Perhaps you remember an incredibly sensational story from October 2011 that after a brief period in the headlines disappeared completely: the U.S. government arrested an Iranian-American citizen in Texas and charged him with being an agent of the Iranian government who planned — at Tehran’s behest — to hire a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a fiery terrorist attack in Washington, D.C.
It would have been another September 11, albeit on a far smaller scale. Knowing about such an operation should have been a real game-changer for U.S. Middle East policy.
Now that man, Manssor Arbabsiar, arrested in September 2011, has pleaded guilty to these charges in a Manhattan court. The trial is scheduled for January.
The case is so important because the U.S. government was officially claiming that the Iranian regime planned an act of war on American soil. Talking to journalists, U.S. officials insisted that the very top leaders in Iran must have authorized the attack, though they admitted they didn’t have hard proof.
Nevertheless, the highest officials in the United States threatened retaliation. President Obama said:
Even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity.
Notably, however, the Obama administration policy attitude toward Tehran — already involved in sanctions, of course — was not altered further by this new revelation.
The government says it has impressive evidence, based on the fact that the Mexican “drug lord” Arbabsiar was propositioning with was a secret U.S. agent. It includes tapes of the accused speaking with intelligence officials from the Quds Force inside Iran, and his withdrawing $100,000 as down payment for the hit.
We do know that Iran has sponsored terror attacks against Americans in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Yet an assassination in the heart of Washington, D.C., with passersby and restaurant patrons being blown up, would have marked a considerable escalation. Some argued that the plot was too strange to believe: Iranian intelligence delegating a used car salesman to contract with Mexican drug lords.
It is understandable that some are incredulous about this story. I have no idea what the truth is, but note that the U.S. government says it has strong evidence, and that the Obama administration — not known for its boldness in challenging America’s enemies — stuck its neck out in this case. They must be convinced that the plot was real.
What does all of this tell us?
This operation should once again remind American leaders that the Tehran regime is not just a problem because of the nuclear weapons project, but because it is a determined foe of the United States on every issue. A major priority for U.S. policy should be to battle Tehran’s influence everywhere, notably in Lebanon, Syria, and Bahrain. (This has already been done in Iraq, though Iran’s influence there is now on the rise and the United States’ influence is diminishing.) Those supposedly friendly governments helping Iran — with Turkey and Venezuela at the top of that list — should not be treated as allies.
And if the attack was an independent initiative, albeit one that the Iranian regime didn’t actively oppose, it shows that once Iran has nuclear weapons there might be other such “rogue” operations. While I don’t support a military attack on Iran, such a factor should be taken into account in making such a decision in the future.