15 October 2011

Iranian Plot: Sting, False Flag, or Both?

US Attorney General Eric Holder held a press conference on 11 Oct where he claimed Federal authorities had foiled a plot by men linked to the Iranian government to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and to bomb the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Israel in Washington (NYT). The vagueness and innuendo in the language of the complaint filed with the federal court reek of a half-baked sting operation. For example, attacking the embassy of Saudi Arabia is mentioned as merely a  “possibility” of bombing foreign government facilities of Saudi Arabia and “another country”  located “within and outside of the United States."  Israel is not even mentioned in the complaint; the closest reference being the aforesaid reference to "another country."  And the plot hinged on the information supplied by a supposed assassin for hire, who was in reality a confidential source of the DEA, posing as a member of than international drug cartel, and who had agreed to work for the DEA after being convicted on an unrelated narcotics charge.  While the possibility that this was another hokey FBI/DEA sting operation has been covered widely in the mainstream press, the idea of this plot being a false flag operation, taking the form of a half-baked plot designed to be uncovered, has been conspicuous by its absence. 

A false flag operation occurs when party ‘A’ attacks party ‘B’ while engineering the blame for the attack to be hung on a third party ‘C.’    

It is the exposure of "C" in the plot that is important in a false flag operation, and understanding a false flag operation turns on the question of who, (what country or organization) stands to gain from an exposure of "C's" involvement in the plot -- and exposure, which in this case, would precipitate a US-Iranian crisis that might possibly lead to a war? 

The following three attachments provide information that may help you orient yourself to this ominous possibility:

Attachment 1 is an email from Ray Close now circulating widely on the internet.  Mr. Close served in the CIA operations side of the house at high levels, including being assigned as the CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia.  Close explains why he thinks whoever concocted this plot wanted it to be exposed in order to precipitate a major  U.S.-Iranian crisis.  

Attachment 2 is an essay by scholar/writer Esam Al-Amin that, in effect, builds on Close's argument by identifying potential beneficiaries.  I do not know if Al-Amin had access to the Close email. 

Some defenders of the complaint  may be tempted to dismiss the arguments of Close and Amin as mere speculation -- and to an extent they represent speculations, albeit by knowledgable men.  But to dismiss such arguments on these grounds would be to apply a double standard, because Attachment 3 reports that US officials, speaking on background, have admitted that the evidence supporting the allegation of high-level Iranian involvement is both scanty and wildly speculative, to put it charitably.  It says unnamed US officials have acknowledged their confidence in the allegation of high-level Iranian involvement was derived  inferentially from analysis and understanding of how the Iranian Quds Force operates, and that it was "more than likely" that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani knew about and approved the plot.  They insisted that it was not a rogue operation, but acknowledged that other parts of Iran’s factionalized government, including President Amadinejad, may not have know about it.  However experts on Iran and the Quds force, like Gary Sick of Columbia, Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Office, and Alireza Nader of the RAND Corp., say the details of the plot just don't make sense and are entirely out of character for either Khamenei and Suleimani. 

In other words, the allegation of high-level Iranian involvement is based on speculative possibilities that deviate from observed patterns of behaviour, not facts.  Moreover, the claim is that these speculative possibilities were derived from analyses and appreciations of the inner workings of post-Shah Iran made by the US intelligence community.  Not doubt that shakiness of this allegation is one reason why the complaint filed in the New York court only names the obscure Mr. Shakuri as the only co-conspirator in Iran. 

So ... the Obama Administration wants the American people and the world to believe the same Intelligence community that (1) disgraced itself in Iraq and has performed so poorly in Afghanistan and (2) failed utterly to predict the beginning of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 (when Iran was our close ally and was flooded with US operatives), now has a far more reliable cultural appreciation of the inner working of the Iranian revolutionary regime, with which the US has had only limited relations.  The inferences are so reliable, in fact, that Mr. Obama, Mr. Holder and Ms. Clinton, lawyers all, would have the American people believe their inferences are sufficient to dismiss any legal limitations of circumstantial evidence and reasonable doubt surrounding a question relating to war or peace for a country that is already over-extended in wars in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.

