Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
Guest Host: Susan Page
The United States promised Iran will face serious consequences if it’s found to have been involved in an alleged terror plot on U.S. soil. The Justice Department accused an Iranian-American of planning to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador with the help of a Mexican drug cartel. The White House said the plot clearly involved senior levels of Iran’s security forces. Iran strongly denied the accusations. Some Iran experts here and abroad voiced skepticism about Iranian government involvement. They say little about the case resembles Tehran’s past actions. An update on the bizarre case and the implications for U.S.-Iran relations.
- Michael Greenberger director, Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland; former senior regulator, Commodities Futures Trading Commission.
- Trita Parsi president, National Iranian American Council; author of the forthcoming book "A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran."
- Barbara Slavin senior fellow, The Atlantic Council; author of four reports on Iran in the past year; and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back from vacation next week. The United States is calling for tougher sanctions on Iran. This comes after the Justice Department alleged Iran was involved in a plot in Washington targeting a Saudi diplomat in the embassies of Israel and Saudi Arabia. We'll talk about the latest details and what it means for U.S. relations with Iran.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio, Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland, Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council, and Trita Parsi of Johns Hopkins University. Well, welcome to you all.
MR. MICHAEL GREENBERGERThank you.
MS. BARBARA SLAVINThank you.
PAGEWe appreciate you joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to take calls from our listeners later in this hour. You can reach us on our toll-free line, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Barbara, I've got to say this is one of the most bizarre stories I've ever heard of in Washington. Give us an outline of what we know now, the United States is alleging.
SLAVINRight. Well, I was trying to think of the Farsi word for cockamamie, but maybe Trita knows. This began last spring when an Iranian-American, who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, was apparently back in Iran and having conversations with people. And the idea came that they should kidnap or perhaps kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
SLAVINAnd according to the -- this charge sheet, which we have seen -- it's not yet an indictment -- it was decided that this gentleman would go and contact members of the Mexican drug cartel with whom he appear to be familiar and see if they might arrange the hit. The plot proceeded.
SLAVINHe -- his cousin, again, allegedly has some connection with the Quds force, which is an organization that I used to think of as an elite branch of the Iranian secret service. Another alleged Quds force person was brought in. Money was agreed upon, $1.5 million to do these things, and $100,000 was allegedly was transferred, was wired to the United States or to a bank through the United States to pay off the killers.
SLAVINNow, there are a lot of strange things about this, and we can get into the details. I mean, beyond the odd M.O. for Iran, which had not previously done anything like this before, one thing that just stood out at me this morning as I read it again, everyone knows that you can't transfer more than $10,000 without it being immediately vetted and checked.
SLAVINAlso, given banking sanctions on Iran, you can't transfer money out of Iran anywhere, not even 50 cents, through an American bank without somebody knowing, so I have a lot of questions about this.
PAGEWell, Michael Greenberger, you worked in the Clinton Justice Department, and your purview included some areas of counterterrorism. So should we believe these allegations, or should there be some skepticism?
GREENBERGERWell, I think the incident needs to be broken down into two parts, as the Obama administration is doing -- that which they believe they can prove in a court and beyond a reasonable court 'cause this is a criminal matter and that which they admit, they don't have conclusive proof on. But given the modus operandi of Quds' operations, they can make inferences that, I think, the international community is accepting.
GREENBERGEROn the conclusive proof, whether it was wise or unwise, the transferring of the $100,000 was the key factor here. That showed this was not just an imaginary crazy thing, but that money was actually changing hands. Secondly -- and so -- and also, the Iranian-U.S. citizen who is the principal, who lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was a used car dealer, waived his Miranda rights.
GREENBERGERAnd he apparently talked a lot about this and admitted things. Now, it's somewhat strange because this public offender is saying he's going to plead not guilty. That strangeness becomes a little less strange when you know that the underwear bomber, who just underwent trial in Detroit, started a trial and, on the second day, pled guilty. So you could see that there'd be this dichotomy.
PAGEBut would -- you -- the administration's Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, the highest -- really the highest ranking law enforcement official that could have sit down to announce this, would they have done this if there was any question in their mind about whether they were on pretty solid ground?
GREENBERGERI think for purposes of the criminal proceeding, whether or not these individuals intended to commit a serious terrorist crime against the Saudi ambassador -- leave aside the Saudi ambassador. Blowing up a restaurant in the middle of D.C. in and of itself would be a shock to the system, and plans to blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies. I think they feel they're on very, very solid ground there. They can go into court.
