Foiled Iranian Death Plot Reads Like A Spy Novel

U.S. authorities have charged two Iranians in a plot to kill a Saudi envoy. Steve Inskeep talks to David Ignatius, a best-selling novelist and foreign policy columnist for The Washington Post, and to Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran and the Middle East with the Carnegie Endowment, about the plot which astonished a lot of people.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The criminal case that speaks of Iranian agents, a Mexican drug cartel, and a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States is one of the more bizarre and compelling espionage plots to be uncovered in recent years, the kind of story that calls for a spy novelist. So we brought one in, David Ignatius, best-selling spy novel writer and foreign policy columnist for the Washington Post.

We also contacted Karim Sadjadpour, who tracks Iran for the Carnegie Endowment.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I can't tell you how many people have told me this is just like a David Ignatius novel.

DAVID IGNATIUS: You know, my novels are much more believable than this.

INSKEEP: The three of us tried to untangle the web of a story that sounds like a spy novel - or sounds like something. What makes this unrealistic to you, David Ignatius?

IGNATIUS: Well, this is more an Elmore Leonard novel than the novels that I like to write - realistic. I mean, so you've got a used car salesman down on his luck. He has relatives back in Tehran. He gets to talking to them about doing something, so he goes to Mexico.

And he meets up with some drug dealers from the Mexican drug cartel who just happen to be DEA informants. And he begins trying to hire them for an assassination plot, but then they're talking to their superiors and he gets caught. Now, I mean...

INSKEEP: Hilarity ensues, yes.

IGNATIUS: You know, it's a caper novel. It's not really a spy novel. It's not to say it didn't happen just the way the indictment describes, but this would be an extremely unusual and sloppy example of tradecraft by the Quds Force - when they operate, they do so effectively and clandestinely.

INSKEEP: Karim Sadjadpour, as you pore over what we know so far about this case, do you have questions in your mind about whether this could be, say, a freelancing operation, as opposed to something directed by the Iranian government or a part of it?

SADJADPOUR: Listen, Iran has carried out dozens of assassinations overseas since the 1979 revolution, but there are a few aspects about this case that are really inconsistent with past Iranian behavior. First, they previously carried out operations in places where they know they can get away with it, like Europe and South America. There's virtually no precedent of Iran attempting to carry out a major assassination or terror plot on U.S. soil.

Another aspect of the case which I find very uncharacteristic is the fact that they're working with a non-Muslim proxy, a Mexican drug cartel. In the past Iran has worked with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, maybe even the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about this Quds Force, which the U.S. government is blaming as directing this attack although you both seem to have your doubts. Who are they? How are they related to this Revolutionary Guard, and explain how the Revolutionary Guard is related to the Iranian government?

IGNATIUS: The Quds Force is an elite covert action arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. It's headed by a man named Qassem Suleimani. I've likened him, in writing about him in the past, to John le Carre's famous Russian spymaster Karla who pulls all the strings and understands where every action is going.

And Suleimani has that reputation. It's said that he reports directly to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that's how senior he is. There's been some talk of splits in the IRGC with some elements leaning towards President Ahmadinejad and others staying loyal to the supreme leader.

INSKEEP: Karim Sadjadpour, is that correct, the Revolutionary Guard is somewhat divided in its loyalties here?

SADJADPOUR: Well, the Revolutionary Guards have become the most important political and economic actor, both within Iran and in terms of Iran's external affairs. I've not seen any evidence to believe that the Quds Force has ever been critical of Khamenei. Now what sometimes happens, and this dates back to the 1979 revolution and the hostage taking, the overtaking of the U.S. Embassy.

What happened back then was that a small group of radical students overtook the U.S. Embassy without the permission of the revolution's father, Ayatollah Khomeini. But Khomeini later came to support them and almost took credit for their endeavors, partly to show that he's in charge and he knows what's going on.

And I think there have been past instances in which the Iranian revolutionary guards will embark on a risky operation, kidnapping British soldiers or taking these two American hikers. Once these, you know, operations are conducted, it is difficult for him to feign ignorance.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius?

IGNATIUS: I think part of what makes this plotting so interesting is that it comes at a time when Iran is facing unusual difficulties, both internally and externally. Internally, there is a raging political battle between the president, Ahmadinejad, and the supreme leader Khamenei, and their forces.

At the same time, externally, Iran's key Arab ally, arguably its only Arab ally, Syria, is gravely threatened.

INSKEEP: Arab Spring protests, right.

IGNATIUS: And so for the Iranians, the idea that their key ally would be taken down by the Arab Spring is threatening because inevitably, inescapably, the next destination for that populist revolt would be Tehran, and they know it.

INSKEEP: Conspiracy theorists, when looking at an inexplicable thing, will sometimes ask the question who benefits, and try to conclude who's behind a conspiracy by who supposedly benefits from it. I wonder if in an instance like this we should be asking, who's embarrassed by it? Who's brought down by this in Iran and does that give us some kind of clue as to who might be behind it? David Ignatius, you're nodding.

IGNATIUS: There is such a tempestuous internal political battle in Tehran that the desire of one side to embarrass the other by getting them caught in some screwy plot, I think, you can't discount as a factor. I have no evidence to support that, except these are people who are accusing each other, in the press, of sorcery. I mean that - it's gone to that extent, so they certainly would be willing to involve people in embarrassing plots if that served their interests.

INSKEEP: Why would someone in Iran want to target a Saudi ambassador?

IGNATIUS: Iran and Saudi Arabia are the fundamental antagonists, now, in what is a split across the Middle East. Iran represents militant Shi'ism - revolution in Iran that has spread, especially among the Shia. Saudi Arabia is the pillar of Sunni conservatism. It is the status quo power. You know, if the Iranians would want to assassinate anybody today, it would be a Saudi probably.

SADJADPOUR: There is a deep antipathy between Tehran and Riyadh at the moment. They've been embroiled in a proxy-war for supporting rival factions in Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, and particularly in Bahrain. Iran views the Middle East through kind of pro-American and anti-American lenses. They see the Saudis as a U.S. lackey. And you know, one of the assessments of a Saudi official I spoke to is that by going after a Saudi ambassador in the United States, Iran was trying to kill two birds with one stone - of defying both the United States and Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: Karim Sadjadpour, thanks very much.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And David Ignatius, thanks for coming by.

IGNATIUS: Thanks, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Karim Sadjadpour is with the Carnegie Endowment. David Ignatius with the Washington Post. His novels include "Blood Money" and "The Increment."

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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