Convicting Iran Outside a Courtroom
The hard-to-believe accusation about an Iranian assassination plot in Washington may be thin on actual evidence but that has not stopped the Obama administration from using it to stir up animosity toward Iran within the American public and at the UN, writes Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
October 26, 2011
The United States has attempted to turn the U.N. Security Council into a courtroom. Before they had even been indicted in a court of law, the U.S. tried Iranian suspects before foreign governments in the bizarre story of an alleged assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Behind closed doors in the council chambers, U.S. officials admitted the story was “hard to believe.” This is according to a Western diplomat who was among the council ambassadors shown evidence by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was accompanied by officials of the F.B.I., CIA and the State and Justice Departments.
It isn’t known whether the CIA official revealed classified information that went beyond the F.B.I. criminal complaint in the case, which was made public. The U.S. isn’t normally in the habit of sharing intelligence at the U.N.
Reuters quoted a U.S. official saying classified wire transfer documents used to pay for the alleged assassination had “some kind of hallmark” showing they were approved by Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the elite Iranian al-Quds Force. (But what kind of “hallmark” and whether it amounted to mere speculation have not been revealed.)
Because the circumstances of the story are so strange, one cannot rule out forgery by Iranian agents working for the U.S. — or for another government that may have even fooled at least some U.S. authorities. Just recall the forged Niger uranium document that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
The Clinton administration in 1999 went to court in the Southern District of New York in U.S.A. v. bin Laden in the African Embassy bombings. I covered the trial and saw al-Qaeda operatives on the witness stand. They were convicted by a civilian jury.
The Bush administration generally dismissed the idea that foreign terrorism suspects deserved civilian trials, calling terrorism a national security matter best handled by military tribunals without the need to test innocence or guilt in a regular courtroom.
When the Obama Justice Department wanted to try terrorism suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the same New York court where earlier al-Qaeda operatives were convicted, the Right howled until Obama backed down.
The handling of this alleged Iranian plot appears to be a weird hybrid between a criminal proceeding and a rush to judgment to convince foreign governments of two suspects’ guilt before they are even indicted.
The U.S. is also inferring a sovereign state is involved, rather than merely rogue individuals, who, incidentally, are still innocent until proven guilty.
Though the U.S. admitted the story seems far-fetched, U.S. allies Britain, France, Germany and Colombia said they believed Rice’s U.N. presentation. These countries may be ready to support new sanctions against Iran — or other action, even though each of them presumably guarantees due process in their legal systems.
Rush to Judgment
On the day the alleged plot was revealed, and before a Grand Jury had even been empaneled, Downing Street issued a statement “congratulating” U.S. authorities on the “successful operation to disrupt a conspiracy to attack diplomats” in the U.S.
“The United Kingdom is in close touch with the U.S. authorities on this case. We will support measures to hold Iran accountable for its actions,” the British statement said.
It did not prefix conspiracy with “alleged,” and assumed proof that the plot was already underway when “disrupted,” dismissing the possibility it was suggested to an Iranian-American suspect by the U.S. informant, posing as a Mexican drug gangster.
Russia and China, who hold Security Council vetoes, must be convinced of Iran’s guilt to vote for increased U.N. sanctions. So far they aren’t.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. envoy, said after being briefed by Rice, “I’m not an expert, but we’re going to look at it very, very seriously. We have sent all the information received to Moscow. There will be contacts, and they’ll look at it very seriously.”
Wang Min, the deputy ambassador of China, said, “They’re still investigating, right?”
Even a U.S. official admitted to Reuters that “a lot of people basically feel really suspicious about this.” He questioned the White House’s motive for “ratcheting this thing up so quickly” by going to the Security Council.
Reasons for Doubt
The reasons for the suspicion run deep on both political and legal grounds.
Politically, unless Iran is suicidal it makes little sense to provide the U.S. with a ready-made pretext for war. The alleged plot also antagonizes the three countries that would likely be involved in an attack on Iran: the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The FBI complaint claims the suspects also wanted to bomb the Israeli embassies in Washington and Buenos Aires.
For years, Israel has said it feels threatened by Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements questioning the Holocaust and wanting to return Israel to the Palestinians.
In response, Israel and the U.S. routinely threaten Iran. Overthrowing the Iranian regime would extend Israeli and U.S. influence in the region.