GREENBERGERMy expectation is this guy will ultimately plead guilty. The second perpetrator is in Iran. They don't have access to him. Now, as to the diplomatic side, whether how high up this went in the Iranian government, there the -- Hillary -- you say that Eric Holder made the announcement, but Hillary Clinton has -- and the vice president have been very active on the diplomatic side.
GREENBERGERAnd, yes, you can believe this is a strange thing. But as some wise retired media person in Saudi Arabia said, if we had caught the 9/11 perpetrators a week before the accident and heard about them hijacking planes, sending them into the World Trade Center, trying to hit an important target in Washington, we would have said before that happened, wow, this is out of the question.
PAGEActually, it made me think of another incident, the Iran-Contra affair. I remember when we were covering that. And we heard that Reagan had -- President Reagan had sent a cake baked in the shape of a key to moderate Iranians because -- to put in place a scheme of selling arms to Iran, diverting the profits to Nicaragua.
PAGEThat sounded extraordinary, and yet it turned out to be true. So, Trita Parsi, what about the question of who was involved in the Iranian government and how high up this conspiracy might have gone?
MR. TRITA PARSIWe frankly don't know yet because, beyond the statements from the administration and the allegations, there's really nothing that has been presented that comes close to being conclusive evidence. Now, granted the administration believes it has it and are going to present it in court. I think it's going to be tremendously important that they do this.
MR. TRITA PARSIAnd I actually would recommend that they do as much of it as publicly as possible soon because the amount of question marks that are being raised about this throughout the world -- in fact, I just spoke to a very prominent profile in Washington just before the show, and he had been in contact with a leader from one of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf.
MR. TRITA PARSIAnd that person is no friend of Iran, whatsoever, in fact, probably, would like to see a confrontation. But in spite of that, he had question marks about this. So it's critical to put some of those question marks to rest, particularly mindful of the fact that the administration is planning to take -- in fact, they're already starting the process of taking this to the Security Council.
MR. TRITA PARSIThe United States of America cannot afford another Colin Powell moment at the Security Council. They need to have the strongest, most convincing evidence to go there again.
PAGENow, you're referring, of course, to when Colin Powell went to the Security Council, laid out the case against Iraq on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to be the case. So do you think they just need to provide the evidence for what they're saying? Or do you think there is something kind of more fundamentally wrong with the allegation?
PARSIThere's nothing normal about this story. The example about 9/11, I think, is an interesting one, but at the same time, let's not forget that in -- there was an attempt at blowing up the World Trade Center a couple of years before. In the court, in the trial of that case, one of the experts witnessed and said the only way to bring down the two towers is to actually fly in an airplane into it. So I'm not so sure that this is as unrealistic compared to this.
PARSIBut when you take a look at what the involvement of the Iranian government in terrorism, which I think has solid evidence for, it doesn't follow this pattern in any way, shape or form. And that doesn't mean that it's unlikely, but there's several different questions that need to be answered. What's the motive? What could they possibly think they could gain out of this? Why now?
PARSIIf there is -- the target is the Saudis, why do it on U.S. ground? Because if this allegation is true, then this is a tremendously dangerous and unwise escalation by the Iranian government.
PAGESo, Barbara, why would the Iranians want to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to United States?
SLAVINYou know, that's a really good question. With all due deference to Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador, he's not a member of the royal family. He's someone who's personally close to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But I quote in a story I wrote for Inter Press Service today, Bruce Riedel, who's an expert on both the Middle East and Iranian terrorism. He calls Adel a messenger boy basically for the Saudi government.
SLAVINHe is not, you know, symbolically perhaps, prominent, but why him? There would be -- if you want to assassinate a Saudi, you would assassinate a member of the royal family, somebody really, really significant. A lot of questions about it. Again, just going back to the specifics of the complaint, it all seems to rest on the confession of this Mansour Arbabsiar and the conversations that he had with this informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency, which were taped.
SLAVINAnd there's one point where he says in a meeting in July that he wants the money sent in increments of $10,000 because of this rule about, you know, tracking money that's more than that. And yet, the $100,000 was transferred in two lump sums of nearly $50,000 each in August. Was he trying to get himself caught? Was this some kind of case of entrapment?
SLAVINWas this something going on within the Iranian government where they wanted, you know, dissidence within the Quds force who wanted to humiliate the regime? I mean, there are just questions after questions after questions, and that's why I think Trita is absolutely right. The more the administration can tell about this, the better.
SLAVINGoing back to your point about Saudi Arabia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged for a long time in a rivalry for influence in the region. We see this in Bahrain. We see this in Syria. We see this in Lebanon. They are on opposite sides in Iraq. They are in opposite sides pretty much everywhere in the region. But assassinating the Saudi ambassador to the United States, I'm not sure what that gains you in terms of the regional struggle.
