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Gareth Porter: Evidence points to an FBI sting that creates rationale for stepped up campaign against

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. In Washington, the town was abuzz about an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. There’s such skepticism about this story, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it, where the White House comes out with an official version that there was such a plot, except even the mainstream media has pundits all over television and in print saying nobody can believe this story. What’s the story? Well, supposedly, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had this guy in Texas, who’s an Iranian living in the United States, who makes some deal, except it winds up he makes a deal with an agent of the DEA, and this is supposed to get a Mexican gang to come assassinate the Saudi ambassador. Anyway, the whole thing sounds a little bizarre, but the White House is–keeps affirming that we have good information and are threatening the toughest sanctions possible in retaliation against Iran, and the Saudi government is also joining the chorus. So what the heck do we make of all this? Now joining us to try to unpack this is Gareth Porter. He joins us from Washington. Gareth is an investigative journalist and historian. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.


JAY: Alright. So I’ll have to apologize to all our viewers for me sounding so skeptical about all this, but what can I do? So, Gareth, first of all, what do we know about the facts?

PORTER: Well, as you say, you know, the facts in this case are so–as they’ve been presented publicly by the administration, are so difficult to believe, that it has provoked an unprecedented skepticism toward the official version of this so-called Iranian terror plot. And the reason for the skepticism is that everybody knows that the Iranian government, and indeed the IRGC and the Quds Force, in the past have dealt with issues of using explosives where they have done so very, very carefully and with a very fine hand. And this sort of plot does not fit with the behavior of the Iranians at all. So if you really look, then, at the record or the investigation report by the FBI to a court in southern New York (which document I have now carefully looked at and analyzed), what you find is that there is very strong evidence in this document to suggest that what really went on was an FBI sting; which is to say, once this Iranian-American, Manssor Arbabsiar, met with a Mexican who he believed to be part of a leading Mexican drug cartel, but who was in fact a DEA informant, underground informant, he–the FBI stepped in and began to guide the DEA informant. And what happened then, over the period of late June to mid-July, is the big mystery surrounding this case, because we know from this document, that is, the FBI report on its investigation with the evidence that they claim to have gathered, that there were a number of meetings–they don’t even tell us how many meetings–between Arbabsiar and the DEA informant during a little bit more than two weeks, and that we find that there’s absolutely no specific record, in terms of quotes from any of those meetings, suggesting that Arbabsiar, acting on behalf of some group of Iranians back in Tehran, was suggesting that he wanted this drug cartel in Mexico to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington. And, in fact, what we can discern from the absence of any quotes of any kind from the Saudi–excuse me; from the Iranian-American character Arbabsiar during this two-week period is that what was really going on was something quite different from what the administration and the Justice Department are now claiming. And there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence, again, but also direct evidence in the form of a statement attributed to a law enforcement official by Bloomberg reporters that Arbabsiar actually told the DEA informant that he represented a group of Iranians who had a lot of opium, and that they could give the–or sell to the supposed drug cartel in Mexico tons of opium. So that suggests very clearly that what was really happening here was that the Iranian-American was really contacting him in order to try to do a drug deal, and that then what happened during those two weeks or so was that the DEA informant, acting on behalf of the FBI, was leading him into a plot having to do with the Saudi ambassador. We don’t know exactly how it went down, but the circumstantial evidence seems to point [crosstalk]

JAY: Okay, let me just emphasize that’s a hypothesis based on what you’ve been able to glean from whatever evidence we know. I mean, we obviously don’t have access, in theory, to everything that the White House does, but what you’re offering is a plausible theory. I mean, one of the things I don’t get about all this, first of all, for anyone that might not have followed this story, although I guess most people have, but if you haven’t, someone that knows this character in Texas has said this isn’t James Bond, this is Mr. Bean, this is a guy who they say can’t put–match his socks properly in the morning. This is not someone you would pick to pull off a sophisticated plot. And the Iranian intelligence agencies and the Revolutionary Guard, if they’re nothing else, they’re quite sophisticated about this kind of stuff.

