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2011-10-12

U.S.-Iran Tensions Grow as Indictment Accuses Iranian Agents of Assassination Plot

Guests

Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. He was previously the Persian Gulf political analyst at the International Crisis Group. He is the author of the book Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

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In a 21-page indictment filed in New York federal court, two Iranian agents are charged with conspiring to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice officials say the suspects tried to hire a member of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the assassination with a bomb attack while al-Jubeir dined at his favorite restaurant in Washington, D.C. The hit man was actually an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. We speak with Toby Jones, author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia." "We know that the United States has pursued an uneven policy in the Middle East with respect to the Arab Spring, where it has championed the cause of democracy, or at least the overthrow of autocracy in places like Libya," Jones says. "It has been much less clear or certain in its position when it comes to Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. And in many ways, Iran is a central part of American uncertainty in the Persian Gulf. The United States agrees with Saudi Arabia that it doesn’t want to see Iranian power expanded there. So, revealing the indictment or sort of having the indictment go forward, unsealing the case at this particular moment provides the Americans with a great deal of political cover in continuing to pursue a political line and a policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the Gulf that continues to put Iran at the center of the story." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Obama administration yesterday accused two Iranian agents of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States. In a 21-page indictment filed in New York federal court, the two men were charged with conspiring to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir: Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar, now in U.S. custody, and Iranian official Gholam Shakuri, reportedly a member of Iran’s special foreign actions unit known as the Quds Force.

Justice Department officials say the men tried to hire a member of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the assassination with a bomb attack while al-Jubeir dined at his favorite Washington restaurant. The hit man was actually an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Arbabsiar allegedly agreed to pay $1.5 million for the assassination and arranged a down payment of $100,000 to the informant. He was arrested on September 29th at JFK Airport in New York on a return flight from Mexico, where he had been denied entry after agreeing to meet the informant and use himself as collateral for the rest of the payment. Once in custody, he cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in making calls to his cousin, an alleged co-conspirator, Shakuri, in Iran, to confirm and record details of the plot.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. would hold Iran responsible for the plot.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The complaint alleges that this conspiracy was conceived, was sponsored, and was directed from Iran and constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, including a convention that explicitly protects diplomats from being harmed. In addition to holding these individual conspirators accountable for their alleged role in this plot, the United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions. Arbabsiar and Shakuri are charged with conspiracy to murder a foreign official, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, and conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism, among other charges.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Shortly after Holder’s announcement, the U.S. Treasury announced it was initiating sanctions against five people allegedly connected to the plot.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called the allegations "untrue and baseless" and said the incident was, quote, "a comedy show fabricated by America." Mexico’s deputy foreign minister, Julian Ventura, said in a news conference yesterday that Mexican authorities had detained suspect Arbabsiar when he tried to enter the country on September 28th.

JULIAN VENTURA: [translated] Last September 28th, the National Migration Institute identified Arbabsiar, who was prevented from entering the country because he didn’t have the necessary paperwork according to the general migration law. Following the rules established by the International Civil Aviation Organization as well as conventions and valid international agreements, the foreigner was returned to the starting point of his journey. He was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Mexico’s deputy foreign minister, Julian Ventura, speaking yesterday at a news conference. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated U.S. intelligence and said the alleged plot would further isolate Tehran.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: It was a terrific achievement by our law enforcement and intelligence communities, and we will be consulting with our friends and partners around the world about how we can send a very strong message that this kind of action, which violates international norms, must be ended. And other areas where we can cooperate more closely in order to send a strong message to Iran and further isolate it from the international community will also be considered. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The Saudi embassy in Washington issued a statement calling the plot, quote, "a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions and is not in accordance with the principles of humanity," unquote. Iran was not specifically mentioned.

To talk more about the incident, we go to Seattle to talk to Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. He was previously International Crisis Group’s political analyst in the Persian Gulf. He is author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Toby Jones. Can you respond to what the Justice Department has alleged, the indictments against these two men?

TOBY JONES: Well, certainly, we should, you know, keep in mind that Iran is capable of considerably, you know, sort of dangerous and provocative things in the world, but there’s not very much way in the way of detail here. The affidavit, the complaint that was released, contains sort of an account of the investigation as it was carried out over the course of 2011, but there’s still a lot that we don’t know about what the connections are with Iran and who in Iran might have possibly been interested in this. I mean, there are huge questions about complicity and about what the strategic value of this would be for Iran. I mean, why carry out an attack on U.S. soil? What kinds of interests or objectives would they hope to serve? These sorts of things have not been made clear by observers or by American officials. And so there’s lots that’s left unknown at this point.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you say a little, Toby, about what you think Iran could possibly gain? What is some of the speculation?

TOBY JONES: Well, some of the speculation is that Iran seeks to damage both American and Saudi interests, the relationship with one another; that Iran might be feeling somewhat muscular in the region as a result of both the Arab Spring and the erosion of American power in the Middle East; and that from this position of strength, or perceived strength, inside of Tehran, that Iran might want to send both a message of its abilities, its capacity to carry out these kinds of things, but also to seek to further erode American power and to stretch the ability of the Saudis to respond appropriately. But that’s not entirely compelling. We know in the course of 2011 that the Arab regimes in the region have felt a considerable amount of strain and pressure as a result of democratic uprisings from Egypt to Bahrain. And Saudi Arabia has responded by pursuing the course of counterrevolution, attempting to contain the fallout, not only in Bahrain, but across the region.

