Skepticism Over Iranian Terrorist Plot

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Marco Werman: The US and Iran held rare direct talks this week over the alleged Iranian terror plot. That's according to a US State Department spokeswoman today. She was responding to a statement by an Iranian diplomat who denied such talks had taken place. The back and forth says a lot about the lack of trust, let alone communication between American and Iranian officials. Iran has strongly denied US allegations this week. To recap those accusations, the Obama administration says it foiled an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The plot unveiled on Tuesday involved an Iranian American used car salesman named Manssor Arbabsiar, who apparently thought he was hiring a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the killing. Stephen Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he says the White House should offer up more evidence of the alleged plot.

Stephen Walt: I think in light of previous administrations' deceit, say about the run up to the Iraq war, I think there's a somewhat higher evidentiary standard now, and people are not going to simply accept a sort of trust us, we've got the information approach to this; they're gonna want to see the actual evidence they have.

Werman: Do you think the White House is withholding key evidence and why would they do that?

Walt: Well, there's no question they're withholding key evidence. They're making declarations of that various allegations and they filed a criminal complaint, but they have yet to lay out the transcripts of the phone calls that allegedly took place between Manssor Arbabsiar and representatives of the Kutz Force in Iran. And until we see those kinds of really hard evidence suggesting this was indeed a plot directed from Tehran, people again will retain lots of doubts.

Werman: This is a politically sensitive moment for the White House with a reelection coming up next year for Obama. Why would they go off half-cocked?

Walt: Well, again, administrations have gone off half-cocked before and you know, you think of the case of the so-called Miami Seven, a group that were allegedly plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and it turned out that the whole idea for the plot was actually invented by the FBI double agent who ultimately exposed them. So we do have something of a track record in this and other criminal investigations of various forms of entrapment, and something like that may have gone on here. Ababsiar had various ideas of his own, got in touch with Mexican drug cartel for whatever set of reasons and gradually gets maneuvered into some kind of plot with Iran.

Werman: Right, Ababsiar doesn't appear to be the sort of person who would undertake this kind of alleged mission, but we also know there's been political infighting in Iran. I mean isn't it conceivable that a rogue could've popped up and started this whole thing rolling?

Walt: That's certainly conceivable and of course, there's a different interpretation one would place upon that. That's not good news if rogue elements in Iran are doing things like this, but that's rather different than suggesting that the supreme leadership of Iran decided to stage a terrorist attack on American soil with all of the risks that that would entail. Again, it just reminds us that we don't know very much about what was actually happening here and that level of uncertainty will remain until the Obama administration actually reveals the information it claims it has.

Werman: The White House reportedly spoke with Tehran yesterday. Do you have any inside scoop on what was discussed?

Walt: I'm sure the tone was quite firm and quite confrontational. Remember, this is all part of a larger pattern here. In the New York Times today there was a story about how the Kutz Force, the same organization in Iran, is backing Iraqis who are attacking US soldiers in Iraq. There have been other accusations about Iranian involvement in some plots elsewhere in recent months. So one argument here is that this is really part of a larger American diplomatic effort to put Iran on the hot seat yet again, get more international support for increased sanctions, and you could even argue for Obama to look at the strong and tough going into the 2012 election. I'm not saying that this is a complete Wag the Dog situation, but it may have encouraged the administration to jump with a less than fully cooked case.

Werman: Where do you think then this leaves the administration as far as convincing not just the US public, but the world about their case? Will they go to the Security Council with this?

Walt: I'm not sure. I think they have to be very careful because you know, we've gone to the Security Council once before, Colin Powell's famous briefing on Iraqi WMD that turned out to be mostly fairy tales. I think in the last two days you've seen a quite interesting split in international opinion. Countries like Great Britain and Saudi Arabia have been backing the administration saying they're convinced by this. The Saudis in particular have been quite hawkish. Other countries being much more skeptical and press opinion in a variety of place sin Europe and elsewhere you know, referring to the plot in quotation marks, suggesting that they are not yet convinced that there's really something here.

Werman: Stephen Walt of Harvard Kennedy School of Government, thanks so much.

Walt: Nice talking with you.