PAGEWhat do you think, Michael?
GREENBERGERWell, I, first of all, agree that we can't -- as to this further question of how high up in the Iranian government this goes, we need more information. I'm a little more sympathetic to the Obama administration on this. Iran is under a lot of pressure right now. Yes, they've been dealing with the Saudis in Bahrain and in Syria. But they've been losing ground. The United States has, by supporting the Arab Spring, humiliated them.
GREENBERGERAnd I think they are -- were prepared to reach out. They were -- didn't want their fingerprints on it, but I think we are now finding out they hoped al-Qaida would be blamed for this, discord will be sown.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk about what this is likely to mean for U.S.-Iranian relations. And we'll also talk about the rather odd profile we're seeing of this alleged Iranian plotter. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Trita Parsi, he's president of the National Iranian American Council and a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. And Barbara Slavin, she's a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."
PAGEAnd Michael Greenberger, he's director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. So, Trita, if this -- this plot, of course, did not come to fruition, thank goodness. What is the impact just of the fact that it was uncovered and it's going to be a court case and the administration is focusing on it? What impact is that likely to have on U.S. relations with Iran?
PARSIWell, again, if this alleged plot turns out to be true, then it's an extremely serious escalation from the side of the Iranians. The administration has already decided how they want to utilize this for their policy. And what it's being utilized for is to make a significant push at the Security Council and internationally outside of the Security Council to ratchet up sanctions even further.
PARSIAnd I think there's a lot of questions that can be asked about the utility of that. We should not forget that this event, if true, actually came out during a period in which we had sanctions on Iran. Imagine if this happened during a time in which we had diplomacy with Iran. Then the first forces that would have been raised is to say, see, diplomacy doesn't work. Why would Iranians do this in the midst of diplomacy?
PARSIWell, now, if this is true, it happened in the midst of a sanctions period, yet our response is going to be to do more sanctions. There's one thing that Barbara said I thought was very interesting in this regard, that there was $100,000 transfer, I think, divided into two.
PAGEInto two -- yeah, two payments.
PARSIWell, those transfers, whether through an American bank or a non-American bank, essentially are illegal right now. And they can't take place. If, however, this plot is true and the IRGC did transfer $50,000 into U.S. account twice, well, then that shows us that, at the end of the day, these financial sanctions are tremendously affected in hitting the wrong people in Iran.
PARSIBut it's not hitting the IRGC 'cause they apparently managed to get the money through.
PAGEWell, Barbara, it seems like we have -- we've had sanctions on Iran for some time. We tighten them. I don't know whether -- what's your assessment of what kind of effect they have? And what are the additional sanctions that we could see?
SLAVINYeah, I mean, the United States has done pretty much everything it possibly can. There is talk about sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran, making it even more difficult for Iran to carry out financial transactions of any kind, but the pattern has been that both the United States and Europe have tightened all sorts of restrictions on investment in Iran, trade with Iran.
SLAVINAnd Iran has shifted to trade and investment from China, trade with India, trade with Turkey, Malaysia. So it has simply shifted its trading patterns. It's become more expensive for Iranians to do business. It's hurt the middle class. It, in a way, has actually helped the Revolutionary Guards because they're actively involved in smuggling and all sorts of illicit transactions.
SLAVINI mean, again, the other thing that was odd, they deal very much in currency transfers that go through things like hawalas, informal mechanisms of transferring cash. They don't use bank accounts that can be traced. Yeah, so, you know, what more can the administration do? Not much. It can use this, however, as a means of encouraging the Chinese, the Russians, the Turks, Indians, others to cut back on their trade with Iran, their investment in Iran.
SLAVINAnd this comes at a very delicate time for Iran. There's going to be report this weekend from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights for Iran that's going to talk about all the abuses that have incurred -- occurred inside Iran since its 2009 elections.
SLAVINThere's going to be another report from the International Atomic Energy Agency next month that may have evidence that Iran actually has been working on a warhead, a nuclear warhead, which, of course, it denies.
SLAVINSo all of this put together -- I mean, putting myself in the mind of the Obama administration -- will allow it to sort of make a case for the most stringent implementation of the most stringent sanctions to be able to say, particularly Obama in a presidential year, that he's not being soft on Iran and that they're sort of doing everything they possibly can to contain this country.
PAGEWell, Congressman Peter King, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, has called this plot an act of war. And, Michael, I wonder, could that spark some kind of military response by the United States?
GREENBERGERWell, on that front, the administration has been very careful to say that they are -- they haven't taken the option off the table. But they've been walking away from the military response. And, in fact, they briefed the chairman of the Senate intelligence and Senate Arms Service Committee. And both chairman, when they came out, said, this is a very serious allegation, needs to be looked, but it does not merit an armed response.
