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Iran’s nuclear ambitions have already started a war with west – a covert one

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have already started a war with west – a covert one

A secret campaign of surveillance, sabotage, cyberattacks and assassinations has slowed but not stopped Tehran’s programme

President George W Bush in 2007

Iran’s nuclear ambitions led then US president George W Bush to launch a covert war in 2007 to thwart the programme. Photograph: Jim Young/REUTERS

The covert war on Iran‘s nuclear programme was launched in earnest by George Bush in 2007. It is a fair assumption that the western powers had been trying their best to spy on the Islamic Republic since the 1979 Iranian revolution, but the 2007 “presidential finding” put those efforts on a new footing.

Bush asked Congress to approve $400m for a programme of support for rebel ethnic groups, as well as intelligence gathering and sabotage of the nuclear programme. Part of that effort involved slipping defective parts such as centrifuge components into the black market supply to Iran, designed to blow apart while in operation and in so doing bring down all the centrifuges in the vicinity. The UK, Germany, France and Israel are said to have been involved in similar efforts. Meanwhile, western intelligence agencies stepped up their attempt to infiltrate the programme, seeking to recruit Iranian scientists when they travelled abroad.

That espionage effort appears to have paid dividends. In 2009, the US, British and French intelligence agencies were able to confirm that extensive excavations at Fordow, a Revolutionary Guard base near the Shia theological centre of Qom, were a secret uranium enrichment plant under construction. The digging had been seen by satellites, but only human sources could identify its purpose. Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy were able to reveal Fordow’s existence at the UN general assembly in September 2009, a diplomatic setback to Iran. Russia, which had been Iran’s principal protector on the world stage, was furious with Tehran at having been taken by surprise.

It is harder to gauge the impact of sabotage. Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said: “I never saw any direct evidence of sabotage. We could see that they had breakages but it was hard to say if those were the result of their own technical problems or sabotage. I suspect a little of both.”

Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, complained to the press in 2006 about sabotage but vowed that Iran would overcome the challenge by making more of the centrifuges and other components itself.

But it was impossible to make everything at home. The computer systems which run the centrifuge operations in Natanz, supplied by the German engineering firm Siemens, were targeted last year by a computer worm called Stuxnet, reportedly created as a joint venture by US and Israeli intelligence. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad conceded that Stuxnet had caused damage, and last November, Iranian scientists were forced to suspend enrichment to rectify the problem. A few days later, however, the centrifuges were working once more.

The black operations have not been confined to hardware and computer systems. They have also targeted Iran’s scientists. In July 2009, an Iranian nuclear expert called Shahram Amiri vanished while on a pilgrimage to Mecca. A year later, he surfaced in the US claiming he had been abducted by American agents, and in July 2010 he returned to a hero’s welcome in Tehran.

US officials said he had been a willing defector who had been paid $5m for his help, but who had since had a mysterious change of heart. There have since been claims Amiri had been an Iranian double agent all along. The truth is unclear.

Other attempts to remove Iran’s scientists have been blunter and bloodier.

Starting in January 2010, there were a series of attacks in Tehran on Iranian physicists with links to the nuclear programme. The first target was Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a physicist and lecturer at the Imam Hussein university, run by the Revolutionary Guards. He was on his way to work when a bomb fixed to a motorbike parked outside his house exploded and killed him instantly.

In November that year, assassins on motorbikes targeted two Iranian scientists simultaneously as they were stuck in morning traffic. In both cases, the killers drove up alongside their targets’ cars and stuck bombs to the side. Majid Shahriari, a scientist at the atomic energy organisation, who had co-authored a paper on neutron diffusion in a nuclear reactor, was killed.

The other target, Fereidoun Abbasi-Davani, suspected by western officials of being a central figure in experiments on building a nuclear warhead, was only injured. Three months later he was promoted to the leadership of the nuclear programme.

A third scientist, Darioush Rezaeinejad, was killed in an attack in July this year, when gunmen on motorbikes shot him in a street in east Tehran. He was initially described in the Iranian media as a “nuclear scientist”, but the government later denied he had any involvement in the programme.

Iran has blamed the attacks on the Israeli secret service, Mossad, and in August sentenced an Iranian, Majid Jamali-Fashi, to death for his alleged involvement in the Ali Mohammadi killing. He had confessed to being part of a hit-team trained in Israel, but it appeared likely he had made the confession under torture.