The absurdity and danger implicit in this kind of thinking, coupled with the government's track record of fixing intelligence to fit its pre-concieved policies, elevates the question of a false flag to a level of legitimacy that should but won't be investigated.

Chuck Spinney

--------- Attachment 1 ------------

From: Ray Close
Date: October 13
Subject: Questions about alleged Iranian plot

Because it is a PDF document, I have to ask you to download the attachment, which is a true copy of the Amended Complaint written and signed by FBI Special Agent Robert Woloszyn and filed before the judge of the Southern District of New York on 11 October 2011 concerning the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C.  It is not a long document.

Please read paragraphs 22, 23 and 24, for starters.  Note:  "CS-1" is the FBI's Confidential Informant, presumably a Mexican, who is described by Special Agent Woloszyn as a man "posing as an associate of a sophisticated and violent drug-trafficking cartel".  As far as I can determine, neither the FBI nor Attorney General Eric Holder has provided any evaluation of this man's reliability or trustworthiness.  It seems that the accuracy of the entire account depends solely on the assessment of this confidential source by one FBI Special Agent --  unless we are being asked to accept a radically abbreviated and simplified version of the case history.

The scum-bag that this murder was being requested and was going to be paid for by a secret group in Iran?
Then ask yourself a very simple question, please:  If you were an Iranian undercover operative who was under instructions to hire a killer to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C., why in HELL would you consider it necessary to explain to a presumed Mexican scum-bag that this murder was planned and would be paid for by a secret organization in Iran?

Why identify yourself at all?  If (for some implausible reason) an explanation of some kind was absolutely necessary, why not employ a very simple cover story that the ambassador had violated the honor of your sister, and you were willing to pay a high price to avenge this dishonor?  
Why give the intended murderer incriminating information that could be enormously damaging to the government of Iran if the agent betrayed you or if he were apprehended and chose to confess?  Isn't that something that any ten-year-old would know instinctively? 

Conclusion:  This was not a professional murder-for-hire operation.  
The Iranians are certainly not idiots.  Also, no faction in Iran today, as far as I can see, would have anything to gain at this time from taking such a risk.  Who ever concocted this tale wanted the "plot" to be exposed, and for only one simple purpose that I can surmise:  to precipitate a major crisis in relations between Iran and the United States. It seems to me that our analysis of the case should, therefore, start with a simple calculation:  what other government in the Middle East would benefit most from a serious deterioration in Washington's relations with Teheran?  Who, in fact, would like nothing better than to see those relations take a big step in the direction of military confrontation?

Until all the answers are known, it is my frank opinion that the Obama administration made a very serious error by blowing this incident up into a major international crisis.  
Considering the multitude of other critical problems that America presently faces, and the utter impossiblity of even contemplating any level of military conflict in another Muslim country in the Middle East, it should OBVIOUSLY be the objective of U.S. national policy at this point in time to AVOID destabilizing incidents, not to stir up confrontations like this.  EVEN IF THE ALLEGATIONS PROVE TO BE TRUE, it was a mistake to make such a spectacular accusation without being prepared at the same time to present irrefutable evidence to the world to prove the case, and then to be prepared to take carefully-considered counter-action that is consistent with our calculated national security objectives with regard to Iran.  
As it is, we have made a huge issue without any apparent plan to manage the consequences or to turn the situation to our advantage. There is a time-honored and proven rule of defense and security policy:  if you are not in a position to control and manage a situation to your advantage, then keep your mouth shut and play your cards close to your chest.  DO NOT WALK STICKLY AND CARRY A BIG SOFT, as some wise national leader once advised.

--------- Attachment 2 ------------

Who is really behind it?
The implausibility of an Iranian plot

By Esam Al-Amin

On October 11, Attorney General Eric Holder, flanked by the FBI Director and the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, accused the government of Iran, specifically the elite Quds battalion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), of plotting to assassinate the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the U.S, Adel Al-Jubeir.

So what do we know about this alleged conspiracy? And what are the facts pertinent to this explosive charge?