GREENBERGERSo they're walking a tight rope here. I think it wouldn't -- there will not be much discussion. But there will -- you know, the Obama administration has the look backward to the Colin Powell incident, where the Bush administration and Secretary Powell were tremendously embarrassed. Hillary Clinton is a very bright woman.
GREENBERGERI think they won't -- they will -- by saying they're going to the United Nations, by briefing all embassies, by making a big point out of this, I think I agree that we need to know more. But I intuit that there is something here that is substantial. And the end here is to make the world believe more strongly in the sanctions that have been imposed, which have not received enthusiasm, and there are other sanctions.
GREENBERGERAs was mentioned, the Central Bank, a commercial airline has been sanctioned. When you move from diplomacy into terrorism, the ability to grasp more sanctions becomes available.
PAGETrita, you have written -- was it in The Huffington Post? -- a piece where you warned that we could be on the precipice of a major war in the region if diplomacy isn't reengaged. What do you mean by that? What do you think could happen?
PARSIWell, as you see, this a piece that Reza Marashi and I wrote. As you see, there is an effort now to really beef up the sanctions, and what we are in is a containment policy. Containment, as a policy, essentially is to be on the verge of war constantly. It is true the administration, I do not believe, has either expressed or has the intention of starting a military confrontation.
PARSIBut if we take a look at how containment worked during the Cold War, there's two reasons why it didn't end up in a complete disaster, why there was somewhat of a stable policy. On the one hand, there was even at the worst times, a hotline between Moscow and Washington. There was diplomacy. There was de-escalatory mechanisms. There was an incidents at sea agreement.
PARSIThere was all of these different diplomatic efforts in order to make sure that if a misunderstanding were to occur, they could sort it out. It would not escalate into a conflict. Secondly, there was also ample awareness on both sides that if a military confrontation were to occur, it would likely be the end of mankind if, particularly, of course, they went nuclear, which was very likely.
PARSIThese two things enabled -- created a natural resistance towards uncontrollable escalation. These two factors do not exist in a containment policy with Iran. We do not have a hotline. We do not have a diplomatic presence. We don't have any dialogue or diplomacy at all. We cannot sort out misunderstandings.
PARSIIn fact, chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff just a couple of weeks ago, again, repeated and said that, because of this lack of communication, he's very concerned that a very small incident in the Persian Gulf can spark a larger war because we don't communicate, which leads to miscalculation. The miscalculations leads to escalation.
PAGESo, Barbara, why do we not communicate in any -- if any -- in real fashion with Iran?
SLAVINRead my book. For 32 years, we have basically not communicated well with the Iranians. There have been efforts, but whenever the United States has been really ready, Iran has not and vice versa. Those Iranians who've been brave enough to reach out to the United States have often found themselves purged from the Iranian system or discredited.
SLAVINSimilarly, Americans who've reached out have found their overture is rebuffed and have been accused of being appeasers. It's just -- it is such a love-hate relationship. There is so much pride, prestige involved in this, as well as real differences of opinion about how affairs should be conducted in that part of the world.
SLAVINThere's the baggage that goes back from the U.S. overthrowing an Iranian leader in 1953, having supported the shah of Iran, who was extremely repressive. It's going to take years to go through...
PAGEAnd the Iranian hostage crisis? (unintelligible)
SLAVINThe hostage crisis, absolutely, and, of course, they just had hostages recently, these poor American hikers that were held. So it's going to take years to go through all these layers of distress. At some point, the two sides are going to need to sit down and begin to do that, but it's just been very difficult.
PAGEWell, let's go the phones. Let our listeners join our conversation. You can give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Julie first. She's calling us from Louisville. Hi, Julie.
JULIEHi. Good morning. While this conversation, which I've been listening to from the beginning, has evolved into a general discussion of U.S.-Iranian relations, I do want to bring us back, just for a second if I could, to -- from where it evolved because I feel like, although I've been listening from the beginning, maybe I missed something.
JULIEI believe that it was stated that there was no correlation between this still-alleged plot between a few individuals, one based in Texas, no correlation or connection with the Iranian government. Yet this conversation has seemingly spun out of control to -- and the Iranians has been a term that's been mentioned by your panel and you many times.
JULIEAnd I just don't know why we're lumping all the Iranians when we're talking about an alleged plot, albeit a very serious one but an alleged plot between a few individuals. And I wonder if you could just comment on why this generalization and this escalation has been made to even the term, in the last -- while I was waiting to make my comment, the end of mankind. So I'll take my comment off the air. Thanks a lot.
