NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For the past two days, senior administration officials have been telling foreign leaders, diplomats, members of Congress and journalists that at first they didn't believe Iran was involved either.
The details of the alleged plot include a ne'er-do-well used-car dealer who tried to hire a Mexican drug cartel to blow up the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. On the face of it - unprofessional, uncharacteristic, sloppy, and insanely risky.
But we're told that phone taps and bank transfers lead back to Tehran, and on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the two suspects were, quote, "directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government," specifically senior member of the Quds Force.
Iran vigorously denies it, but if they're true, the allegations have enormous implications. If they're not, U.S. credibility will be, to put it mildly, in the dumper. What parts of this story make you think that it might be true or not? Give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Ariel Dorfman and an exile's lost library. But first, the alleged D.C. bomb plot, and we begin with Afshon Ostovar, a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses who's writing a book about Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.
AFSHON OSTOVAR: Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And skeptics say that such a plot is totally uncharacteristic of the Quds Force. First of all, who are they, and what is characteristic of them?
OSTOVAR: Well, the Quds Force was originally established by Iran after the Iran-Iraq War, and it absorbed a portfolio that Iran had already sort of cultivated during the '80s in which Iran would operate in places like Iraq or Afghanistan but especially in Lebanon to help other militant organizations sort of advance their causes.
In the case of Lebanon it was the Palestinians, and then it was the Lebanese Shia under Hezbollah. But after the Iran-Iraq War, the Quds Force sort of took over and became a more military division that focused on sort of promoting Iran's own strategy outside of its borders.
So in this way working with militant groups in Iraq or Lebanon was less to advance their causes but rather to advance the causes of Tehran.
CONAN: So first a Shia internationale(ph) , if you will, and then later maybe the CIA.
OSTOVAR: Yeah, yeah. They are equivalent, I would say, they have - they are certainly a covert organization, and they have the sort of architecture of an intelligence organization like the CIA. But they also operate a little more closely, like our own Special Forces, in that they work alongside foreign groups to help training, help facilitate, help with logistics and help with funding.
However, they don't get their hands dirty directly. They try to have plausible deniability in everything that they do. They're more about facilitating others than doing things themselves.
CONAN: And they are, within the structure of the Iranian government, report directly to the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, rather than to the president, Ahmadinejad.
OSTOVAR: That's right. That's - our understanding is even though they are technically one of the five divisions of the Revolutionary Guards, which is one military organization of Iran, they - their leadership circumvents that of the revolutionary guards and goes directly to the supreme leader.
So from what we understand, the Quds Force operates sort of as a direct arm of the supreme leader's foreign policy, if you will.
CONAN: So a group not uninvolved in various violent activities in many parts of the world, including in South America, but crossing the line to bomb a restaurant in Washington, D.C.?
OSTOVAR: Yeah, this is frankly drastically out of step with their modus operandi. I mean, they of course do deal exclusively outside of Iran's borders. So that part is not - is not outside of the line of what they would do. And they do operate in kinetic operations, where they assassinate people or whatever, but they tend not to do that themselves. They work with others.
So the idea of them wanting to assassinate somebody and working with others to do that in a foreign country is in and of itself not surprising. But for them to do it in the United States is unprecedented, and for them to work with the Mexican cartels, whether that's the Zetas or anybody else, is also unprecedented because at least nobody has known of a previous connection between the Quds Force or the (unintelligible) or even the Iranian government and Mexican cartels.
They do have long-established connections with, say, Chavez of Venezuela and other Central American groups, but not with the Mexicans. And what is really sort of I think the strangest piece of this puzzle is sort of the lynchpin, this Manssor Arbabsiar, this Iranian expatriate, Iranian-American used car salesman that was really the middleman between the Iranian government or the Quds Force and these supposed Mexican cartels that turned out to be DEA agents.
That really just doesn't fit what they usually do. They usually work with people that they've had longstanding ties with, well-vetted, well-trusted. To simply have a commander's cousin that happens to live in Texas and ask him to put these things together just doesn't fit.
CONAN: Joining us now is Vali Nasr, who teachers international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and he joins us from his office in Boston. It's nice to have you back with us again.
VALI NASR: Thank you.
CONAN: And let me put this the other way: Yes, it does seem unlikely, improbable, even bizarrely uncharacteristic. On the other hand, you've had the attorney general of the United States, the director of the FBI, the secretary of state all go on the record to say, yeah, as unlikely as it is, we've got the goods.
