An increasing number of former intel officers that I network with are convinced that the alleged plot to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington is not only completely implausible as described by the Justice Department and White House but also possibly the contrivance of an intelligence or security service other than that of Iran. There is a consensus that the Iranian government has no motive for carrying out the attack, as it would have only further isolated Tehran internationally and could easily have led to massive retaliation. The “rogue element” theory that Iran’s fractured politics might mean that someone in the Quds group was actually trying to embarrass someone else in the government has a certain plausibility, but no one who knows anything about Iran actually believes it to be true. Nor is it likely that Iran mounted the complicated operation to avenge the assassinations of several of its nuclear scientists. The scientists were killed by the Israelis, who would have been the target if that had been the case. So the only question becomes, who is doing what to whom and why?
The speculation by Gareth Porter that the whole affair might have been a drug deal that morphed or was manipulated by an FBI sting into yet another terrorism story is compelling. If that was the case, then the U.S. government is guilty yet again of taking a vulnerable individual and turning him to make him into what will pass muster as a genuine terrorist. Nearly every terrorism case since 9/11 has been precisely that — finding a disgruntled individual or group through communications intercepts, inserting an informant into the process, and developing the case to enhance its terrorism potential.
Another possibility that has been mentioned is that it might have been an operation planned by the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, the Iranian opposition group supported by a number of U.S. lawmakers. But the MEK would not have the resources or technical expertise to carry out such a deception, unless it were working in cooperation with the CIA or the Mossad, which raises the possibility that this has been from the start the work of an intelligence agency rather than law enforcement.
Law enforcement normally begins with some kind of case and then allows it to grow, whereas an intelligence operation would be phony from start to finish. If it is indeed an intelligence operation, there are three principal suspects: the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. All three countries have highly sophisticated intelligence services capable of the technical measures required to carry out what is essentially a false-flag operation, in which they would be portraying themselves as representatives of the Iranian government in order to obtain the cooperation of an expat Iranian living in the United States. All three intelligence organizations are highly knowledgeable of Iranian intelligence service operations, and all three have easy access to Farsi speakers capable of role playing. The operation would be tricky to execute but far from impossible if the right resources were dedicated to the problem and the right spin were put on the narrative used to initiate contact with and then develop Mansour Arbabsiar or someone like him.
The United States would have the simplest task in mounting such a false-flag operation. As immigrants to the U.S. are required to identify close relatives in foreign governments as part of their visa process, it would be easy to come up with a candidate for the plot who has a relative in Iran’s security services through inspection of the immigration records. I am certain that the CIA and the FBI both have been exploiting such records since 9/11. Once you have your candidate, you set up a scenario for him in which he receives a phone call quite possibly innocuous in nature, money is dangled in front of him, and your plot to assassinate and bomb gradually takes shape. After you introduce your own informant into the operation, you then run it like the classic FBI sting operation, which we have seen so many times over the past 10 years. You monitor and guide your target, going step by step, getting him more involved and committed. You provide him with money that comes out of an overseas account that you have set up, which is no problem at all for a sophisticated intelligence agency. You can even redirect calls using a switch so that when your target thinks he is dialing Tehran he is actually connected to a listening post in Washington. When the operation is ready to go, you arrest him, claiming as Preet Bharara, the federal attorney for the southern district of Manhattan recently did, that “no one was ever actually in any danger.” You time the arrest and the revelation of the case to the media to obtain maximum possible advantage from it.
Israel would run the operation in precisely the same fashion, assuming that it has access to U.S. immigration records, which may or may not be true, either with the consent of the federal government or clandestinely through one of its many friends in the bureaucracy. The rest of the operation would proceed just as if the CIA were running it. Indeed, one should not rule out the possibility that Israel might have run the operation jointly with the CIA.
Saudi Arabia would likely not have any access to U.S. immigration records, but it is possible that it could come up with a candidate using other resources, including work and travel records from the nearby Emirates, which are much frequented by Iranian travelers.
Given the fact that all three countries’ intelligence services could have run the false-flag operation, who would have the strongest motive? Cui bono, who benefits? Undoubtedly Israel would. Tel Aviv has been demanding military action against Iran for many years. A terrorist plot to assassinate a friendly ambassador in Washington would be considered a godsend by the Benjamin Netanyahu government, which has stated repeatedly that Iran is a threat and Washington should be taking the lead against it.
The United States has much less motive to create a new crisis with Iran, even accepting that the president would like to appear to be strong against terrorism and what he chooses to call state sponsors of terror in the lead-up to elections. If an armed conflict were somehow to start and go wrong, there would be considerable downside, making this far too risky to contemplate. The White House has several times warned Israel against starting a war with Iran, most recently three weeks ago when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Tel Aviv. President Obama might be willing to push hard against the Iranians to satisfy demands from Congress, the media, and the Israel Lobby, but he appears unwilling to employ military force.
The Saudis have no love for Iran but would be fearful of the consequences of what could quickly become a major war escalating on their doorstep, so their motivation for heightening tension is also very questionable, even if they would welcome someone else dealing with what they see as the Iranian threat.
The final question: Was it a conspiracy that was designed to fail? It would be a mistake to assume that just because the plot appears idiotic it could not be the product of a sophisticated intelligence service. In my own experience in the CIA, many operations were poorly planned and executed, and often something that appears implausible might be driven by its own perverse logic. In this case, the involvement of an identifiable DEA informant in the plot, if that was done deliberately, suggests that exposure was desired, perhaps due to some laudable squeamishness about blowing up a restaurant or killing an ambassador in cold blood. That might mean that whoever constructed the operation was willing to have it become public knowledge because the publicity itself would be nearly as damaging as success, which is frequently how covert intelligence operations are designed. Would Israel be bold enough to stage a major terror operation in the United States capital? The Lavon Affair, the USS Liberty, Jonathan Pollard, and the still unexplained actions of Israel before 9/11 suggest that it might. If an Iranian plotter had killed the Saudi ambassador in Washington while blowing up a restaurant full of people, it would have been an act of war, a Pearl Harbor moment. If Tehran had apparently plotted to do so and failed because the plot was discovered, it could still be construed as an act of war by those willing to see it that way (Sen. Carl Levin, for instance). Either way it is blamed on the Iranian government, not on the actual false-flag perpetrator.
I am not suggesting that the above scenario necessarily took place, just describing how it might have been accomplished. My account differs in several details from the information that the U.S. government has either revealed through its court filing, stated in press briefings, or leaked to the media to bolster its case. At least some of the leaked material, most notably the information provided to The Washington Post’s Peter Finn, might reasonably be described as disinformation. Above all, the Obama administration and the FBI have made no effort to explain the role of the informant, who might have been an instigator or enabler of the terrorist plot, if such a plot ever existed, nor will they be generous in releasing information when Arbabsiar is tried. Of course, if the entire affair was a broadly based conspiracy orchestrated by the White House for political reasons, it would have been easy to carry out, as all the evidence and corroboration could have been fabricated from start to finish. That is perhaps the scariest possibility of all, a “homegrown” answer to the question “Whodunit?”