1) The alleged conspirator, Mansour Arbabsiar, is a 56 year old naturalized American of Iranian descent. He has been living in several Texas communities since the late 1970s when he arrived to the U.S. as a student. By all accounts, Arbabsiar led a disorderly life marked by constant failure, whether as a student, husband, father, or businessman.

For over two decades the alleged “mastermind” left behind a trail of successive failed businesses, including a used car lot, a restaurant, a convenience store, and a finance company. One of his friends told the Washington Post that he is “a goofy guy who always had a smile on his face.”

Arbabsiar was neither an ideologue nor religious. His nickname among his close friends was “Jack” because of his affinity for Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Last year, he was arrested for felony possession of a narcotic. According to public documents, his former wife accused him of spousal abuse and filed a protective order against him in 1991.

2) The complaint (so far it is not even an indictment by a grand jury) charges that Arbabsiar allegedly conspired with a high official of the Quds battalion of the IRGC. According to the complaint he was recruited by this official - who is also supposedly his cousin - when he visited Iran earlier this year. 

There is plenty of evidence that the Quds Force has been involved in many militant anti-Western operations in Iraq. It has also been publicly supporting the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance organizations in their struggle with Israel. These activities have earned it the label of “supporter of terrorism” by most Western nations, including the U.S.

But according to Robert Baer, a 21-year veteran CIA operative and analyst, the Quds Force is one of the most professional and disciplined (though deadly) organizations in the Middle East. As reported by CNN, the Quds Force “has never been publicly linked to an assassination plot or an attack on U.S. soil.”

Baer confirmed this fact when he said that “in its 30-year history of attacking the West, the Quds Force went out of its way never to be caught with a smoking gun in hand. It always used well-vetted proxies, invariably Muslim believers devoted to Khomeini's revolution.”  

He then questioned whether the plot was genuine by asking, “Why didn't the Iranians use tried and tested Hizbullah networks and keep Iranian nationals, much less unknown Mexican narcos, out of it?”

3) We know from the complaint that the U.S government was actually directing the plot (target, location, method of attack, setting the price of the assassination, bank account information, etc.) Pete Williams, NBC’s DOJ correspondent, said that the plot was in fact “a sting operation” directed by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the FBI. A recent report published by New York University Law School showed that in the past decade federal agencies have relied heavily on sting operations, not only in drug busts, but also most significantly in dozens of national security cases “that were planned, financed and executed by the FBI.”

4) According to the official story, we are to believe that, although the price set for the Saudi Ambassador’s assassination by a member of a Mexican drug cartel (who was actually a DEA informant) was $1.5 million, the Iranian handlers expected the assassin to carry it out by advancing him only $100,000 (less than 7 percent of the total amount.)

Moreover, as Baer argued in Time magazine, in three decades of external operations in many countries, the IRGC fingerprints or money transfers were never traced back to Iran, but that Iran has always “enjoyed plausible deniability.” Baer further told CNN that, “it would be completely uncharacteristic for Iran to be caught red-handed.”

Therefore, such sloppy behavior through traceable money transfers and phone intercepts is simply not credible. It appears to be a deliberate attempt to leave behind as many clues as possible to pin this alleged egregious act on Iran.

5) Another hole in this puzzle concerns the possible motive Iran could have by sponsoring such a provocative act. Strategically, Iran has never been stronger in the region. It has been the greatest beneficiary of the U.S. debacle in Iraq and its difficulty in Afghanistan. Furthermore, despite the successive international sanctions imposed on Iran, its nuclear and other military programs have been progressing at an increasingly steady pace, while asserting a growing and dominant role in the region.

Hillary Mann Leverett, an adviser on Iran in former President George W. Bush's administration, told CNN that this act made no sense, and contradicted Iran’s national security strategy. She stated, “There's no benefit; there's no payoff in them pursuing this kind of hit against Adel Al-Jubeir. And it runs contrary to their entire national security strategy.”

If Iran wanted to punish Saudi Arabia it had a plenty of targets in the region, including in Saudi Arabia itself, Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Persian Gulf region in general. If it wanted to target a diplomat, the worst choice would be on U.S. soil where such an act would be easily uncovered and would not go unpunished. It is not clear why Iran would even target a small functionary of the Saudi diplomatic core. Al-Jubeir is neither royalty nor a significant player in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.