Unless Iran wants war, it would be an odd time to sponsor a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ray Takeyh, hardly a Teheran defender, wrote in his book, Hidden Iran, that Iran has largely been out of the terrorism business in the Gulf since the mid-1980s and has adopted a more pragmatic foreign policy since.
Gary Sick, a Columbia University Iran analyst, told CNN: “I find this alleged Iranian plot very hard to believe. In fact, this plot, if true, departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures. At a minimum both the public and the Congress should demand more detailed evidence before taking any rash or irreversible action.”
Former CIA Middle East operative Bob Baer told the network: “Everybody is looking for evidence that there is going to be a confrontation with Iran. Everybody is jumping on this as a sign of conflict to come. But there are many questions here that need to be answered.”
Operationally, it is odd that the professional al-Quds Force would use a hard-drinking, Iranian-American used car salesman in Texas, a man who often lost his cell phone and keys and couldn’t find socks to match, to contract a Mexican drug gang to carry out such an elaborate terrorist plot.
“It is difficult to believe that they would rely on a non-Islamic criminal gang to carry out this most sensitive of all possible missions,” said Sick.
He said Iran’s history of assassinations were of Iranian counter-revolutionaries in the 1980s, and “the bombings were always carried out by trusted proxies — normally a branch of Hezbollah. Iran’s fingerprints were always concealed beneath one or more layers of disguise. So why were they all of a sudden so sloppy? Why would they take this risk now?”
“There are very few groups operationally better than Iran’s Quds Force,” added Baer. “They know what they are doing. The only proxies they use are ones they’ve vetted. They don’t let their own citizens get involved. It would be completely uncharacteristic for Iran to be caught red-handed.”
Legally, the alleged Iranian plot should be seen in the context of a growing trend of FBI sting operations targeting Muslim-Americans. There have been 17 such cases since 9/11, including the framing of a 19-year old Somali-American in Seattle who the FBI talked into blowing up a “car bomb” last year at a Christmas Tree lighting. The bomb was fake. The prison sentence was real.
On the night of May 20, 2009, I returned home to my apartment in the Riverdale section of New York City to find the Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and top FBI officials holding a press conference on the steps of a synagogue directly below my living room window.
It became clear early on in the press conference that the FBI had recruited the “terrorists,” chosen the “targets,” made the “bomb” and then brought the “suspects” to the synagogue where they were promptly arrested as they were about to plant the fake device.
My question in the press conference about whether this was a sting operation was ignored. Afterward I spoke privately with a high-ranking FBI official who told me an informant wearing sandals had been sent to a mosque in a poor black neighborhood of depressed Newburgh, New York. He proceeded to recruit locals for the “job.”
Most newspaper and television accounts of the incident omitted these details, reporting that the FBI had “disrupted” a terrorist attack already underway. That burnished the FBI’s image. They had saved us.
But there is a big difference between the FBI stopping a terrorist plot already hatched, and instigating one on its own from scratch. There were probably only two groups that could have planned the synagogue “bombing”: al-Qaeda and the FBI. And it wasn’t al-Qaeda.
This distinction was lost on the residents living near the synagogue. When told that the entire thing was contrived and carried out by the FBI, in effect keeping Americans frightened, one resident said, “I don’t care. I have a right to be afraid!”
It later emerged in court that the FBI had paid as much a $50,000 each to the men to pull it off. They had also fed them marijuana. Colleen McMahon, the federal judge hearing the case, disagreed with the jury’s guilty verdict.
She said: “The essence of what occurred here is that a government understandably zealous to protect its citizens from terrorism came upon a man [the supposed terrorism ringleader James Cromitie] both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own …
“It [the FBI] created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry, and then made those fantasies come true … The government did not have to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot – there was no nefarious plot to foil.”
Judge McMahon said the defendants were “not political or religious martyrs,” but “thugs for hire, pure and simple.” But they were sentenced to life in prison nonetheless. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed complaints from Muslim-America leaders that the stings were stoking anti-Muslim sentiment.
Sting operations are illegal in some countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands. There is a fine line between a sting and entrapment, which is difficult to prove in court. It must be shown that the police provoked or talked the suspects into committing a crime, which they otherwise wouldn’t have committed.
A sting is not entrapment if a suspect has been engaged in the crime in the past and is set up to be caught at it again.
The relationship revealed in the criminal complaint between the U.S. informant and the Iranian-American target, Mansour Arbabsiar, is crucially important.