You know, Iran also feels pressure. It’s had the—two years ago, it was confronted with its own green revolution, the Green Movement, an attempt to sort of check the authority of Ahmadinejad and other authorities in Tehran. And I think Iran is worried about the possible spillover effect of any kind of populist movement. So I think it’s an exaggeration to say that Iran feels a sense of strength or a sense of expanded ability, heightened ability, if you will, to negatively influence American or Saudi interests in the region. Rather, Iran is in a vulnerable position. I mean, it’s surrounded by American military power. It’s isolated from the international community. It’s hard to see what it would gain from taking an incredibly provocative sort of move like this. And frankly, it’s out of character. I mean, Iran has in the past engaged in assassinations against its own dissidents. It has been alleged to have relationships with global terrorist networks that have targeted Western civilians. But this would be an escalation, a considerable escalation, and it’s hard to see how it would serve Iran’s agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the targets that we’re talking about. And again, we have to reiterate, we do not know anything about this except for what the government has told us. And for journalists, that’s very difficult. So, again, this is what the government, the U.S. government, is alleging in major news conferences yesterday. The plotters, one of them in U.S. custody, also targeted Israel’s embassy in Washington, as well as the embassies of Israel and Saudi Arabia in Argentina, according to federal law enforcement officials. Israel and Saudi Arabia, not exactly friendly with each other.

TOBY JONES: No, that’s right, but although we have to keep in mind that over the last few years, you know, there’s been an interesting convergence when it comes to Middle East policy and Middle East interests, where Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States continue to pursue the most outspoken and hard line against Iran. You know, when the Shah fell in 1979, American policy crystallized very quickly to both vilify and criminalize the Iranian regime. And ever since, over the last three decades, you know, according to American political discourse, Iran has become the center of evil in the Middle East, you know, responsible for all kinds of things that it may or may not have connections to. And certainly Israel and Israeli policy over the last few years has also come to view Iran as an existential threat, and Iran’s president has played an important role in sort of fostering this by making provocative statements, denying the Holocaust and so on. But, you know, it’s interesting what many folks might consider to be, if not enemies, at least rivals in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia and Israel—their interests actually align perfectly when it comes to Iran. They both seek to contain Iranian power and influence and to roll it back where possible.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about Syria? Syria is Iran’s closest ally, Arab ally, in the region. What role has Syria—might have Syria played in this alleged plot, or the interest of Iran in this plot?

TOBY JONES: Right. Well, there’s no indication that Syria is involved at all, although there is—there is the cryptic reference to a non-Iranian bank having been responsible for wiring the $100,000 to a non-named American bank, or at least U.S.-based bank. So, Syria has not been named in the affidavit, as far as I can tell, but it’s certainly possible that the situation in Syria, the erosion of Assad’s power, the continuing protests there, the pressure that puts on Iran in the region, as well, you know, if Iran—if the sort of the powers that be in Iran are somehow responsible for this or have orchestrated this, that Syria and sort of what’s going on there might be part of their calculation.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, actually, October 21st is the 35th anniversary of the bombing of the former Chilean diplomat, Orlando Letelier, and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt, on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., Toby Jones. It was September 21st.

TOBY JONES: Right. Well, the—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

TOBY JONES: Right. So, well, I mean, right. I mean, we have moments—and Iran, too, has allegedly been involved in foreign assassination plots or strikes against community centers in Argentina in the past. I mean, this certainly resonates. I mean, it’s a frightening prospect, right, that Iran might be plotting acts of terrorism against American interests or against allied interests elsewhere, you know, whether it’s the Saudis or somebody else, right? It raises the specter of kind of, you know, a shadowy nemesis that wishes to do us ill will. And, you know, if true, it’s frightening. But there are lots of holes in the story. And while we have these moments, sort of the historical anecdotes, they’re not necessarily parallels. I mean, you know, in the earlier example, Chileans went after former diplomats. I mean, Iran wasn’t—you know, these two Iranians weren’t charged with looking to strike Iranian dissidents, but rather with looking to strike at Saudi targets, at, you know, a strong ally of the United States in the Middle East. And in that context, you know, it’s remarkably different.

But it also is—you know, it raises important questions about what American political interests are served by revealing the details of this right now. We know that the United States has pursued an uneven policy in the Middle East with respect to the Arab Spring. It is—where it has championed the cause of democracy, or at least the overthrow of autocracy in places like Libya. It has been much less clear or certain in its position when it comes to Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. And in many ways, Iran is a central part of American uncertainty in the Persian Gulf. The United States agrees with Saudi Arabia that it doesn’t want to see Iranian power expanded there. So, revealing the indictment or sort of having the indictment go forward, unsealing the case at this particular moment, you know, provides the Americans with a great deal of political cover in continuing to pursue a political line and a policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the Gulf that continues to put Iran at the center of the story.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you think it’s actually possible, Toby Jones, that the U.S. could use this as a pretext for military intervention in Iran, as some have speculated?

TOBY JONES: Well, there have already been calls for a more strident kind of strategic response, that the Americans should look for ways to punish those in Iran. I believe the Vice President came out either last night or early this morning and said that those in Iran that were responsible for this should be held accountable. It’s unclear what those measures would be. I mean, there’s been some discussion of renewed sanctions or intensified sanctions, going to the Security Council and looking for international support to pursue, you know, sort of a path that’s, frankly, unclear. You know, and there are—there are hawkish voices in the United States, and elsewhere, that would like nothing more, including in Saudi Arabia and Israel, that would like nothing more than a military strike. So, as unlikely as that seems, given the debacle of Iraq, the complicated nature of the situation, you know, across the Middle East right now, it’s not impossible that there are strategists in the United States who will see this as an opportunity to argue for and call for a military strike against Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, we want to thank you very much for being with us, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, previously International Crisis Group’s political analyst in the Persian Gulf. He’s author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

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