Despite the millions spent, stalled machines and deaths of leading scientists, Iran has steadily built up its stockpile of enriched uranium to 4.5 tonnes – enough for four nuclear bombs if it was further refined to weapons-grade purity. At most, the covert war has slowed the rate of progress, but it has not stopped it.


US Officials Peddle False Intel to Support Terror Plot Claims by Gareth Porter

US Officials Peddle False Intel to Support Terror Plot Claims

Posted By Gareth Porter On October 17, 2011

Officials of the Barack Obama administration have aggressively leaked information supposedly based on classified intelligence in recent days to bolster the allegation that two high-ranking officials from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were involved in a plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in Washington, D.C.

The media stories generated by the leaks helped divert press attention from the fact that there is no verifiable evidence of any official Iranian involvement in the alleged assassination plan, contrary to the broad claim being made by the administration.

But the information about the two Iranian officials leaked to NBC News, The Washington Post, and Reuters was unambiguously false and misleading, as confirmed by official documents in one case and a former senior intelligence and counterterrorism official in the other.

The main target of the official leaks was Abdul Reza Shahlai, who was identified publicly by the Obama administration as a “deputy commander in the Quds Force” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Shahlai had long been regarded by U.S. officials as a key figure in the Quds Force’s relationship to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq.

The primary objective of the FBI sting operation involving Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar and a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant that was started last June now appears to have been to use Arbabsiar to implicate Shahlai in a terror plot.

U.S. officials had learned from the DEA informant that Arbabsiar claimed that Shahlai was his cousin.

In September 2008, the Treasury Department designated Shahlai as an individual “providing financial, material, and technical support for acts of violence that threaten the peace and stability of Iraq,” which made him subject to specific financial sanctions. The announcement said Shahlai had provided “material support” to the Mahdi Army in 2006 and that he had “planned the Jan. 20, 2007, attack” by Mahdi Army “Special Groups” on U.S. troops at the Provincial Coordination Center in Karbala, Iraq.

Arbabsiar’s confession claims that Shahlai approached him in early spring 2011 and asked him to find “someone in the narcotics business” to kidnap the Saudi ambassador to the United States, according to the FBI account. Arbabsiar implicates Shahlai in providing him with thousands of dollars for his expenses.

But Arbabsiar’s charge against Shahlai was self-interested. Arbabsiar had become the cornerstone of the administration’s case against Shahlai in order to obtain leniency on charges against him.

There is no indication in the FBI account of the investigation that there is any independent evidence to support Arbabsiar’s claim of Shahlai’s involvement in a plan to kill the ambassador.

The Obama administration planted stories suggesting that Shahlai had a terrorist past and that it was therefore credible that he could be part of an assassination plot.

Laying the foundation for press stories on the theme, the Treasury Department announced Tuesday that it was sanctioning Shahlai, along with Arbabsiar and three other Quds Force officials, including the head of the organization, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, for being “connected to” the assassination plot.

But Michael Isikoff of NBC News reported the same day that Shahlai “had previously been accused of plotting a highly sophisticated attack that killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq, according to U.S. government officials and documents made public Tuesday afternoon.”

Isikoff, who is called a “national investigative correspondent” at NBC News, reported that the Treasury Department had designated Shahlai as a “terrorist” in 2008, despite the fact that the Treasury announcement of the designation had not used the term “terrorist.”

On Saturday, The Washington Post published a report closely paralleling the Isikoff story but going even further in claiming documentary proof of Shahlai’s responsibility for the January 2007 attack in Karbala. Post reporter Peter Finn wrote that Shahlai “the guiding hand behind an elite group of gunmen from the feared militia of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr,” which had carried out an attack on U.S. troops in Karbala in January 2007.

Finn cited the fact that the Treasury Department named Shahlai as the “final approving and coordinating authority” for training Sadr’s militiamen in Iran. That fact would not in itself be evidence of involvement in a specific attack on U.S. forces. On the contrary, it would suggest that he was not involved in operational aspects of the Mahdi Army in Iraq.

Finn then referred to a “22-page memo that detailed preparations for the operation and tied it to the Quds Force.” But he didn’t refer to any evidence that Shahlai personally had anything to do with the operation.

In fact, U.S. officials acknowledged in the months after the Karbala attack that they had found no evidence of any Iranian involvement in the operation.