NASR: Well, you know, I'm not in a position to challenge the evidence, since not all of it is in the public domain. But what is clear is obviously the evidence on this side, in other words this Mr. Arbabsiar and his activity, is far more detailed. And when the threat goes from the United States and Mexico to Iran, it becomes far less clear as to where it leads.
And there are - and therefore, you know, that part is a bit enigmatic as to exactly whom in Iran was he in contact with, where the decision, if it actually was a decision within Iran, who made it. So that part is a little bit obscure right now.
CONAN: So it could have been not simply a command decision by leadership elements of the Quds Force but a renegade group?
NASR: Well, you know, for - the Quds Force is a fairly disciplined organization that executes policies that are decided by Iran's political leadership. We don't have an example of the Quds Force having gone rogue or elements of it having gone rogue.
But again, it's not clear as to who exactly in Iran made this order. The complaint does say the leadership of the Quds Force, but you know, how that was determined, which leaders, none of that is very clear.
So - and that I think is very critical because that would explain a lot of things about this case that don't add up.
CONAN: Some have speculated that there are rivalries within Iran, and that's not a surprise. As you say, the Quds Force has largely been, as far as anybody knows, fairly disciplined, but that one faction may be trying to make another faction look bad.
NASR: I don't think that that's at play here, largely because the Quds Force is - again, as I said, it's a very professional outfit. And it's very closely tied with the supreme leader, and the supreme leader has, by and large, already defeated the president.
NASR: And I don't believe that the president is in a position to essentially carry out an operation within the Revolutionary Guards that is outside of the domain of the supreme leader. The rogue element argument does not really - to me is not very credible.
CONAN: We want to hear your thoughts about what parts of this story make sense to you and which parts do not. 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Worth noting, a State Department spokesman did say today U.S. government has been in contact with the Iranian government on this point. The spokesman does not say who talked to whom or what they said or what was said back, but there has been a point of contact established.
Let's begin with Carl(ph), Carl is with us from Ashland in Oregon.
CARL: Hi, two things I wanted to say. First off, I think in general that people that aren't familiar with the criminology of Latin America, Central America, Mexico, are unaware of the ever-present rising power of Mexican influence. It used to be they were glorified middlemen as far as their crime organizations went, but pretty much everything since Pablo Escobar died has been kind of the downward spiral of South American influence in the crime world.
So they might have had - the Iranians might have had good contacts with the South Americans, but this could have been an attempt, a trust exercise, if you will, in making contacts with them, the Mexican cartels, which are now the preeminent force in the whole Atlantic, you know, sphere of crime influence in general.
Secondly, using criminals, civilian criminals to do your dirty work is a proud tradition of various deviant superpowers in the history of the world, and doing it rather blatantly and slapdashedly and having a broad-swath effect to shock and blast, if you will, the attack, is also something that very intelligent regimes, sophisticated regimes have done.
I, you know, would point first and foremost to Nazi infiltration of American organized crime through counter - and also British organized crime through counterfeiting that nearly bankrupt, you know, England (unintelligible) bankrupt England and the U.S. just through, you know, super-bills.
CONAN: And the Central Intelligence Agency used the mafia to try to assassinate Fidel Castro. So we get your point. But turning back to Afshon Ostovar, this - any history that the Quds Force, the Iranians, have done this?
OSTOVAR: I mean, they've certainly worked with criminal elements outside of Iran. And like I said in my opening comments, the particulars about this are not necessarily what's surprising. What's surprising is that the Quds Force has been pretty effective at shaping their own program, their own operations in places like Iraq or Lebanon or Afghanistan, and picking at the United States and doing certain operations against the United States without really having a direct one-to-one link to anything that they do.
This, however, is such a dramatic attack, for them to attack the United States...
CONAN: It would be an act of war.
OSTOVAR: Yeah, the country that they are most fearful of, that I mean the one thing that I think Vali Nasr would agree with me, that Iran is really, and Iran's leaders are most committed to, is protecting the regime from a military engagement with the United States. That would be disastrous for the regime.
And so picking a fight with the United States in this way, using sort of unvetted characters, whether they be criminals or not, I think is what's surprising here.
