Framing Iran?

“A lie will travel around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

—old proverb

Within minutes of the DOJ’s announcement that it had foiled a plot by Iran to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., with intended help from a Mexican drug cartel, the lapdog domestic media was practically orchestrating the “chorus of international condemnation” of Iran which Hillary Clinton would soon call for. The drumbeat continues. Except a different chorus is also forming—one composed of experts who say the plot is grossly out of character for Iran, and far too sloppy for the chillingly professional Revolutionary Guard Quds Force. According to Professor Gary Sick of Columbia, a Carter aide-de-camp during the 1979 hostage crisis, Iran would have had to disregard “basic intelligence tradecraft” to entrust the plot to an “amateur and a Mexican criminal drug gang that is known to be riddled with both Mexican and U.S. intelligence agents.”

Fresh from working behind the scenes to help free my friends, “the Hikers,” from an Iranian prison, I doubted the story.  To be sure, as the Hiker drama highlighted, there is little cohesion in Iran’s leadership and some very erratic elements within it. Nevertheless, Iran would have nothing to gain and much to lose, at a sensitive time for the country, by assassinating the Saudi Ambassador—particularly if the plot were bungled by some schmo willing to use his cell phone to hatch it.

Yet there are damning details. A complaint, including a sworn affidavit by an FBI Agent, recounts specific facts about the plot, including confirmed international wire transfers totaling $100,000 to the Mexican narco-cartel hit man, who turned out to be a paid DEA informant, and incriminating quotations by the plotters themselves. As a lawyer, I know that every piece of a complaint gets picked over, and that the government has to produce its phone tap and body wire recordings during the case. Manssor Arbabsiar, the arranger, had also confessed all to the FBI upon his arrest at JFK about two weeks prior. Then he placed recorded calls for the FBI to ensnare Ali Gholam Shakuri, a Quds Force colonel and assistant to one of its commanders, Abdul Reza Shahlai, also said to be Arbabsiar’s cousin.

Stop right there. We’re supposed to believe that Iran’s secret agent in the U.S. spilled his guts and gave up Iran within moments of his arrest, without even having to be dispatched to Guantanamo, let alone water-boarded? Score one for Obama vs. Cheney in the absurd debate over whether torture is necessary. And how did the U.S. conceal Arbabsiar for two weeks between the time of his arrest on September 29 and the announcement of the plot on October 11? Notwithstanding our well-earned credulity that the U.S. does in fact disappear people into secret prisons around the world, it is very difficult to make that happen at home. U.S. law requires the arraignment of in-custody individuals within a few days of arrest. A look at the court docket shows that Arbabsiar was not appointed counsel until his arraignment on October 11. Did no one inquire into his whereabouts in the meantime?

Perfectly happy to be wrong, I would like to sketch a scenario by which the details themselves may be contrived. It begins with acknowledging that the details, in this age of microscopic media, are as important to sustaining the fiction as they would be to proving the alleged plot. Not only will reporters, experts, and legal professionals continue to pore over the evidence, countries like Russia and China likely will demand an additional measure of private proof before they go any further in joining the gang up on Iran. So here’s one way it might have worked:

Aware that Manssor Arbabsiar is the cousin of a Qods commander, the FBI recruits him to approach the commander during a visit to Iran about a totally different plot — one sinister enough that Iran can’t embrace it, like a different murder plot, but not involving the assassination of the Saudi Ambassador. Arbabsiar and his Iranian handlers agree to talk in code if they have to talk on the phone later. The FBI then steers Arbabsiar to the DEA’s informant in the Zetas Cartel in Mexico, and instructs Arbabsiar to discuss the murder for hire plot, whether against the Ambassador in name or against someone else. Although Arbabsiar is acting as a government informant, he does not know, and perhaps neither do his handlers, that the cartel figure is also a government informant. Similarly, the DEA leads its asset, the cartel figure, to think Arbabsiar is genuine, and encourages him to string Arbabsiar along and give him what he wants. This way, their conversation can unfold naturally, and the U.S. can collect the recordings (read, the details) it needs. This is basically the way sting operations are run, albeit with a twist. Normally, just one party is the informant and the other a target. The FBI and DEA are both exceedingly practiced at this game.

U.S. authorities report, and the media seems to have accepted uncritically, that Arbabsiar just happened to bumble into a DEA informant as he set about arranging for the assassination. While that can happen, it is far more common for the government either to steer the target to the informant, or for one of the conspirators to turn informant mid-plot and begin trading information to the government for leniency or other favors. In this case, the FBI alleges that the cartel figure was a reliable, longtime, paid informant who had assisted in “numerous seizures of narcotics.”  Therefore, if the story is true, it is likely that the U.S. somehow steered Arbabsiar to the informant. But who would have steered him there, when, and why? The government has yet to explain whether Arbabsiar was in its sights before he bumped into the DEA’s informant in Mexico.