Talking with reporters about the memo on April 26, 2007, several weeks after it had been captured, Gen. David Petraeus conceded that it did not show that any Iranian official was linked to the planning of the Karbala operation. When a journalist asked him whether there was evidence of Iranian involvement in the Karbala operation, Petraeus responded, “No. No. No. … [W]e do not have a direct link to Iran involvement in that particular case.”

In a news briefing in Baghdad July 2, 2007, Gen. Kevin Bergner confirmed that the attack in Karbala had been authorized by the Iraqi chief of the militia in question, Qais Khazali, not by any Iranian official.

Col. Michael X. Garrett, who had been commander of the U.S. Fourth Brigade combat team in Karbala, confirmed to this writer in December 2008 that the Karbala attack “was definitely an inside job.”

Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is on the list of those Iranian officials “linked” to the alleged terror plot, because he “oversees the IRGC-QF officers who were involved in this plot,” as the Treasury Department announcement explained. But a Reuters story on Friday reported a claim of U.S. intelligence that two wire transfers totaling $100,000 at the behest of Arbabsiar to a bank account controlled by the FBI implicates Soleimani in the assassination plot.

“While details are still classified,” wrote Mark Hosenball and Caren Bohan, “one official said the wire transfers apparently had some kind of hallmark indicating they were personally approved” by Soleimani.

But the suggestion that forensic examination of the wire transfers could somehow show who had approved them is misleading. The wire transfers were from two separate non-Iranian banks in a foreign country, according to the FBI’s account. It would be impossible to deduce who approved the transfer by looking at the documents.

“I have no idea what such a ‘hallmark’ could be,” said Paul Pillar, a former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center who was also national intelligence officer for the Middle East until his retirement in 2005.

Pillar told IPS that the “hallmark” notion “pops up frequently in commentary after actual terrorist attacks,” but the concept is usually invoked “along the lines of ‘the method used in this attack had the hallmark of group such and such.’”

That “hallmark” idea “assumes exclusive ownership of a method of attack which does not really exist,” said Pillar. “I expect the same could be said of methods of transferring money.”

The World Today – Ex-CIA warns US ‘dangerously wrong’ on Iran 12/10/2011

Ex-CIA warns US ‘dangerously wrong’ on Iran

Eleanor Hall reported this story on Wednesday, October 12, 2011 12:22:00

ELEANOR HALL: Now to the United States where a former intelligence analyst is warning the Obama administration to step back from blaming Iran for the foiled assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

The US attorney-general says Iran is behind what would have been a blatant act of international terrorism and which investigating authorities said was intended to be a prelude to other attacks.

The Iranian regime is denying any involvement in the plot and says the allegations are US propaganda.

At a press conference announcing the plot and the charging of two Iranians, attorney-general Eric Holder said that the US would “hold Iran accountable for its actions”.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton also warned that the US will consider ways to isolate Iran from the international community.

HILLARY CLINTON: 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.

ELEANOR HALL: That’s the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

But a former CIA analyst with decades of experience studying Iran, says the US may have got this dangerously wrong.

Robert Baer spent 21 years working as a CIA case officer in the Middle East.

When he spoke to me this morning, he said this plot does not appear to him to be driven by the Iranian government and he says the US administration must now step back from its comments and open a direct diplomatic channel with the Iranian regime or risk igniting an uncontrollable war.

Robert Baer, were you surprised when you heard about this assassination plot?

ROBERT BAER: Oh absolutely. I mean right now is not the time for Iran to provoke the United States. We’re on edge already vis-à-vis Iran and it came as a total surprise to me.

ELEANOR HALL: The Iranian authorities have dismissed this as US propaganda; is it credible that the Iranian government is behind it?

ROBERT BAER: I don’t think it’s credible, not the central government, there may be a rogue element behind it. This doesn’t fit their modus operandi at all. It’s completely out of character, they’re much better than this. They wouldn’t be sending money through an American bank, they wouldn’t be going to the cartels in Mexico to do this. It’s just not the way they work.

I’ve followed them for 30 years and they’re much more careful. And they always use a proxy between them and the operation, and in this case they didn’t. I mean it’s the, either they’re shooting themselves in the foot or there’s pieces of the story, I don’t know what they are.

ELEANOR HALL: Well the US attorney-general is alleging that it’s the Iranian government and has warned that the US will take further action against Iran; what could he mean by that? What form could that action take?

