Exposure of an Iran-engineered plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in Washington has been widely greeted with more perplexity than shock. Although it was discovered and foiled last spring, only Tuesday, Oct. 11 did US Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller see fit to reveal the evidence filed in court that the elite Al Qods Brigades, Iran's external covert operations arm, had tried to hire a Mexican cartel drug hit-man for the job.
Their revelations though sensational were economical and left the experts and media buzzing with at least five primary questions:
- Why did the al Qods commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who runs one of the most efficient and disciplined covert agencies in the clandestine world, turn to a Mexican drug cartel for a highly sensitive hit in Washington?
- The same question applies to his agent, the Iranian-American Mansour Arbabsiar, a failed New York business jack-of-all trades, who was already on the FBI and the DEA's radar for seeking a way into the drug business. Arbabsiar went about hiring the Mexican killer so ineptly that he was nailed with the incriminating evidence by a DEA plant.
Why would Iran, deep in domestic crisis and international isolation, at a time when Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was working hard to ease high tensions with Saudi Arabia and even the United States and President Mahmoud Ahmadinjejad was trying to reduce areas of hostility with Washington, shoot itself in the foot by manufacturing an unnecessary crisis with both those powers? Iran even went so far as to stop threatening Saudi Arabia over its military intervention on March 14 to save the Bahraini throne.
If that was Iran's official policy, would the Al Qods and its commanders have dared defy their masters to carry out a rogue operation? Not likely.
How high up did the plot go in Tehran and who stood to gain?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counter-terror sources have a question of their own. Why did the attorney general and FBI director throw out the name of Gholam Shakouri as an accomplice in the assassination plot still at large in Iran without identifying him?
Shakouri, in contrast to Arbabsiar, is none other than the deputy chief of Al Qods Brigades with the rank of general and a mile-long record of high accomplishment in his nefarious trade.
Our Iranians sources report that Gen. Gholam Shakouri serves as senior operational planner of Al Qods' overseas attacks. He gained his expertise in Iraq where for five years between 2003 and 2008 he engineered the deaths of scores of American soldiers.
During one of his tours of duty in Iraq, he was nabbed by Iraqi security forces but minutes before they handed him over to the Americans, he managed to get away and slip across the border into Iran.
His latest venture, foiled by Saudi Arabia, was to stir up Bahrain's Shiite community to overthrow the royal house by rioting designed to spread into Saudi Arabia's Shiite-dominated oil regions.
By Thursday, Oct. 13, US officials and intelligence chiefs, having decided the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador was real and supported by evidence, sought to establish how high up it went in Iran's ruling hierarchy.
If top policy-makers in Tehran were involved, they wanted to know what the ayatollahs expected to gain from it.
The plot came directly from the top
So much for the questions; DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and intelligence sources have some answers.
Saudi Ambassador al-Jubeir was to have been killed at Café Milano, one of his favorite restaurants in Georgetown, on orders from Iran's top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Two factions of the Iranian regime have been working to undo the policies led by Ahmadenejad, Ali Akbar Velayati and others to lower tensions with the United States and Saudi Arabia.
One of those factions is the top command of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) led by Al Qods chief Gen. Soleimani. The other is led intriguingly by the Supreme Leader's son and designated successor Mojtaba Khamenei, 42, who runs the leader's bureau and is in a position to shape his father's key international policy decisions.
Soleimani and Mojtaba, both of whom enjoy unrestricted access to Khamenei, were able to win his endorsement for the assassination plot.
Our Iranian sources have obtained the details of how the scheme was conceived by the two conspirators to unfold into a grand plan, which in fact was kicked off last week by a fresh flare-up of rioting in Bahrain and Shiite disturbances in the Saudi oil region of Qatif.
The next part was to send many thousands of pilgrims to Mecca for Umrah, the "little pilgrimage," which starts on Nov. 4. Al Qods officers have already split the pilgrims up into groups for networking with the Shiite pilgrims from various countries and directing them to stage disturbances upon their return home. They will also start riots in Mecca and Medina which was to have been combined with the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, to cause widespread security turbulence in the kingdom and send shock waves against the royal house in Riyadh.
