The Recent Iranian Crisis: Why the U.S. Should Worry

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the US of using the protests to 'send troops' [Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP]
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the U.S. of using the protests to ‘send troops’ – (Photo: AP)

In the latest tension between the United States and Iran, Iranian security agents arrested  eight people linked to the CIA during last week’s deadly unrest over petrol price increases, the official news agency IRNA reported on Wednesday—protests erupted across Iran after an abrupt decision by authorities to hike petrol prices of to 50 percent as part of efforts to blunt the effects of crippling U.S. sanctions on the country’s economy—“These elements had received CIA-funded training in various countries under the cover of becoming citizen-journalists,” it quoted the intelligence ministry as saying. “Six were arrested while attending the riots and carrying out [CIA] orders and two while trying to … send information abroad.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—in his strongest remarks since the unrest peaked – described the two weeks of violence as the work of a “very dangerous conspiracy.” This came just weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Iran’s treatment of an inspector with the United Natios’s nuclear watchdog agency as “an outrageous and unwarranted act of intimidation.” The top U.S. diplomat said that Iran had “detained” the inspector, who the International Atomic Energy Agency said had been briefly prevented from leaving the country.

Early this year, CIA Director Gina Haspel, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee saying— in contradiction to President Donald Trump—that Iran is abiding by the nuclear deal it made with the world powers in 2015. Apparently what this trio—as well as the entire European Union—failed to notice was that just a few days earlier Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi disclosed how Iran made a mockery out of the agreement, even to the point of admitting pictures of cement being poured down the Arak plutonium reactor’s core (as required by the agreement) were photoshopped. Iran did pour concrete down the pipes of the heavy water reactor, but only after procuring new replacement pipes, Salehi revealed in a January 22 interview.

Iran announced in November that it breached another term of the nuclear deal, which the U.S. abandoned last year, announcing Tuesday that it will be injecting uranium gas into 1,044 previously empty centrifuges. Under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran was only allowed to operate approximately 5,000 first-generation centrifuges, “widely seen as antiquated and breakdown-prone.” Yet unbeknown to many, Iran poses more of a threat to the United States just south of its border, and it is using the drug cartel for it.

Foreign policy writer Eric Yang recently explained how the Mexican drug cartel—soon to be designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S.—has become the latest instrument of the Iranian regime threatening the American homeland. It in fact nearly succeeded eight years ago in creating the most devastating terrorist attack that would have been the most devastating on U.S. soil since 9/11.

How Would This Have Occurred?

As reported, on October 11, 2011, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller disclosed that a plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir had been foiled, and one of the suspects, U.S. citizen Manssor Arbabsiar, had been arrested. The other suspect, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force operative Gholam Shakuri, who also wanted sought to bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, was never arrested and remains at large to this day.

According to the Department of Justice, Jubeir’s assassination was plotted from spring to October 2011. Throughout the year, Arbabsiar went to Mexico to enlist the services of someone he believed was an associate of a Mexican drug cartel. Only it was not—his contact was actually an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

In late May, Arbabsiar traveled from Texas to Mexico to solicit the services of the informant—who then notified U.S. authorities—for an attack against Saudi diplomatic personnel or facilities in the United States. Arbabsiar specifically inquired regarding the use of explosives, to which the informant advised him the cartel was proficient in the use of C-4 plastic explosives.

The informant agreed the cartel was willing to execute the hit at a price of $1.5 million. Within days, Arbabsiar and the informant came to an agreement, and the cartel began planning the assassination. This included gathering intelligence. The informant told Arbabsiar he already had a cartel member doing surveillance in Washington, identifying the Saudi ambassador and determining a time, place, and parameters for attack. Jubeir frequently dined at Café Milano, an upscale Italian restaurant in the Georgetown neighborhood, so it was decided this was the ideal location for targeting the ambassador.

All this time, the informant had been recording Arbabsiar. In one of the mid-July conversations, the Iranian agent seemed fully aware of the high risk of American casualties, at one point suggesting the cartel take care not to kill innocents. But by the end of the discussion, Arbabsiar made clear the assassination needed to happen at any cost. In August, a total of $100,000 was wired to the cartel as a down payment for carrying out the operation. It is not clear when the assassination would have taken place, but conversations between Arbabsiar, the informant, and the leadership back in Iran (primarily Quds Force operative Shakuri) indicate it would have occurred in October. On September 28, Arbabsiar boarded a plane at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for a flight to Mexico, intending to serve himself to the cartel as collateral until the assassination was executed.

When he landed in Mexico, the trap was sprung. Denied entry by Mexican authorities, Arbabsiar was forced to fly back to New York City, where he was then arrested on September 29. In short order, he confessed to investigators his role in the plot. He cooperated with the FBI as they attempted to build a case against Shakuri, who was, until Holder and Mueller’s October 11 announcement, unaware Arbabsiar had been caught.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis hammered home the gravity of this “act of war.” Mattis, who was the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) at the time, spoke of the event in great detail in his memoir, published earlier this year. “It would have changed history,” he said, noting he’d also seen incriminating intelligence of Tehran’s direct involvement. “Had the bomb gone off, those in the restaurant and on the street would have been ripped apart, blood rushing down sewer drains,” Mattis gruesomely described the consequences of the attack had it been successful.

Mattis argued Obama should have drummed up public support for a tougher line against Iran, evoking Woodrow Wilson and the 1917 Zimmermann Telegram, laying the groundwork for military action. Having held an adversarial stance toward Iran his entire career (and possibly relieved of command for it), Mattis clearly considers October 2011 a missed opportunity to resoundingly punish the ayatollah and his cronies for their crimes.

President Trump called off a retaliatory strike in June against Iran after it shot down a highly sophisticated American drone flying over the Strait of Hormuz—Washington maintains the drone was flying over international water, while Iran claims it entered Iranian airspace. Notwithstanding Trump’s tough talk, thus far the Iranian regime has called his bluff, as well as stopping in what appears a CIA-plot to overthrow them. On Monday the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said: “We have shown restraint. … We have shown patience toward the hostile moves of America, the Zionist regime (Israel) and Saudi Arabia against the Islamic Republic of Iran. If you cross our red line, we will destroy you. We will not leave any move unanswered.” What will happen next is anyone’s guess.