CONAN: Carl, thanks very much for the phone call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Afshon Ostovar of the Center for Naval Analyses and Vali Nasr of Tuft University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy are with us. We're talking about the alleged D.C. bomb plot, Iran, the Quds Force, Saudi Arabia, the United States, go figure. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The man arrested in the D.C. bomb plot is a failed businessman, former used car salesman from Texas, disorganized, often disheveled, his neighbors say, hardly a professional killer according to those around him.
He now faces federal charges of orchestrating a global terror plot. The real hand behind the operation, according to U.S. prosecutors: Iran, specifically the Quds Force, a covert arm of Iran's Republican(ph) Guard. But many terrorism experts say this botched plot does not fit with the sophistication and methods we usually see from this outfit.
So what parts of the story make you think it might be true or not? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guests are Afshon Ostovar, a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he's writing a book about the Revolutionary Guards, and Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He served as senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrook.
And Vali Nasr, another element of this: Why the Saudi ambassador?
NASR: Well, the enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been long-running. It goes back actually to the early years of the revolution. But in recent years, tensions between them have gone up. If you read what - in the WikiLeaks what the Saudi king suggests that the United States to do, which was a phrase such as you have to kill the snake by its head, almost egging the United States to take on Iran.
The two have also clashed in Bahrain. They are on opposite sides in Syria. And the relations between them have grown quite frosty. So it's quite conceivable that Iran would like to send a strong signal of intimidation to Saudi Arabia. That is not the surprising part of this. As Afshon also mentioned, the surprising part is doing it in the United States and almost inviting the United States to get in the middle of what is a regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Even the news of this plot has now pushed the United States and Saudi Arabia much closer to one another and is almost making Saudi Arabia's case for it, which all along has been, as we saw in the WikiLeaks, that the United States should take Iran on. And that's really the surprising part because Iran could obviously attack a Saudi target anywhere in the region.
They have been doing that. But, you know, to bring the fight to the West and then thereby bring the West into the fight between themselves and Saudi Arabia does not seem very rational.
CONAN: Afshon Ostovar, there was a case in Berlin where four men were charged, convicted in court, Iranian contacts, for plotting to conduct terrorist attacks there. One of them alleged to have been involved in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Sweden.
As we mentioned, the Quds Force has been active in Argentina before, attacking the embassy and attacking synagogues there. There was - part of this plot was supposed to be attacks on the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Buenos Aires. Does that lend credibility?
OSTOVAR: Well, certainly doing terrorist attacks outside of Iran's borders is something that the Quds Force has been involved in, especially assassinations of political dissidents and also foreign enemies.
Iran and Iran's intelligence services have been, since the revolution, largely involved in Europe, especially expatriates.
CONAN: And there were some of those attacks in this country 25, 30 years ago.
OSTOVAR: Yeah, yeah, right. I mean, you had one in Bethesda, Maryland, where...
CONAN: And we should note there was an attempt on the life of the commander or their family, the commander of the U.S. cruiser who fired the missile, who shot down the Iranian airliner.
OSTOVAR: Right, right, in San Diego or Los Angeles, wherever that was. So these things happen, and the Quds Force itself was not necessarily involved in the ones in the '80s because it did not exist as it is today. In the '90s, with the Argentina bombings and also with the Dhahran barracks in Saudi Arabia, the Quds Force was implicated. And of course Iran vigorously denied any involvement, and as far as I know, the public evidence for it is sketchy at best. So it's hard to make a determination.
But no, this is not outside of their purview. What makes it really unprecedented, however, is that it would take place in the United States.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Brianne(ph), Brianne with us from Toledo.
BRIANNE: Yeah, I wanted to ask about - I know how much Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been at each other's throats and everything like that, and I have two comments. One: Wouldn't it be easier for Iran to be able to make a case against Saudi Arabia to the greater Arab world by dragging the U.S. to the side of Saudi Arabia even more, for the Great Satan to be supporting them, and they can say see, we're against the Great Satan, and they're supporting them?
And two: This is - seems to me to be almost obviously blatant, this plan. Could it just be an attempt to undermine the U.S. intelligence community by making them look like fools by believing something like this and making it just a farcical plot that they try to discredit?
CONAN: It depends on the quality of the evidence that the United States will eventually have to produce, or may have to produce in court. Vali Nasr?
NASR: Well, you know, there is an argument here, namely that Iran actually would prefer to show Arab leaders, to get Saudi Arabia's leaders to be in the pocket of the United States and for Iran to pose as the leader of the brave resistance to outside interference in the region and as also the leader of resistance to Israel.