Since 9-11, the government’s anti-terrorism “sting” operations look far more like cases of entrapment than legitimate stings. Somehow, we’re told, agents routinely manage to insinuate themselves into the middle of a conspiracy, then they offer up the would-be terrorists in the nick of time before their schemes can be detonated. But usually, this is a heroic fiction. Rather, the FBI commonly targets impressionable individuals in politically marginal groups, fastens agents or informants to them, then goes to work cajoling them to adopt some plot of the FBI’s design by preying on their mental, emotional, financial or chemical weaknesses. See Glenn Greenwald’s excellent coverage of this subject (“The FBI successfully thwarts its own terrorist plot,” Salon, November 28, 2010), and a report by NYU Law School (“Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the ‘Homegrown’ Threat in the United States,” May 18, 2011.)

Lawyers are then left to hash out whether or not the target was predisposed to commit the planned offense before the government began providing support and encouragement. The target’s reviled politics usually take center stage in the government’s case. In other words, one has to look under the hood at the engine of the alleged conspiracy before leaping to conclusions, and certainly before we go off half-cocked as a nation, rallying the world in a “chorus of condemnation,” or worse.

Curiously, the government’s complaint in this case, which is full of quotations, nowhere quotes any of the alleged conspirators pronouncing the name of the Saudi Ambassador, Adel A. Al-Jubeir, or even the word “ambassador.”  Rather, the government’s proof thus far that the ambassador was involved derives entirely from Arbabsiar’s purported confession, none of which the complaint quotes. While it’s natural that conspirators would avoiding naming their murder target, especially over phones and email, Arbabsiar also spoke in person with the hit man in Mexico, quite candidly and not so much in code. Still, they did not name the Ambassador, at least according to the information the government has presented to date. And although they are said to have looked at a photograph of the Ambassador together, the FBI agent who swore out the affidavit does not substantiate this detail directly, but says he learned it from fellow agents.

Regardless, even if Arbabsiar and the Mexican informant discussed killing the Ambassador, they could have done so without anyone in Iran believing this was the plan, from aught we know through the complaint.

If Arbabsiar too was acting as an informant, a number of otherwise incongruous pieces of the puzzle suddenly fit. It would explain his gushing confession and cooperation immediately after his arrest, neatly packaging the story for prime time and U.S. officials’ indignant sound off. And it would explain his apparent invisibility between the time of his arrest and the announcement by U.S. officials.

When FBI Director Robert Mueller stated at the press conference that the plot “reads like the pages of a Hollywood script,” he may have given us a deeper glimpse into the conspiracy than he meant to. If the real conspiracy turns out to be an attempt by the U.S. to frame Iran, the process would look more like movie making than investigation. The government could, for example, reveal only those segments of the recorded conversations which edit together well to create the story it wants to project. Withholding the remainder arguably would not violate Arbabsiar’s constitutional rights, since he would not be a real defendant, but in cahoots with the government. If this theory pans out, look for Arbabsiar to end up getting no prison time in exchange for his cooperation.

The only thing we know for sure at this stage is that the United States’ account doesn’t add up.  Interestingly, the caper has some hallmarks of the Obama Administration. Obama favors surgical operations (the drone program’s massive civilian body count notwithstanding), and criminal prosecutions over expansions of Bush’s squishy enemy combatant doctrine. Queue the “criminal” prosecution of these assassination plotters. The U.S. accomplishes the further marginalization of Iran without more war, dead soldiers, deficit spending, or domestic and international outrage.

There is no question that Iran’s current leaders are brutal and corrupt. They have waged a reign of terror against dissidents. Yet reasonable minds can disagree whether and to what extent the international community has the right, or even the ability, to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and what means it can use to do so. The question, which we have had to ask ourselves a lot since 9-11, is what ends justify what means. If the means involve perpetrating a fraud on the U.S. courts and the American people, bypassing the deliberative process in an appeal to our national viscera, we might achieve a strategic mission against Iran, but we diminish ourselves in the process. If there’s no WMD there, we may just have another fire in our own hole. Flaming holes tend to make enemies. Lies beget lies. Torture begets torture. Chickens come home to roost.

My friends the Hikers are victims of a criminal act by Iran: a hostage taking for political leverage and ransom. But the hard fact is that they are also the victims, indirectly, of atrocious U.S. foreign policy. As Shane Bauer said on his release: “Every time we complained about our conditions, the guards would immediately remind us of comparable conditions at Guantanamo Bay. They would remind us of CIA prisons in other parts of the world, and the conditions that Iranians and others experience in prisons in the U.S. We do not believe that such human rights violations on the part of our government justify what has been done to us, not for a moment. However, we do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S provide an excuse for other governments, including the governments of Iran, to act in kind.”

If you stand on a pedestal and proclaim yourself the world’s foremost open society and guarantor of human rights, then embark on a massive killing spree across the world, shocking, awing, droning, disappearing, torturing, endlessly detaining, occupying, and humiliating countless people, “justified” by a pile of lies, all the while insisting your s–t don’t stink, people are going to want to take you down a notch. Norman Mailer said, the business of democracy “is to improve all the time, not to stop and take bows and smell [our] armpits and say ‘Ambrosia!’”  As we head once more possibly into the breach against Iran, not so much to defend our principles as an accumulating list of exceptions to them, we should ask ourselves:  How many exceptions to democracy can we make before we simply cease to be one?

Ben Rosenfeld is a San Francisco-based civil rights attorney, and a Board Member of the Civil Liberties Defense Center ( based in Eugene, OR.

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Ben Rosenfeld is a civil rights attorney in San Francisco. Twitter: @benrosenfeldlaw.