ROBERT BAER: Well if they had gone through with this and set off a bomb in a Washington restaurant and attacked the Israeli embassy and the rest of it, that’s a casus belli, they could have gone to war with Iran.

And will they move? Sanctions are not working, they’ve done all the sanctions they can, are they going to move to some sort of naval blockade, an embargo? I can’t tell you.

But if they truly believe the central government was going to launch an attack inside the United States like this, they have to do something now that they’re on the record.

ELEANOR HALL: Well they are on the record. They’re now saying that they will take further action. It’s surely not likely that they would launch a war?

ROBERT BAER: There could be retaliatory attacks or, you know, hit/bomb a Quds Force base in Tehran, any number of things of course which would lead to a huge escalation.

I just cannot get over the fact though, and I have to come back to this, the Iranians are not that sloppy to plan something like this and then call back to Tehran. So I can’t explain what’s going on here.

ELEANOR HALL: So are you suggesting that the US attorney-general is actually speaking out too soon in blaming the Iranian government?

ROBERT BAER: I think he is. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the administration sort of backing down from this in the coming days.

On the other hand, if they increase the rhetoric, we are looking at an escalation which is uncontrollable.

ELEANOR HALL: And which could lead where?

ROBERT BAER: It could lead to a conflict in Iran. I mean, if we were to launch an embargo, there’s a limited amount of troops in Iraq, would the Iranians retaliate against them? Would they retaliate against us in any number of places?

This is the problem, you know, Iran truly is the third rail of American foreign policy and no-one’s done anything over the years to ameliorate relations with Iran.

ELEANOR HALL: If it’s not Iran behind this assassination plot, what are the possibilities?

ROBERT BAER: You could have an individual claiming it’s the Iranian government, an Iranian radical. You might actually have a radical in Tehran attempting to frame the government.

ELEANOR HALL: And to what extent should the Saudis be concerned about such a plot against their ambassador in the US, whether it’s driven by the official authorities of Iran or not?

ROBERT BAER: I think that they should be worried about attacks inside Saudi Arabia, and again that goes back to escalation.

ELEANOR HALL: Well Iran and the Saudis have long been rival powers in the region, but are the various Arab Spring uprisings ratcheting up the tensions between the two?

ROBERT BAER: I think they are because if you look at something like Syria, Iran, no matter what they say, supports the minority regime. My contention is we’re sitting on a volcano in the Middle East. But that’s all could be ignited by this kind of tension. And people in the White House, that’s exactly what they don’t need going into an election.

ELEANOR HALL: So what’s your advice right now to the president?

ROBERT BAER: Well I think he made a huge step in this press conference in the wrong direction. You know, now is the time we should have a back channel to Iran, figure out who these people are, a red line, like we used to have with the Soviet Union, and sort this out. We need a direct channel to the Iranians to talk this through.

ELEANOR HALL: And the way that you’re speaking at the moment, this is a really serious point of crisis?

ROBERT BAER: I think it’s an act of war. If that bomb had gone off, if indeed this was a real plot, it had gone off, it would have been an act of war and the United States would have been forced to respond with military… an attack. There would have been no question in my mind.

So were we that close to a war with Iran? I don’t know.

ELEANOR HALL: But at this point you’re saying actions need to be taken to step it back, from the United States?

ROBERT BAER: Absolutely. We could not control the consequences of a war with Iran, it’s uncontrollable.

Look, all these scenarios are worst case, and fortunately they rarely come about and I hope we step back on this one.

ELEANOR HALL: Robert Baer, thanks very much for joining us.

ROBERT BAER: Thank you.

ELEANOR HALL: That’s former CIA analyst Robert Baer. His most recent book on Iran is called Dealing with the Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower. And you can listen to a longer version of that interview on our website.

Analysis: Alleged Assassination Plot Doesn’t Fit Past Iranian Behavior

 

Analysis: Alleged Assassination Plot Doesn’t Fit Past Iranian Behavior

An embassy staffer peers through a glass door at an entrance of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, DC, on October 11, 2011. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

The alleged Iranian plot to use Mexican cartel gunmen to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington is one of the strangest, most serious terrorism cases to surface in years, a mix of seemingly credible evidence and unlikely scenarios that departs dramatically from Iran’s past record of global terrorist activity.

On Tuesday, a grim-faced U.S. attorney general and the FBI director accused Iranian intelligence officials in an alleged $1.5 million scheme to kill Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia in a bombing at a restaurant in the capital.