Our assumption all along has been that the Arab Spring changed the situation in the region such that this kind of posturing, this kind of a binary division between pro-Americans and anti-Americans no longer holds water. It is possible to think that perhaps the calculation in Tehran is that the mood of the region ultimately will reward those who stand up to the United States and will punish those leaders who are seen to be too close to the United States.
That's - it's a far-fetched argument, but at least it's one that would justify why Iran might be proactively trying to pick a fight with the U.S. rather than try to reduce tensions. And I have to add to this that, you know, it was indicative that after the United States offered the idea of a hotline between Iranian navy and U.S. Navy in order to avoid accidents in the Persian Gulf that the Iranians, they strongly rejected the idea on the grounds that it would legitimate - it would be Iran acknowledging the U.S. as a legitimate presence in the Gulf.
CONAN: Brianne, go ahead.
BRIANNE: Oh, I was just going to say that sometimes when it comes down to it, you know, the most stupidly obvious answer is sometimes the right one, even if it is far-fetched. So I was wondering if that might be...
CONAN: A student of history, I can tell. Brianne, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Anne(ph), Anne with us from Indianapolis.
ANNE: Yeah, you know, clearly there are many reasons for the public to question the validity of these claims being repeated by Holder, who Clinton - President Clinton and Holder pardoned Marc Rich, who had done quite a bit of business with Iran. And so - and his integrity is really questionable in regard to other things, too, like allowing the APAC trial to be shut down and numerous other things.
But then we also have Secretary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq War resolution. So - and then there's been this just constant drumbeat the last eight years, you know, to, you know, go get Iran and a lot of unsubstantiated claims being repeated about Iran.
And so - and there's a lot of dead people and injured people based on unsubstantiated claims and lies from the Bush administration, so lots of reasons for us to question this.
But I go to the site Race for Iran, Hillary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett, both who were Bush administration officials and who - I encourage your public to go to that site. She has - was on CNN last night, and she said this just doesn't make sense.
So again, there's just lots of questions for the public to question the validity of this intelligence. And I wanted to ask your guests: Is it too much, is it too much for the public to expect our officials and for MSN hosts and pundits to verify these kind of things that they put out into the public before they start, you know, putting these things in front of us? Is it too much for us to ask for verification?
CONAN: Anne, the attorney general of the United States has announced charges. They've released a document that specifies what they have in evidence, at least thus far, preliminary evidence against – there are allegations. We're just supposed to ignore them?
ANNE: Except they're already linking in Iranian officials with this.
CONAN: One of them is the person indicted.
CONAN: One of them has been indicted.
ANNE: An Iranian official?
CONAN: Yes, one of the two people indicted in the charges, an Iranian official of the Quds Force.
ANNE: The Quds - he's literally a - he's an Iranian top-level official?
CONAN: You got it.
ANNE: Is that correct? And that's - which fellow is that?
CONAN: That's the one who's not in custody.
ANNE: And so do - is it wrong of us, Neal? Is it wrong of us - OK, OK. We have, you know, Curveball. We have the Niger document.
CONAN: Hey. Weapons of mass destruction. I hear you, Anne. This is why we're saying there's a lot of questions to be asked. This is why we're asking why people are so skeptical, but it's not as if we can ignore the charges. These are very profoundly important, if true.
ANNE: OK. But is it - OK, like in the Dayton Daily News, on the front page, they said: Iran planned attacks.
CONAN: I'm not responsible for the front page of the Dayton Daily News.
ANNE: I know. But that's already - like, I heard Chris Matthews the other night, right away, the first night, asked for retaliatory measures. I mean, come on, Neal. Come on, guests. Come on, public. There are thousands of dead people based on unsubstantiated and unproven claims. So we...
CONAN: Which is - Anne, Anne, please. To be fair, which is why we're asking if these charges are credible and asking people like you to call in with questions about them rather than going on, you know, and making speeches about what we all know, that mistakes have been made before and there are reasons to ask questions.
ANNE: And there are serious reasons. And we - and there are serious reasons for the American public to even question our officials.
CONAN: I'm not...
CONAN: If I could get Eric Holder on the program, he'd be a welcome guest, but please.
ANNE: Great. Well, I hope you have Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett on your program, because that's where I'd go to get deeper, investigative and official information about the history of negotiations and lack of negotiations with Iran, and I encourage others to go there, as well.