PAGEAll right. Julie, thanks so much for your call. So is there evidence that -- of the Iranian government being involved, Michael?
GREENBERGERYes. I mean, first of all, it's -- I don't think it can be disputed that the Qud force was involved in this. And the question really is, was this a rogue operation with regard to the Qud force? Or did it -- is it really representative of high Iranian policy to have committed this act? And what you're beginning to see from the wire service stories is, when the Qud forces do something, it is cleared, usually, by the highest levels, the supreme leader in Iran. These things are discussed.
GREENBERGERSo, again, I think we've all said that we need to see more evidence about this, but they're -- it's beginning to be laid out of theory. After all, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis, of course, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries were very quick to come to the table and say this is -- emanates from high levels in Iran. The Saudis, publicly, have been very careful not to allege Iranian involvement.
GREENBERGERBut if -- for example, the ambassador who just left in 2007 said in London, clearly, this is an Iranian plot. So I don't think it's something that needs to be proved and -- but it's still something that is worthy of discussion about -- it certainly goes up into the Iranian system, how high up it goes. Given the way the Iranian government has operated, and the fact that they were operating on new territory here, not in the Middle East but in North America, we have to take this seriously.
PAGEI'm Susan Page. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Trita.
PARSII think the caller's question is actually very good. And I'm happy to see, particularly after the Iraq debacle, that we are more cautious this time around about all of these different things and we don't rush to conclusion. I'm not so sure what the value of what the Bahraini government has said about this.
PARSII certainly hope that we're not basing our evidence on any intelligence or opinions coming from the Kingdom of Bahrain, mindful of the fact that they are in a very intense rivalry and conflict with the government of Iran, both of which, incidentally, recently have been tremendously brutal in clamping down against protesters in their own countries.
PARSIBut, again, it goes back to the fact that the administration needs to come out and quickly rest -- put some of these questions to rest, show more evidence because the country is not in the mood of another escalation. It's not in the mood of another war. And if there is evidence, there is really nothing to lose in presenting it.
PAGEBarbara, could this incident tell us something about what's happening inside the Iranian government? And that's been a hard place for us to get a confident sense of what's going on. Could it reflect disarray or divisions there?
SLAVINYeah. I mean, absolutely. One possibility is that this was the hair brained scheme of the used car dealer in Texas, and that he presented it to his cousin who then presented it to a general in the Quds force, and they talked about it and said, what the hell, we'll put a little money down and see whether something happens, you know? That also strikes me as rather out of character for the Quds force, which has been a very disciplined, elite unit.
SLAVINBut Iran is in disarray. And if this is indeed a true set of allegations, it could suggest that the disarray has gone farther than we even thought, that the regime is really turning in on itself, that it no longer has the kinds of checks and balances against this kind of activity that it might have had in the past. What we've seen since the 2009 elections, which the Iranian government used to basically sideline the reform movement in the country, a large constituency, possibly even a majority but certainly a large constituency.
SLAVINNow, we see that in the remaining conservative ranks, they've turned against each other. So you have the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and people around him against Ali Khamenei, the Supreme leader, and people around him. You have fights within fights, people accusing each other of corruption, of stealing money from banks.
SLAVINSo within that context, you know, I suppose it's possible that there are factions within the Revolutionary Guard Corps that decided to mount an operation like this, perhaps to discredit other elements of the Iranian government. It's clear that the Iranian system is under great stress now.
PARSII agree with Barbara, that the system in Iran is under tremendous amount of stress. I think the Iranian government has lost much of its momentum as a result of the Arab Springs.
PARSII still cannot fully compute why that would lead to them hiring or contacting whatever it is that they are alleged to have done. A former car salesmen with a history of crime, with a history of not being able to keep a job, with a history of actually getting divorced because his wife complained that he's too scatter brained and disorganized. It just doesn't sound...
SLAVINYeah, he kept losing his car keys.
PARSIIt's a little bit odd to say the least.
PAGEHe didn't seem like an ideal plotter from their point of view.
GREENBERGERYeah, the only thing I would say is when you're looking back at what the United States is trying to do now, it may be this very division within the government that the United States is trying to take advantage of. I mean, who would have thought before the Arab Spring that Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi would have been subject to overthrow?
GREENBERGERThe United -- they may have intelligence that by rallying the world against the government, that will spring internal division and be helpful in diplomacy.
PAGEBut if they believe this is true, how could they not take action? I mean, you know, I mean, it's not exactly a -- if you believe their case, how could they not make arrests and announce it?