Since at least 2003, the Iranian national security strategy has been to de-escalate regional tensions and avoid any confrontation with the U.S. or its regional allies, especially Saudi Arabia. It has been in the middle of unprecedented build-up of its military power, especially its navy, nuclear power, and long-range missile programs. Experts believe that it needs at least five more quiet years to finish this phase of its build-up.

6) Ironically, in 2004 the U.S. uncovered an alleged assassination plot by another U.S. national against King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia himself, not his ambassador. In that plot, the U.S. asserted that it confiscated more than $340,000 payoff from former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddhafi for the killing of the Saudi monarch.

The Bush and Blair administrations, which were in bed with Gaddhafi at the time, negotiating the surrender of his nuclear programs, did not threaten or impose any sanctions on the former Libyan regime because of the plot. Although the U.S. sentenced the alleged U.S. conspirator to 23 years in prison, the Saudi king pardoned the alleged assassin who was arrested in Saudi Arabia.

However, this time the reaction by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia was not only swift and harsh, but threatening and escalating.

7) Since the inception of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has been very nervous. It has  sent its army to Bahrain to crack down on the popular protests, while bribing its citizens and inviting the monarchs of Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC alliance in order to halt any movements in these countries towards a constitutional monarchy.

Meanwhile, throughout this year the Saudi media has been relentless in its attacks against Iran, presenting it as a “Shi’a” nation and a “Persian” power set on taking over the Arab Sunni countries in the region. It is an old tactic used by authoritarian regimes to focus the public’s attention on an external enemy to deflect from the popular demands for democracy and civil rights and against repression and corruption as demonstrated by the Arab uprisings throughout the region. This alleged plot plays into the hands of those who want to escalate the confrontation with Iran inside Saudi Arabia.

8) But the clear winners of any escalation with Iran are those who want to attack Iran militarily in the region, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. In one of the Wikileaks documents released recently, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia cabled back to the State Department that King Abdullah wanted a U.S-led military confrontation with Iran. He said that the Saudi monarch wanted to “cut the head of the snake” in the region.

Moreover, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who resigned a year ago, described the current Israeli government as “dangerous and irresponsible.” Last spring he told the Israeli Haaretz newspaper that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu would attack Iran and that doing so would be “the stupidest thing.” When asked about what would happen in the aftermath of an Israeli attack, Dagan, said that: “It will be followed by a war with Iran. It is the kind of thing where we know how it starts, but not how it will end.”

According to The Forward, twelve of the eighteen living ex-chiefs of Israel's two security agencies (Mossad and Shin Bet), have been opposing an open war with Iran and are “either actively opposing Netanyahu's stances or have spoken out against them.”

So the trick for the right wing Israeli government has been how to drag the U.S. into this war and make it an American-Iranian confrontation rather than an Israeli-Iranian conflict.

To sum up, this alleged plot actually raises more questions than it answers. It’s supposedly led by a “goofy”,  unsuccessful U.S-Iranian dual citizen, who is neither religious nor ideological; manipulated by an informant of a U.S. law enforcement agency fronting as an assassin for a Mexican drug cartel; recruited without vetting by one of the most elite and disciplined organizations in the world, while paying only 7 percent of the contract to assassinate the ambassador to a country (Saudi Arabia) with which Iran is trying to have a good relationship, in a country (the U.S) with which it is trying to avoid any confrontation, while leaving money transfers, telephone intercepts, and clues behind.

If this sounds illogical, then who is behind this amateurish plot?

It is unlikely that there are so-called rouge elements within the IRGC that want to drag the U.S. into a confrontation with Iran. That would amount to virtual suicide within the Iranian establishment. There is no history of such behavior even when the country was militarily much weaker and politically unstable.

Thus, to best answer the question is to identify those who would benefit the most from a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. Clearly those who have the most to gain from such a clash are Israel and the Iranian opposition, particularly the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO).