In the Bronx synagogue case, for instance, the FBI approached and befriended the targets. In this case, U.S. officials say Arbabsiar approached a U.S. informant he thought was in the Zeta drug gang, because he knew the man’s aunt.
The FBI complaint makes no mention of this. It only says the two met on several occasions and spoke on the phone. There’s no mention of the aunt. This is one of the fishiest parts of the government’s story.
Of all the drug gang members in Mexico and Texas, what are the odds that Arbabsiar would happen to chose one that was a paid undercover U.S. agent? It would seem more likely that the informant approached him.
But what a lucky break for the government. Here is Arbabsiar running into the feds’ arms with an order from his cousin back in Iran, Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior commander of the Quds Force, to at first kidnap the Saudi ambassador. Somehow it later escalated into an assassination attempt, but the criminal complaint doesn’t say how.
The government’s case rests partly on two wire transfers from Iran for around $49,000 each supposedly as a down payment to the would-be assassins. The money went into a dummy Justice Department account.
Yet, it is impossible to believe that a leader of the Quds Force wouldn’t know that every transaction into or out of the U.S. of more than $10,000 is investigated. The criminal complaint even quotes the less-sophisticated Arbabsiar saying he would have to “send ten thousand, ten thousand, ten thousand. I don’t wanna send it to one guy, one shot.”
As former CIA analyst Ray McGovern has said, it appears that these wire transfers were intended to be discovered and raises the possibility they were actually sent by foreign agents from Iran. It would be also especially difficult for an Iranian to send this money because of U.N. sanctions making such transfers illegal.
The FBI claims it wire-tapped Arbabsiar saying he wanted the ambassador dead. After his arrest he supposedly confessed the whole thing, after oddly waiving his right to an attorney. Despite the confession, Arbabsiar pleaded not guilty this week in court. Why did he change his mind?
Arbabsiar’s friends nicknamed him Jack because of the kind of bourbon he swigged. He has a petty criminal record, including for narcotics possession, and his friends say he was constantly hustling for money.
After his arrest, the used-car dealer spoke from the U.S. on monitored telephone conversations with his cousin in Iran about the operation, but they never talked about an assassination. Instead they refer to a Chevrolet purchase, which the FBI claims was code for the plot..
Journalist Gareth Porter suggests the sale they were really talking about was for opium, large quantities of which Iranian authorities seized as they are smuggled in from Afghanistan. NBC News quotes law enforcement officials saying it was a drug deal, at least initially.
Defense attorneys might well argue that the informant himself may have later suggested adding the assassination to the deal.
Gary Sick questions whether such a phone conversation could have even taken place. “Whatever else may be Iran’s failings, they are not noted for utter disregard of the most basic intelligence trade craft, e.g. discussing an ultra-covert operation on an open international line between Iran and the U.S.,” he said.
The complaint says it was the informant’s idea where to kill the ambassador: in a D.C. restaurant, whose name U.S. officials say was made up. Perhaps like much of this story.
Calling the non-existent device to blow up the phony restaurant a “weapon of mass destruction” in the complaint is also misleading and politically charged. WMD usually mean chemical, biological and nuclear weapons — none of which the complaint suggests would be used.
It is especially charged as the U.N. has three times imposed sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment in its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
Unlike the previous stings, which ruined the lives of Muslim-Americans and unnecessarily frightened the American population, this case has the potential to terrify the people of Iran and the entire Middle East.
Emerging from the Security Council, Mohammed Khazaee, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. and the highest-ranking Iranian official in the U.S., told me Washington was clearly using the alleged plot to build a case against his nation.
I asked him if that meant war. “That would be a very dangerous game,” he told me. “Iran is a very strong country. We can take care of ourselves.”
As Ray McGovern points out, George W. Bush in his memoirs admits he was unable to attack Iran because of a National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had ceased trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. Bush declined to give Israel the bunker-busting bombs they would need to strike underground Iranian nuclear facilities.
It was revealed only last month that the Obama administration instead has indeed delivered the bunker busters to Israel.
The U.S. government’s case regarding the assassination plot may not stand up in a New York federal court. But that might not matter, since the Iranians are already guilty in the court of U.S. public opinion and in the foreign ministries of U.S. allies.
The damage might be done long before the legal process in this fantastic case plays itself out.
Joe Lauria has been a freelance journalist based at the U.N. since 1990, writing for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette and other newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . An earlier version of this article appeared on Sibel Edmond’s BoilingFrogsPost.com.