GREENBERGERBecause the United States -- I mean, it's true, as we said earlier. This is a slippery slope that has to be watched. But we cannot do another war. We have to be clever in our diplomacy. We can't open another front in the Middle East.
SLAVINYeah, I mean, the U.S. knew of this alleged plot from the very beginning. So we don't know how it was being manipulated.
PAGEWe're going to take another very short break. And then we'll come back, and we'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850. We'll read some of your emails. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio: Barbara Slavin of The Atlantic Council, Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland, and Trita Parsi. He has a new book coming out called "A Single Roll of the Dice -- Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." Let's go to the phones and let some of our listeners ask questions, join the conversation.
PAGEWe'll go first to Mark, who's calling us from Boynton Beach, Fla. Hi, Mark. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARKHey. Good morning, everybody.
MARKIt's just very weird to me how things are playing out here. For Iran, under the circumstances of the situation in the region, all the problems that are happening over there, that they would try to pull this on U.S. soil, where they could do it anywhere else, a country with a lot less security, less risk, I think that the credibility of the United States government -- down to the lowest that it's ever been.
MARKI mean, you could go back in history and take a look at the things that we've done. I mean, we've toppled their regime, how many times, two or three? And just look into (unintelligible) all the problems that -- the corruption that seems to be happening with the Mexican drug cartel. So now, Iran is using a drug cartel member to pull this. I mean, it's just unbelievable.
MARKI mean, look into the Northwoods project or Building 7 or the underwear bombing incident. This guy that almost got killed that was in the plane, Kurt Haskell, the underwear bomber wanted to use him as a witness because he saw a government agent put him on the plane. And now the government happens to not want to do that. Now, the guy is guilty.
MARKAnd he's probably got some fixed deal with the government. It's just the U.S. government -- look at the Gulf of Tonkin.
PAGEYeah, Mark, going back a long way there. Certainly -- you certainly sound skeptical. We've got some other callers who are also expressing some skepticism. Barbara.
SLAVINYeah, well, the caller points out at the beginning of his comments that this is not the Iranian M.O. How does Iran commit what we call acts of terrorism? It uses trusted agents, primarily Arabs, members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that was -- that Iran helped found in the 1980s. It uses Muslims. It doesn't use Christians. Several of the terrorism experts I spoke with yesterday pointed out that Iran does not use Christians.
SLAVINThey use Muslims, and if possible Shia Muslims, and if possible Arab Shia Muslims. If they wanted to kill Saudis, they could have done it in the region, much more easily than in the United States with all the security that we have. And certainly, using a Mexican drug cartel would have -- would be absolutely out of character.
GREENBERGERI would just say that that assumes that Iran wanted to take credit for this when it was done. By going out of their -- I don't disagree with what Barbara says. I want to say that to be clear. And I don't disagree -- we need more facts. But I do think there's an argument on the other side. The reports are they did not want to take credit for this. They wanted to sow confusion and chaos within the United States.
GREENBERGERIf they did it somewhere else -- the United States is the big target. It's the big banana here. This is where you get the most bang for your buck, so -- and also, all of their former, clever terrorist attacks that follow the M.O. that Barbara talks about were never been done in North America. And a lot of people are saying their sophistication about how to get things done here is not what it is to get things done in Lebanon.
GREENBERGERSo I think we have to be open-minded here. We do have to get more evidence, but I wouldn't shut the door on this being a problem.
PARSIWe're deep, deep into speculation and hypotheticals on this one, clearly. But I would say one thing, the Iranian government has never tried to take credit for any of its terrorist acts, ever.
PARSIThey're constantly out there, denying any involvement, portraying themselves, and sometimes correctly, that they are also victims of terrorism. So the idea that they didn't want credit for it, again, I don't think adds -- you know, add its credibility to this. What we need is evidence. We need to have a different conversation from what we're having right now. I don't think this is to the benefit of the administration.
PAGEThe -- and, of course, the administration is sending the FBI director up to the Hill today to offer more evidence, briefing international partners. So I think there is an effort to get more evidence out there in the face of the kind of skepticism that we've heard from Mark and others. Michael, I'd like to ask you a question, as someone who's worked in the previous administration.
PAGEShould Americans say I feel very frightened by this because there is this plot to blow up a restaurant? I could have been eating in that restaurant on that day or my -- someone from my family. Or should they feel that here -- there is -- there are people who are plotting this but, look, we caught them?
GREENBERGERWell, that's a very interesting question. I don't know if I have a precise answer. The Obama -- if you leave aside diplomacy in Iran, in terms of counterterror, the biggest arguments the Republicans had against Obama was that he would not deal with this effectively. Well, he's gotten bin Laden, which was a courageous decision. He got Awlaki through the drone missiles. They have had a lot of successes here. Now, you can say this is luck.