While the former seeks to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, the later has been in a deadly confrontation with the Islamicly-oriented government for decades, and wants to weaken the regime so it could be toppled. Both entities have tried over the years to sponsor terrorist operations and covert actions within Iran and outside to damage the regime or implicate it in external terrorist acts.

It is not beyond the realm of possibilities that the Israeli Mossad or the MKO were able to recruit an idiot or his cousin or both in a plot that involved assassinating the Saudi Ambassador, while leaving a trove of evidence behind to be found in order to implicate the Iranian government.

But assuming the U.S. was not privy to it, despite the plot being a sting operation, the more important question is then why the U.S. government  took the bait and escalated the incident to a dangerous course with uncalculated consequences?

The U.S, Israel, and Saudi Arabia can certainly start a war with a more assertive Iran. But they certainly cannot end it. One only has to look at the recent U.S. adventures on either side of Iran’s borders to learn that lesson.

Esam Al-Amin can be reached at alamin1919@gmail.com

--------- Attachment 3 ------------

Officials concede gaps in U.S. knowledge of Iran plot 
WASHINGTON | Wed Oct 12, 2011 7:52pm EDT
(Reuters) - Iran's supreme leader and the shadowy Quds Force covert operations unit were likely aware of an alleged plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, but hard evidence of that is scant, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
The United States does not have solid information about "exactly how high it goes," one official said.
The Obama administration has publicly and directly blamed Iran's government for seeking to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, and has warned Tehran it will face consequences. The accusation has heightened tensions in the volatile, oil-rich Gulf.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said their confidence that at least some Iranian leaders were aware of the alleged plot was based largely on analyses and their understanding of how the Quds Force operates.
They said it was "more than likely" that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani had prior knowledge or approved of the suspected plot. They insisted it was "not a rogue operation in any way," and was sanctioned and directed by Quds Force operatives in Iran.
But other parts of Iran's factionalized government may not have known, they said. That included President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who "didn't necessarily know about this," one said.
"We would expect to see the Quds Force cover their tracks more effectively," said one official. Another said a plot to launch a violent attack inside the United States was "very outside the pattern" of recent Quds Force activities.
Kenneth Katzman, an Iran specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said there were elements of the alleged plot that did not make sense.
"The idea of using a Texas car salesman who is not really a Quds Force person himself, who has been in residence in the United States many years, that doesn't add up," Katzman said.
"There could have been some contact on this with the Quds Force, but the idea that this was some sort of directed, vetted, fully thought-through plot, approved at high levels in Tehran leadership I think defies credulity," he said.
The U.S. officials said Quds Force operations until now had principally involved providing covert Iranian support to anti-American and anti-Israeli militants and insurgents in the Middle East and South Asia.
But the officials also noted a history of antagonism between Iran's theocratic Shi'ite government and Saudi Arabia's Sunni monarchy. That hostility manifested itself in the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a Saudi residential complex housing U.S. servicemen, in which U.S. officials say the Quds Force played a significant role.
Officials said the poor tradecraft and loose talk by Arbabsiar left open a strong possibility that officials in Tehran believed the U.S. government would not necessarily view an attack on Saudi Arabia's ambassador as an attack on the United States itself.
After his arrest, Arbabsiar confessed that a cousin in Iran, whom U.S. officials identified as Abdul Reza Shahlai, was a senior Quds Force official, the indictment against him said. Federal authorities say that under their supervision after his arrest, Arbabsiar discussed the alleged assassination plot on the phone with Gholam Shakuri, whom one U.S. official identified as a Quds Force "case officer," or agent handler.
A U.S. official said Shahlai in the past had come to the attention of U.S. security officials responsible for monitoring Quds Force activities. Another official said that after his arrest, Arbabsiar identified photographs of two Quds Force operatives that had been provided by U.S. intelligence.
U.S. officials said apart from their historical knowledge about how the Iranian leadership and Quds Force interact, they believed high-level Iranian government support for the plot was corroborated by the fact that Arbabsiar allegedly managed to arrange a $100,000 wire transfer to fund the plot.
The money passed through at least one Asian financial haven, one official said, adding the Iranians were relatively sloppy in concealing the funds' origin.