The federal indictment has escalated an already fierce conflict between the United States and Iran, alleging a brazen decision by Iranian officials to shed blood on U.S. soil and an ominous convergence of threats from separate worlds: Iran’s far-flung terror apparatus and the Zetas, a drug cartel founded by former Mexican commandos.

The evidence seems strong in some ways. Investigators tracked wire payments amounting to nearly $100,000 allegedly from the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They caught a suspected Iranian officer on tape giving orders to a Texas operative working with a supposed representative of the Zetas who, in reality, was a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant.

The alarming charges reinforce concerns among Western government officials and experts about signs of growing activity by Iran and its proxy, the militant group Hezbollah, in Latin America.

“Hezbollah and Iran have been masters at identifying existing organized crime groups in front line areas and exploiting them,” Michael Braun, a DEA former operations chief who led investigations of the nexus between drugs and terror, said in an interview. “Hopefully, this is going to be a turning point for many in government regarding what the DEA has been saying about Iran and Hezbollah for the past five years.”

But the account in the indictment clashes with the past behavior of the Zetas and the Quds Force. Both the cartel and the espionage unit have calibrated their murderous operations to avoid direct confrontation with the United States. Although the masterminds of the five-month-long plot seem powerful and dangerous, the plot as described by prosecutors unfolded atypically.

“If it weren’t for things like large amounts of money being deposited, and a guy floating around whom I assume they know to be a member of the Quds Force, I would say it just doesn’t feel right,” said Charles Faddis, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, “beginning with the selection of a target in downtown D.C. It’s so clearly an act of war that it’s hard to imagine why the Iranians would sign on to that. And the tradecraft seems amateurish and sloppy. It’s crazy.”

The chief suspect is Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, an Iranian-American used-car salesman. He has been in the United States since the late 1970s and has been married to two U.S. citizens, both of them Latinas, according to documents and officials. He became a U.S. citizen last year, according to officials.

Some years ago, Arbabsiar befriended a Corpus Christi, Texas, woman whose nephew he believed to be a member of the Zetas cartel, according to officials. The nephew was actually a confidential DEA informant “with direct access to key leadership elements” of the Zetas and the rival Gulf cartel, according to a U.S. law-enforcement official.

Arbabsiar told investigators that he recruited the informant in May at the direction of Arbabsiar’s cousin in Iran, a general in the Quds Force, according to the indictment. The informant advised his DEA handlers, who launched an undercover operation with the FBI. The informant met with the suspect in Mexico to develop the plot, officials say.

Arbabsiar’s record includes only minor traffic violations, and he apparently was not a veteran of the drug underworld. Some U.S. officials are puzzled that Iran would deploy an apparently inexperienced operative for a sensitive, potentially disastrous mission.

“I’m getting the impression this is a one-off, opportunistic thing,” said a U.S. national security official who requested anonymity. “From what I’ve seen, this is not a highly trained guy. He had the language, the connections, the ability to travel. His personal situation put him in a position where he was useful. I didn’t get the sense he was a hardened criminal.”

The investigation identified the Iranian general and his deputy, a colonel in the Quds Force who allegedly directed and funded the conspiracy with almost $100,000 wired from a foreign bank to an account set up by the FBI in New York, making the implications grave, officials say. In addition, Treasury Department officials have implicated two top officials of the Revolutionary Guard Corps in the plot. Arbabsiar cooperated after his arrest in late September, allowing the FBI to intercept his phone conversations with the Iranian colonel, Gholam Shakuri, who has been indicted and remains a fugitive.

“The investigators feel there’s a deep connection into the Iranian security establishment,” the national security official said. “The question is: Do you have elements of that apparatus going rogue here? Can you control the Quds Force or smaller entities within it? Or is there a new attempt by the Iranians to come after us?”

Iran has targeted U.S. troops through paramilitary proxies such as Shiite militants in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to counterterrorism experts. In past terrorist attacks, Iranian spies carefully chose locales where weak security forces and an infrastructure of local accomplices enabled them to conceal their tracks, according to Western intelligence officials.

Iran has been blamed for bloody car bombings in Argentina of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and a Jewish community center in 1994, but corruption, ineptitude and political manipulation prevented a complete resolution of those cases. The Quds Force allegedly worked with Hezbollah in those Argentine attacks as well as an aborted bombing in 2008 of the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan, which neighbors Iran. Azeri police arrested alleged plotters including Iranian diplomats and a veteran Lebanese Hezbollah operative dispatched from South America for the mission, according to Western intelligence officials and the Azeri court charges.