GREENBERGERThe luck here was that this guy ended up talking to a DEA informant. He could have been talking to somebody else. But as everybody says, luck is a result of a lot of hard work. And I think we cannot ever say that we are not going to have an explosion in a restaurant in any big city in the United States. But I think the administration deserves credit for really turning around our counterterrorism policy and making it seen to the world something effective rather than laughable.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. We'll talk to David. He's been holding on from Chesapeake, Va. David, thanks for holding on.
DAVIDHi. Thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I -- you know, I keep on a lot of these events, and I've also worked in and around counterterrorism as well. But, you know, one thing I see with this is, you know, I do agree that, you know, the Obama administration has really stepped up a little bit on the whole counterterrorism, but I think it's been more luck than, you know, which does come from our work, and has been just due to the process because there are a lot of things to break down.
DAVIDBut I guess, you know, this just really still shows how vulnerable our U.S. system is when it comes to national security. You know, since 9/11, you would think we would have a little bit better, you know, I's dotted and T's crossed, but, still, there's still a lot of holes in it. And, you know, I think too much emphasis is being put on the Iran issue versus really looking within the U.S. borders and the banks and everything else. I wonder, you know, how did this get this far anyway?
PAGEAll right. David, thanks so much for your call. Barbara.
SLAVINYeah, you know, even if the person in Mexico hadn't been a DEA informant, this plot most likely would have been uncovered by the bank transfers. As we pointed out, $50,000 a pop, $49,000-plus a pop, twice in August, that would have been detected because of the extraordinary measures that have been put in place since 9/11 to monitor large transfers of money. So, you know, I think, actually, the system worked quite well.
PARSIJust to give an example of that, but also to kind of point out that I think that many of these financial sanctions are hitting the wrong people, if an Iranian-American today goes to visit his grandmother in Iran, while being in Iran tries to check to see that his bills in the U.S. are being paid and he logs on to his bank account from Bank of America or anything else, his bank account gets frozen because he just checked it from an IP that came from Iran.
PARSIIf he goes and try to check his PayPal, it gets blocked, and it gets frozen. He can't even access his money. So for the IRGC, if this plot is true, to be able to transfer $50,000 twice tells us something about who the sanctions are hitting and who it's not hitting.
PAGEHere's -- Michael.
GREENBERGERYeah, I was going to say I've been an expert witness in the attempt to prevent money laundering by banks. And in far too many cases, that $10,000 limit is totally ignored. It's not surveiled. Now, I'm not saying in the overwhelming majority it is, but it doesn't surprise me that that $50,000 could have gotten through. I mean, depending on what bank was used, the anti-money laundering thing, especially in the pre-2008 wild west atmosphere of banks was not guarded as well as it could be.
PAGEBut from Iran?
GREENBERGERFrom Iran, from anybody. There can be people that they don't even bother to ask, are you from Iran, who are getting money through these banks. I was an expert witness in a case like that. Thinking that these -- after seeing the way banks handled their reckless investments to think that they've -- their counter-surveillance policy is well-crafted, you've got to think twice about that.
PAGEWe have an email. Someone writes, "Over the past months, there have been assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientist in Iran. Why have these not generated more comments in the press and condemnations by the United States? These were probably carried out by the United States or Israel, but there was no outcry by the West." What's the situation there?
PARSIActually, the United States did condemn these assassinations. Now, the Iranian government nevertheless continues to make the accusation that these scientists -- over the course of two years, several of them have been assassinated or killed -- were at the hands of either the United States or Israel. And in the conversation, we're trying see, is there any motive? Is there any reason for this escalation?
PARSIOne could perhaps point to these things and say, well, you know, we are technically at some form of a Cold War with Iran. There are things going on. We've not taken credit for the Stuxnet virus that hit their nuclear program, but there's some hints here and there that indicates that the U.S. or Israel were both were involved in it. That's what we can't forget. A containment policy entails these kind of things, and it's very, very difficult to make sure that it doesn't escalate into a real war.
PARSIIn the past, again, as I mentioned earlier, we were perhaps a bit lucky, but we also had factors that helped us. We had dialogue, and we had an awareness of what conflict would be. We don't have that with Iran.
PAGEHow many Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in the couple of years?
SLAVINFour, I believe.
PAGEFour of them. And, of course, this would seem to be an effort to undermine their nuclear program and...
PARSIThere's been attempts as well that have not been successful, but I think, maybe four who have been killed.
SLAVINFour have been killed, yeah.
PAGEYeah, and why has the -- you said United States has condemned this. Why not more of a reaction in the West? Barbara, what do you think?