PORTER: Well, it’s not only that, Paul. It’s also the fact that Manssor Arbabsiar was also known as somebody who was primarily interested in making money. And significantly, at a time when he had already arranged for a wire transfer of $100,000 from Iran to a bank account that turned out, of course, to be an FBI covert bank account, he was in Iran and ran into a friend from Corpus Christi, Texas, his hometown, told this guy that he was about to make a good deal of money, which suggests, again, that what was going on here was that he was involved in talking to this DEA undercover agent about a drug deal, as well as what was being suggested in terms of something having to do with the Saudi Arabian embassy and the ambassador.

JAY: Yeah. Now, let me just say to our viewers that, you know, my skepticism–and I would guess Gareth shares this, but I’ll ask you–is not that there couldn’t be somebody on the other end in Iran who might be in or being sucked into this idea of assassinating the Saudi ambassador. And it’s not in–to my mind, at least, not out of the question. There are, as I understand it, forces within Iran that look for provocations with the United States. What’s so skeptical about this is that this would have anything to do with the leadership, because they don’t have any history of anything so dumb as this.

PORTER: Well, that’s exactly right. I think that all the indications are that what we’re talking about here is a group of Iranians who were primarily involved in, basically, getting a large amount of opium, which of course comes in from Afghanistan into Iran. And Iran, apparently, controls the vast majority of all of the opium that is taken captive by authorities in the entire world, and, of course, they’re looking for opportunities to make some money off that. And so I think that we’re dealing with a group, a private group of Iranians, which also may have had some political ambition or political aim in embarrassing or causing difficulty for the president of the Iranian government with the United States or just in general.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, one never understands–at least we don’t–all the infighting that’s going on in the Iranian elite. But there’s certainly–this is–be nothing new for one of the factions to want to create some kind of provocative moment with the United States in order to advance their internal struggle. But all that being said, the question I’m left with is: how the heck can the White House, how can President Obama, one, take this so seriously, if he really does? It seems he does. And how the heck do you go public with this when everything is so dubious?

PORTER: Well, I think the answer to that question is quite simple and straightforward, which is the White House is going to seize on any opportunity to not only embarrass but to isolate Iran politically on the international stage, primarily because of domestic political pressures on the White House to take an even more extreme position with regard to its policy toward Iran, the pressure, of course, coming from pro-Israeli interests, from the Israeli government itself and from its lobby in Washington in the United States. And so it’s almost pathetic the way the administration has latched on to this story and made it the centerpiece of its policy toward Iran now.

JAY: I mean, part of–I mean, when I start to think about this story, I actually wonder if there aren’t people whose actual objective is to embarrass President Obama, because, you know, this is starting to become a joke. And with him taking it so seriously, by implication it makes him look naive or way too eager to please people who want to have a go at tougher sanctions, or more, against Iran.

PORTER: Well, I don’t know if you’re suggesting that people within the US government who mounted this scheme were having that motive, but I think it gets more difficult as you move from the Iranian side to the American side to suggest a kind of conspiratorial angle that is against the administration. I have to believe that the administration was fully informed at every stage of this and was going along with the entire sting operation, which is exactly what we have to call it. And, by the way, I think that, you know, we have to be aware of the parallel, the very strong parallel between what appears to have happened in this case, with the DEA informants’ conversations unknown, completely unrecorded, or recorded and not at all quoted from in these two weeks of meetings, and the domestic terror cases where the FBI clearly set up a number of people in this country, Islamic people in this country, for terrorism charges by in many cases offering large amounts of cash for people to come into a plot involving terrorism.

JAY: And one can’t also rule out what possible role the Saudis might have in all this. We know from WikiLeaks, and of course from even more public sources, that the Saudis are also kind of urging the US to increase their confrontation with Iran for their own regional interests and for other reasons.

PORTER: Yes, of course. The Saudis have a great interest in this. And, of course, they have now–a Saudi official, unnamed, has claimed to a reporter that, yes, we recognize the name of this guy who is named as one of the people involved in the plot in Tehran, because he was involved in the case of Bahrain. He was the Iranian who was in touch with Bahrainian Shia and causing them to take extremist acts. Of course, I don’t take that very seriously. That is an obvious effort to take advantage of this storyline to advance Saudi interests in the case of Bahrain.

JAY: Anyway, an increasingly bizarre story. Thanks very much for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.