“…it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script.”
— FBI director Robert S. Mueller III
You’ve probably forgotten the plot: Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American used car salesman living in Texas, is arrested and charged with acting on behalf of high ranking officials in Iran’s government to conspire with a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
This case begins dramatically, with Attorney General Holder announcing the arrest, stating that the plot was“directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds Force.” This is followed by President Obama asserting that “we know that he had direct links, was paid by, and directed by individuals in the Iranian government.” Thus, the utmost importance is conferred upon the arrest of Arbabsiar.
So, we have international intrigue spanning three countries, well-known villains mixed together in fresh combination and charismatic, award-winning stars hitting their marks in supporting roles—all indications point to a critically acclaimed blockbuster. Then Arbabsiar shuffles in front of the camera. Noooo! He’s all wrong for the part! Although his antics in a second tier reality show had once made him briefly popular, he can’t convey the cunning and menace necessary for the role of terrorist mastermind. This jarring bit of miscasting immediately brings greater scrutiny to the whole production and a realization that the entire plot doesn’t make any sense at all.
It becomes hard for the audience to concentrate on the intended theme– The Iranians are plotting against us– when fundamental questions of common sense are crowding the mind: Why would the Iranians be so careless as to use Arbabsiar, a man who seems singularly unqualified to carry out such a mission? Why would they initiate such a dangerous escalation? What tangible benefits would be gained from killing the Ambassador?
Publicity didn’t go as planned, as reporting of events immediately began to diverge from the usual pattern. Most significant were the strong assertions of doubt about the plot from those cited in the media as experts. At the polite end of the spectrum, Iran expert Volker Perthes says, “I don’t regard it as impossible but rather improbable.” Coverage was especially notable for how prominently the skeptics were featured and in how lacking most articles were in finding competing expert opinions to try to achieve the usual veneer of balance. (2 thumbs down!) The response of the general public, as judged by the comments sections of the news articles, was overwhelmingly incredulous and dismissive of the charges. Unsure of how to respond to the push-back, supporters of the administration’s claims appeared half-hearted at best, to the point that Hillary Clinton could only lamely offer that” nobody could make that up, right?”, implying that the story’s very improbability lent it credibility. To sum up, after a disastrous opening day, blasted by the critics, this film went straight to video.
But, of course, this is not a film but what should have been one of the most important stories of the year. Given the widespread disbelief of the government’s charges, it would have been reasonable to expect journalists to pursue the story with increased aggressiveness. That this story was allowed to fade out after such an auspicious beginning seems curious. A comparison with The New York Times’ coverage of the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, is instructive. In the aftermath of this attempted act of terror we saw numerous articles, which continued to develop throughout the days and weeks. These articles, with datelines from New York, London, Nigeria, Yemen and Lebanon, tried to piece together Abdulmutullab’s actions and movements across several continents, attempting to dig deeper into the details of the plot. Multiple authors tried to fill out the story and understand the process by which this young man reached his extremist position. On December 30, only 5 days after the incident, reporters are already printing information from the NSA discussing their previous four months tracking the plot; this in a case where there was huge intelligence failure!
In contrast, it seems as if after the first day very little coverage has been given to the Arbabsiar case, where claims of involvement at the highest levels of the Iranian government, if true, make it a much more serious matter than previous failed plots.We learned superficial details about Arbabsiar’s failed businesses, absent mindedness and difficulty in retaining his keys and cell phone, but very little of substance has come to light since that would help us make sense of the story. I haven’t seen any follow-up on a more serious discussion of who Mansour Arbabsiar is. Initially, a friend is quoted as saying Arbabsiar is a businessman and so he did it for money, not out of religious fanaticism. That’s all. Mystery, apparently, solved. Arbabsiar may not be a religious zealot, but surely it’s a complicated and fascinating question how a person with no history of violence progresses from pursuing his fortune through multiple small business ventures to being willing to blow up a crowded restaurant and saying if one hundred people are killed with the ambassador, “Fuck ‘em. No big deal.” as alleged in the criminal complaint filed against him.
Terrorism cases have appeared to divide into two distinct categories so far. For myself, I start from a general rule that whenever a public official proclaims that “the public was never in danger”, I take that to mean that the public was never in danger, that is to say, it was a case of entrapment. The cases our various security agencies have broken have generally been those which they designed, funded, recruited and directed themselves. The cliché that comes to mind is playing tennis without a net…or a ball…or an opponent.
Then there are those legitimate cases, such as the Abdulmutallab plot, the Richard Read shoe-bombing attempt, or the incident in Times Square, when the public indeed was in danger. None of these cases, incidentally, was prevented by the FBI or Homeland Security or other agencies but failed through malfunction, lack of execution and the intervention of private citizens.
Now at last, an article appears in the New York Times that whets the appetite for the coming trial, scheduled to begin October 22. It gives a fascinating description of Arbabsiar’s 32 hours of interviews with the government’s psychiatrist, depicting him as a person by turns naïve, likable, grandiose, charming, with a darker side with the potential to erupt. We see a man having only the thinnest thread of connection to the world we actually inhabit, seemingly unaware of the adversarial nature of his predicament, making it even harder to take a plot with such a character seriously. Suddenly Arbabsiar’s cinematic analogue occurs to me: Timothy Treadwell, the protagonist of Warner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man. Treadwell, like Arbabsiar, is a former “party buy” suffering from bi-polar disorder, but whose wildly fluctuating monologues and rants we actually got to see on camera. Imagine David Petraeus directing Treadwell to arrange with the Taliban to assassinate Venezuela’s ambassador to Iran. Now we’re getting somewhere.
One key component of the government-created conspiracy has been the selection of deluded, marginal figures to entrap. It seems no stretch to believe that Arbabsiar fits snuggly into this demographic and it is quite easy to imagine him, with delusions of grandeur and eager to please, participating enthusiastically in such a fictitious plot. When the word terrorism is invoked, we are not supposed to care about the lives of a few unfortunate, hapless characters, who are quite easily disposed of with little protection or interference from the courts and minimal interest from the press and public. There’s no reason to believe Arbabsiar will be an exception.
What is extremely difficult to imagine, however, is any responsible party, especially one portrayed to be as ruthless and disciplined as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, involving him in its schemes. On the surface, there might appear to be more pressure on the administration to prove its case regarding involvement of the Iranian government. After all, President Obama himself has put his credibility on the line by stating categorically that “We would not be bringing forward a case unless we knew exactly how to support all the allegations that are contained in the indictment.” Although, as we saw with the dirty bomb allegations in the Jose Padilla case some pretty extraordinary claims can disappear quite easily without any challenge or uproar.
This time could be different. The government could proceed in an open trial and prove its case conclusively regarding both Arbabsiar and his Iranian co-conspirators. The press could take a skeptical, confrontational stance toward any charges which don’t withstand scrutiny, challenging those who propagated them and demanding accountability for such reckless behavior in the highly sensitive area of U. S.-Iran relations. While either of these could happen this time, you don’t need to be an expert to feel comfortable saying, “It’s possible, but not probable.”
Michael Kaufman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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