SLAVINThat's a very good question, isn't it? Because, you know, obviously, there -- Iran has been sanctioned now, six times, by the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear program, and it has not stopped enriching uranium. And perhaps there's a little bit of a double standard here that it's okay to resort to these kinds of methods, to give Iran the hint that, perhaps, it should suspend its uranium enrichment.
SLAVINOf course, all it does is make Iran more defiant. And, you know, the knowledge of how to pursue this program is not limited. I'm sure there are plenty of replacements for those who've been killed.
PAGELet's go to Houston, Texas and talk to Jeff. Jeff, you're on the air.
JEFFThank you. I just kind of had a quick question. You know, it's already been stated that the alleged plotter didn't have the knowledge, ability or even the organized skills to carry anything out. What's the possibility that he's just a scapegoat or that, you know, while we're trying to track all these leads on him, something else is going behind that's more serious?
PAGEAll right. Jeff, thanks so much. We did see some profiles this morning. And I saw one in New York Times, another in The Washington Post, profiles of this guy. And it did sound like he was a little scatterbrained.
SLAVINYou know, agent provocateur, just a hapless guy trying to make a buck. You know, it sounds as though basically his life in the States was kind of a washout, and he'd gone back to Iran to make some money. Beyond that, we really don't know.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Trita.
PARSISeveral people I've spoken to who have good access and knowledge about this. I've also indicated that, perhaps, this was a lone actor. Perhaps, there is some basis for this. But there's also a suspicion that, perhaps, the administration is, perhaps, blowing a little bit out of proportion for their political reasons for the policy direction that they would like to take things.
PARSITo go to the Security Council and make the case for another round of sanctions was not going to go anywhere. The Russians and Chinese had already put a stop to that. This, perhaps, the calculation is -- can change that.
PAGEYou know, I was interested in the timing in that this could have -- the United States could have released this at any time. They had -- we've known about this for some time. Didn't you think they waited until the Iranian (sic) hikers were released before making this case?
PAGEI mean the American hikers released from Iran, yes.
SLAVINYou know, it's possible, although the guy wasn't arrested until Sept. 28 when he was bounced back from Mexico City and the hikers had already been freed by then. If memory serves, they were freed a few days before that. So what explains the delay since the 28th, that, I'm not sure. Maybe it just takes time to sort of write all of this up. And maybe Michael would know better.
GREENBERGERWell, I don't know better, but I'm inferring that I am very suspicious that they did wait for that to resolve itself because they had this under control. It was not going to escalate in anything. They had this guy. I think he was arrested on the 26th. And then he could, you know, could have happened.
GREENBERGERThe one other thing I want to say is making fun of the agent provocateur here. Let's remember that the 20th hijacker, who was prevented from getting on the plane, took -- went to a flight school to learn how to fly straight but not how to take off or not how to land. And the flight instructor called the FBI. One of the great criticisms was that the FBI didn't follow that lead.
GREENBERGERBut, you know, we -- you can look back at this and say this was a joke, but the drug cartels in Mexico are serious national security problem. They were trying to do something on North American soil. And I would say they may have tried to disavow some terrorist attacks, but this one, I believe, an argument can be made. They didn't want to be anywhere near this.
PAGEMichael, has there -- has a Mexican drug cartel assassinated anybody in the U.S. who was not connected to the drug trade?
GREENBERGERI don't know, but these guys are not exactly going to Sunday school on Sunday mornings.
PARSIThere's one thing to be said about this. I think it is extremely plausible that in a large plot, one or two people out of 30 or 40 could be buffoons. But if you have a plot in which, essentially, everyone is a buffoon, you know, some questions has to be asked about that.
GREENBERGERWell, I would just say, they certainly, the Quds who were giving directions to this guy, one of them is well-known in the Middle East as being a provocateur of terrorism. So they weren't all buffoons. Lee Harvey Oswald, don't forget, was not exactly the great -- now, that's all conspiracy theory and everything else.
GREENBERGERBut there's a cut-out element to this where Iran wanted to sell chaos, blame al-Qaida and get out of this thing. And this guy could have been the perfect foil.
SLAVINNo, really, I mean, these were all in the realm of speculation here. As I said, there are just so many questions about how this guy was able to operate while the U.S. government knew exactly what he was doing. We should remember also that the DEA informant was the one who suggested using plastic explosives to blow up a restaurant. So, you know, some of this was entrapment as well.
PAGEWell, we're going to hear more about this whole incident, I'm sure, in the weeks and months to follow. I want to thank our panel for being with us this hour. Trita Parsi, Barbara Slavin, Michael Greenberger, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Erin Stamper. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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