On Wednesday, Oct. 12 the New York Times, USA Today and other papers ran front-page stories about the discovery of a plot by Iranians allegedly associated with the Quds Revolutionary Forces of the government to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. by hiring the Mexican drug cartel, the Zetas, to do the job. In a press conference on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder made the announcement with much fanfare, saying that two men had been charged and one, an Iranian-American used car salesman named Manssor Arbabsiar, was in custody.
The accusations were vague and yet broad. Despite the fact that it is unknown how high up the alleged plot went within the Iranian government, Holder announced a travel advisory for the whole world– apparently warning U.S. citizens about the possibility of running into Iranians anywhere. The odd advisory warns that attacks could take place in the United States, while advising U.S. citizens to review international travel plans:
The U.S. government assesses that this Iranian-backed plan to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador may indicate a more aggressive focus by the Iranian Government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries, to include possible attacks in the United States.
U.S. citizens residing and traveling abroad should review the Department’s Worldwide Caution and other travel information when making decisions concerning their travel plans and activities while abroad.
According to the NYT article, the plot involved plans to bomb Israeli embassies in Washington and Argentina–again a job supposedly hired out to the Zetas. In an exemplary piece of shoddy and contradictory reporting, the paper cites “a law enforcement official” as saying the plan also included running opium from the Middle East to Mexico.
A spokesperson for Iran’s president dismissed the allegations to CNN, “This is a child’s story. This is a fabrication.” The Times reports that the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, sent an outraged letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, stating that his government “strongly and categorically rejects these fabricated and baseless allegations, based on the suspicious claims by an individual.”
On closer examination, the plot thins.
It turns out that the Zeta connection never was a connection with the Zetas, but a direct connection between the bumbling Iranian car salesman supposedly masterminding the multiple terrorist attacks and a DEA informant, who led him on until his capture in the JFK airport.
Even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed incredulity to the Associated Press, as though the proof of the plot’s veracity was its very unlikeliness:
The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?
That’s a rhetorical question, right?
The Zetas have no record of engaging in international terrorist activities or anything having to do with geopolitics. The reasons they would divert attention from their efforts to increase their share of a multi-million dollar drug trade for a $1.5 million-dollar international hit man job are more than unclear. Why they’d be interested in bombing Israeli embassies utterly defies explanation according to what we know of cartel activities. Risking a major challenge to the U.S. government is also not high on their list of priorities. So far no Mexican cartel members have been arrested because the only known involvement was of the DEA agent.
InSight Crime, and others who write on Mexican drug cartels have pointed out numerous other contradictions, among them that the alleged meeting place of Reynosa is not Zeta territory and that the plot was so impossibly clumsy that it either reflects the lack of knowledge of Mexican crime organizations or the flimsy nature of the accusations.
In fact, the only linkages between Mexican drug cartels and terrorism are the equally vague and unproven rumblings that have come out of Washington lately. A joint meeting of the sub-committees on Operations of Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs with the wild-eyed title of “Merida Part 2: Insurgency and Terrorism in Mexico” provided no evidence of terrorism by Mexican cartels, but it did unveil a new strategy of upping the ante in the drug war by recasting cartels as terrorist organizations. This redefinition, made explicit by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas who is calling for their classification as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, is based on statements by Mexican President Felipe Calderon and acts that “terrorize” the citizenry and “disrupt” government. However, there is no discussion of motives nor of the fact that the primary reason for government “disruption” is the degree of corruption.
The Iran-Zeta plot announcement called on foreign governments to isolate Iran diplomatically, even as that government denies involvement and further investigation is pending. The Mexico connection reinforces dangerous tendencies to entrench the drug war as a counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics war that virtually assures a permanent presence of U.S. security and intelligence forces and of the Mexican armed forces.
Let’s hope that the international community will demand a facts-based investigation that allows us to understand the real nature and dimension of the threat revealed in this bizarre case.
As the government well knows, guilt by association can be highly effective in influencing public opinion. Associating cartel violence with terrorism paves the way for more U.S. involvement in Mexico and the further allocation of scarce resources to a failing drug war.
But by failing to be rigorous in how we describe and analyze organized crime, and by painting reality with alarmist brushes, we make it even more difficult to fine-tune policies and strategies to defeat the criminal organizations and avoid yet another quagmire.
(The full indictment can be downloaded here US_v_Manssor_Arbabsiar.pdf )