The Iranian plot in Washington allegedly involved discussion of attacks on the Israeli and Saudi embassies in addition to the assassination of the ambassador.

In contrast to operations in nations such as Argentina or Iraq, spectacular attacks on heavily-guarded diplomatic targets in Washington would risk rapid discovery by U.S. authorities and demand major retaliation. Moreover, an alliance between Iranian Islamic extremists and the ruthless capitalists of Mexican cartels for an act of terrorism would be unprecedented — “a monumental leap of faith,” as former DEA official Braun put it.

Western counterterrorism officials say Iranian intelligence has established a growing presence in Latin America, which has large Arab immigrant communities. Iranian and Hezbollah operatives have expanded their roles in crime, fundraising and recruitment in longtime outposts such as Venezuela and the area where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. A DEA investigation in 2009 identified a Hezbollah operative in Mexico who had drug connections and access to a stockpile of military arms allegedly stolen from Iraq, according to court documents.

“I believe the Hezbollah-Iranian presence in Latin America constitutes a clear threat to the security of the U.S. homeland,” Roger Noriega, a former top State Department official on Latin American affairs, testified in July at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

But U.S. diplomats downplay the warnings about Iranian and Hezbollah activity in the hemisphere, saying it consists mostly of fundraising. Even officials who take the Iranian threat seriously say they have not seen previous indications of a close partnership between Iranian spies and Mexican drug mafias.

“The main question is: Is there any conceivable way that Mexican DTOs [drug-trafficking organizations] would cooperate with the Quds Force?” a U.S. intelligence official said. “”It doesn’t make good business sense.”

The Zetas of Mexico have massive firepower and formidable systems of communications and intelligence gathering. Mexican cartels have built trafficking networks from Atlanta to Los Angeles; they have been accused of killing U.S. Border Patrol agents, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent based in Mexico and people connected to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez.

In contrast to the bloody turf wars in Mexico, however, Mexican gangsters have largely avoided shootouts and major killings north of the border. They and their corrupt allies in Mexican law enforcement have a keen understanding of a U.S. mentality in which such violence, not to mention links to Islamic terrorism, would trigger a backlash.

The use of Mexican gunmen would certainly make it harder to trace the plot back to Iran. But experts and officials said they doubt that Mexican traffickers would become embroiled with Iran in a kamikaze-like attack that could incite the wrath of the U.S. government. In the wiretapped conversations, the informant posing as a Zetas hit man told Arbabsiar that the planned bombing in Washington might kill many bystanders, including U.S. senators dining at the restaurant frequented by Ambassador Al-Jubeir.

According to the Department of Justice, the Iranian-American allegedly responded: “They want that guy [the ambassador] done [killed]; if the hundred go with him, f**k ’em.”

Arbabsiar apparently did not realize that his interlocutor’s willingness to engage in the slaughter was suspicious. It is harder to believe, however, that chiefs of the crack Quds Force would have been so unsophisticated – or relied on Arbabsiar to hire Mexican triggermen with whom they had not worked in the past, some officials said.

“Assuming they wanted to run an op and have the Mexican cartels take point, they have Hezbollah guys all over South America they have been working through a long time,” said Faddis, the former CIA official. “They have a million other hard-wired ways to get in contact with the cartels.”

A potential explanation: The Iranian-American suspect may have been trying sell the Quds Force on a plan beyond his capacity to execute.

“He may have been trying to bilk them,” Faddis said. “Maybe they got involved to the point of trying to figure out what he can deliver, and it turns out U.S. law enforcement is all over him.”

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has become a veritable state within a state, Western intelligence officials say. The elite force’s dominance of Iran’s politics and economy has been accompanied by factional infighting, mafia-like moneymaking and sloppy tradecraft. Two IRGC officials were implicated in arms trafficking last year in Nigeria, and one was arrested. The year before, Italian police arrested two alleged Iranian operatives who were wiretapped discussing arms deals and espionage against opposition figures with bosses at the Iranian embassy in Rome and in Tehran.

“When you are dealing with the Iranians, there is often no such thing as the Iranian government but multiple power centers,” Faddis said. “Sometimes they do things that don’t make sense or are contradictory.”