000 that made it to CS-1's fake bank account. Arbabsiar said his cousin --- unnamed in the complaint --- had the blessings of the Iranian Government, but was working through an organization outside of that government (more on this later as well).
Time to introduce a new player, Ali Gholam Shakuri. Shakuri is another IRGC Quds Force official, the deputy to Shahlai. He met with Arbabsiar several times and, according to the released documents, coordinated most of Arbabsiar's actions. He met Arbabsiar in spring 2011 in Iran and gave him "thousands of dollars" to cover his expenses.
How do we know that Arbabsiar met with Shakuri? According to CS-1, Arbabsiar said that his cousin had him see one of his deputies, a man whom Arbabsiar picked out of a photo line-up after he was arrested. According to the report, the FBI showed Arbabsiar photos that they did not believe were publicly available. Allegedly, after he was arrested, Arbabsiar called Shakuri to confirm that the plot was advancing and to ask for more money, a request which Shakuri denied. Several days later, Arbabsiar called Shakuri again and said that CS-1 needed more money to launch the plot, and Shakuri said that he would talk to his superiors.
Should we believe Arbabsiar?
There does not seem to be any reason to doubt that Arbabsiar got his marching orders from somebody in Iran. Arbabsiar's story matches details from CS-1's reports and the travel documents siezed by the US. When Arbabsiar was arrested, he had several thousand American dollars as well as Iranian currency. Under the supervision of the FBI, he called an Iranian phone number and spoke to an Iranian agent whom Arbabsiar identified as being Shakuri, the man who works for his cousin. The evidence lines up against Arbabsiar, his cousin Shahlai, and Shakuri.
But who is Hamed Abdollahi, the fifth person sanctioned by Treasury?
I have no idea, but the US Government seems to know exactly who he is: "A senior IRGC-QF officer who coordinated aspects of this operation, Abdollahi oversees other Qods Force officials --- including Shahlai --- who were responsible for coordinating and planning this operation." But Arbabsiar never mentions him, nor does CS-1, at least according to the initial complaint.
So did the Treasury just pick a name out of a hat?
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.
But the international community has passed sanctions against hundreds of Iranian companies and scores of individuals (an incomplete list). Why did Mahan suddenly get special treatment on a special day?
Is it possible that the Treasury knows something that they have not revealed yet, that they have more information and more sources that have been used to triangulate these allegations? Is it possible that the not-quite-government-entity named by Arbabsiar is really Hezbollah, the apparent link between Shahlai (and the Quds Force as a whole) and Mahan Air? Is it possible that somewhere, in evidence we have not yet seen, Hamed Abdollahi, another deputy in the Quds force, was coordinating the efforts between the Shahlai-Skakuri-Arbabsiar group and the financial backing from others?
The question remains whether the Iranian regime at large knew of the plot. That is unclear. What is interesting, however, is that the Iranian regime at large has not yet been targeted by new sanctions. As an activist pointed out, Saudi Arabia has not yet withdrawn their ambassador from Iran. Maybe these things will come to pass --- if the Iranian regime keeps sabre-rattling, they likely will come to pass --- but so far the US and the Saudis seem to be giving the Iranian regime the benefit of the doubt.
So back to the two theories we started with. On the face of the American information, there is enough to implicate --- remember that the formal legal judgement has not been made --- an Iranian-American and two Revolutonary Guard officers. But the leap to the top of the Guards and Qassem Soleimani is one of faith. And there is nothing yet to make the even bigger jump to the clerics and politicians at the summit of the Iranian regime.