CONAN: Anne, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
ANNE: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Vali Nasr, in all of that, she raises a really good point. The United States intelligence has made serious mistakes in the past and the not-so-recent past.
NASR: Well, that's true. And that's actually why, in a piece that I wrote yesterday, I suggested the United States, in order to have a convincing case, particularly to the international community, ought to provide as much information and detail as is possible. And also, there's a number of press, including, for instance, today Wall Street Journal raised very serious questions about many aspects of this case. And the caller is absolutely correct. Of course we should ask hard questions.
But as we sit here and as you mentioned, this is an indictment by the attorney general of the United States. We're not in a position to challenge that evidence, because it's not available to us. What we can do is, to the best of our knowledge and our knowledge of the region and the country and our experience, to be able to analyze what we know and to put it in the right perspective. But ultimately, any indictment would have to stand up in a court of law, which means that the evidence has to hold water. And this has some ways to go before we get there.
CONAN: Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And also with us, Afshon Ostovar, who's a senior analyst at CNA, the Center for Naval Analyses. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR.org - from NPR News. Excuse me. And let's go next to Chester, Chester with us from Livonia in Michigan.
CHESTER: Yes. I was - my comment was sort of like the last lady that got on the - got off the phone, is that I believe the United States is perhaps picking a fight with Iran, instead of Iran is picking a fight with the United States because, you know, with the past evidence, you know, with those weapons of mass destruction...
CONAN: We got that, Chester. Vali Nasr, we've heard that Iran would consider it a disaster to get into a fight with the United States at this point, the United States is involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at this point from which it is trying to extract itself. It's hard to see what the United States' interest is in a fight with Iran. Vali Nasr, you there? I think we've lost contact with Vali Nasr. Oh, no, there he is. I apologize.
NASR: Yeah. Well, you know, there is no reason - apparent reason why the United States would be looking to get into a fight with the United States. The relations between them are tense. They don't have any direct diplomatic representation in one another's countries. The conversation today between the United States and Iran is the first historic conversation in of itself. There's a great deal of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation of different things.
But the fact remains that this gentleman who was arrested here has obviously raised a connection between the plot that he was undertaking and what the D.A. found about him back to Iran. As I mentioned at the beginning, we don't know how - who might have been behind this in Iran, how far up it may have gone and what the motivation might be. There's a lot more to find out, and that would be key in how credible this case is likely to be.
CONAN: Let's go to Colin, Colin with us from Yosemite in California.
COLIN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I feel very skeptical about the accusations, but I think irregardless of that, my concern is that everybody in the government and in the sort of public discourse seems to be acting on the assumption that if the accusations are true, the proper response is some sort of escalated military action. I mean, they'll say maybe diplomacy first, but there seems to be this growing sentiment that, like, if anyone messes with us, we're going to hit them even way harder than they hit us. And I feel like it's worth discussing, like, even if this was true, is that really the best thing for our country and for the world to take this eye-for-an-eye approach with international affairs?
CONAN: Afshon Ostovar, I've heard talk from politicians and some outside of government, people in government are talking about sanctions.
OSTOVAR: Yeah. I mean, the fact of the matter is we're already sanctioning Iran to quite an extent. So there's not a lot of sort of soft coercion that we can use against Iran that we're not already using. Even though there's more stark language from - especially in Washington against Iran regarding this incident, I don't think anybody is really seriously considering - except with maybe some outliers, there - really considering going to war with Iran or becoming military engaged with the Iranian regime over this incident. I mean, I think...
CONAN: Since it didn't work.
OSTOVAR: Since it didn't work. I mean, the fact of the matter is, our law enforcement services did their job. Our intelligence did their job. We were able to stop this before it happened. And that's a success in and of itself. And being able to blunt a plot like this - if indeed Iran was behind it or a senior Iranian leadership - is quite allowed sort of a slap to Iran in and of itself, especially in the public sphere where Iran, you know...
CONAN: Is engaged with the United States...
OSTOVAR: Yeah, exactly.
CONAN: ...and Saudi Arabia. It's a blow to them. Afshon Ostovar, thank you so much for your time today. He's with CNA, the Center for Naval Analyses. And our thanks, as well, to Vali Nasr at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He joined us from his office in Boston.
When we come back, we're - going to be talking with Ariel Dorfman to - about the library he lost. Exiles tell us: What did you leave behind that still calls to you? 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.