United States officials in the Obama administration and Justice Department have explicitly claimed that Iran’s supreme leader and the Quds Force covert operations unit were likely aware of the so-called terror plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. But evidence of that is lacking and many officials have admitted there are gaps in their understanding of the plot.
The Obama administration has combatively blamed the highest echelons of the Iranian government and promised impending consequences, despite the fact that there is no solid information about “exactly how high it goes,” as one official put it.
Anonymous government officials speaking to various media outlets have said that their belief that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “more than likely” had prior knowledge of the plot is based on inference. The Quds Force operates, they reason, in accordance and obedience to Iran’s supreme leadership, so a rogue actor is unlikely.
But unlikely describes the plot itself, as even US officials admit it was very out of character. The Quds Force has a history of shrewd covert operations and calculated dealings with proxies. “The Iranian modus operandi is only to trust sensitive plots to their own employees, or to trusted proxies,” wrote Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service on Gulf2000 on Wednesday.
And the accused perpetrator Manssor Arbabsiar and a Mexican drug gang don’t fit the protocol. “Are we to believe that this Texas car seller was a Qods sleeper agent for many years resident in the US? Ridiculous,” said Mr. Katzman. “They never ever use such has-beens or loosely connected people for sensitive plots such as this.”
“It’s a very strange case, it doesn’t really fit Iran’s mode of operation,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation told the Christian Science Monitor. “This [plot] doesn’t seem to serve Iran’s interests in any conceivable way,” he added.
Former CIA agent Robert Baer said the culpability of the Iranian leadership is not believable. “I don’t think it’s credible, not the central government, there may be a rogue element behind it,” Baer said in an interview. “They wouldn’t be sending money through an American bank, they wouldn’t be going to the cartels in Mexico to do this. It’s just not the way they work.”
Carrying out this kind of action, especially within the United States, would be against Iran’s interests, by most expert accounts. It entails a lot of risk of retaliation and potential suffering, and no discernible gain.
Another reason that top-level Iranian government coordination in this plot is unlikely is because the plot was developed for the most part by the FBI and the undercover DEA agent. Arbabsiar had originally planned to kidnap the Saudi ambassador, and only after meeting with the undercover agent did kidnapping turn into assassinating, and it was the undercover agent who first suggested using explosives.
That the leadership of the Iranian government would have foreknowledge of an assassination plot by a disgruntled Texas resident that was largely concocted by US law enforcement agents is very unlikely. Still, the Obama administration continues to blame the Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian government for it, even as US officials admit they have no direct evidence for such a claim.