A military clash with the US would serve six goals
Soleimani and Mojtaba took into account that the threat to the Saudi throne and oil regions, combined with the assassination in Washington of the top Saudi diplomat, would probably have brought the Americans running to save the day by launching a limited military attack on Iran.
The pair sought US military intervention in the belief it would serve six goals:
- It would shift the focus away from the unrest in Syria which they fear will before long spill over into Iran. Mojtaba hopes to ward off this threat before it is time for him to step into his father's shoes.
- The people need a distraction from their economic hardships, deepening poverty and runaway inflation. Embroiling the country in an armed conflict would take their minds off their misery and also give the regime a good pretext for stamping hard on protest and dissent.
- The IRGC's leaders have indicated to Mojtaba that an open clash with the United States would provide the pretext for expanding their grip on the country. He would be rewarded with the appointment of Acting Supreme Leader, an act which his father would not be able to contest.
- A limited armed conflict would generate a regional crisis grave enough to make people forget about Iran's controversial nuclear program.
- It would also add force to the IRGC's claim that Iran must have a "nuclear defense" against American aggression.
- The threat of an armed clash with America would support the IRGC's demands for bigger budgets, which have been cut back by reduced oil revenues. To boost their income, the IRGC took over two big power stations and certain profitable enterprises, but are still short.
Low-grade operatives are the standard for assassins
The question about Al Qods, highly expert in terminations and other violence, resorting to a Mexican drugs cartel for a hit-team to assassinate the Saudi ambassador is easily answered.
Iran's Lebanese surrogate Hizballah, has financed its clandestine operations for at least two decades by drug trafficking, gunrunning and fencing stolen goods. Today, Hizballah controls the most important drug cartels in Latin America and Africa, much as the Taliban subsists on the heroin trade in Afghanistan.
Hizballah's criminal activities are no secret and are pretty well known. It is only surprising to find how short Western memories are.
As to how the high-flying Al Qods came to employ a bungling loser like Arbabsiar for a high-profile operation, our sources offer two answers: One – the most proficient undercover agencies often use low-grade foot soldiers for dirty operations – unlike the high-IQ superspies of film and fiction. Two – he was the best operative available. Al Qods maintains small sleeper cells among the 900,000 Iranian expatriates living in the United States, more than half of them in California and Texas. But their active agents are by and large of the same standard as Arbabsiar.
Washington and Tehran swap insults and threats
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that the regime in Tehran is in an uproar over the failed assassination, with accusations hurled back and forth among the rival camps over responsibility for the calamitous episode.
Mojtaba was summoned by his father and asked for an explanation although no such summonses have gone out so far to the two Al Qods commanders, Generals Soleimani and Shakouri.
Ahmadinejad tried to find out what was going on but was told by the IRGC to butt out. Its commanders asked the foreign minister to issue a sharp anti-American statement. Instead of denying the American accusation of an assassination plot, he was to deflect it by accusing Washington of intriguing against the regime.
Wednesday, this is what Salehi had to say: "If they (the Americans) have the power to throw a punch, we have the power to smack them so that they will not be able to stand up."
The Guards are devising propaganda stunts to show the Americans up as liars and schemers and have sent Gen. Shakouri to Mashhad in northeastern Iran to prepare spectacular attacks on US troops in the Herat province of Afghanistan where Iran maintains a heavy concentration of agents. They may even attempt to snatch an American soldier as hostage for the release of Arbabsiar by the United States.
All in all, the IRGC and especially al Qods, are on the warpath and looking for an excuse to get into a fight with America.
They are not deterred by the escalating rhetoric from Washington where day by day one senior official after another accuses the government in Tehran of direct complicity in the "outrageous" assassination plot.
Thursday, President Barak Obama said a person charged with plotting to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s US ambassador “had direct links, was paid by” and “directed by individuals in the Iranian government.”
“This is part of a pattern of dangerous and reckless behavior by the Iranian government,” he said.