The FBI-Style Sting in the Tail of the Saudi Ambassador 'Assassination Plot'

If this counter-terror operation used entrapment techniques, then law enforcement is wagging the dog of US foreign policy on Iran

Wednesday, in Manhattan's federal courthouse, the southern district of New York, an Iranian-American citizen - Mansour Arbabsiar - was indicted on terrorism and related charges. According to authorities, Arbabsiar's arrest was the culmination of an FBI-style DEA sting operation focused on the Iranian-born, 56-year-old US citizen who, according to the criminal complaint, conspired with individuals in Iran, including members of the Quds Force (an arm of the Iranian revolutionary guard), to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.

In essence, an oft-questioned mode of indicting alleged terrorists - sting operations based on informants interacting with suspects - was put in play in an arena with potentially far greater consequences: US foreign policy. It is one thing to create a questionable domestic law enforcement strategy against alleged terrorists, and quite another thing to apply that strategy to matters of state.

The merits of this case are - as with all trials until they come to court and especially terrorism trials - in dispute. From all accounts so far, Mansour Arbabsiar, was a man who he had spent his life going from one business to another, most recently, the used car business. Portrayed by neighbors and friends as perpetually in need of money, and often disorganised about his day-to-day life, Arbabsiar, according to the criminal complaint, somehow allegedly became involved in the scheme to funnel $1.5m from the Quds Force to a Mexican drug cartel that agreed to blow up a fictional restaurant in Washington, DC in which the Saudi ambassador would be dining. Towards that end, $100,000 in two sums was allegedly sent from Iran as a downpayment for the crime.

The point person for the drug cartel was a confidential informant working with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). As a result, there has been some speculation already about whether or not this is a case of entrapment. Did the federal agent conduct much or all of the plot? Or did it actually originate with the accused? The complaint asserts that Arbabsiar wanted to participate in the assassination plot even before his encounter with the DEA agent. But the rest of the case and the plot - the who, what, when, where and how of the proposed crime - are disconcertingly unclear.

In its outlines, this case has the traditional hallmarks of similar FBI sting cases that are increasingly used to arrest suspected terrorists in the United States and that often result in claims of entrapment on the part of the defense. Arbabsiar is essentially accused of being willing to participate in a terrorism crime in exchange for money - an arrangement that was facilitated by a confidential informant. This is a common form of terrorism sting, as was illustrated in the case of Yassin Aref that took place in Albany in 2006. There, funneling money knowingly for a terrorism crime led to conviction and long prison terms for the defendants. So, too, there is a WMD charge in the complaint - the most serious of terrorism charges, bringing the longest sentences. More and more FBI terrorism sting cases include WMD charges; but in prior cases, including a number of high-profile stings that took place in 2009-2010, the defendants - unlike in this case - are in direct contact with the explosives.

In the Arbabsiar case, the issue has immediately leapt from a matter of individuals to a matter of state - and from a matter of non-state actors engaged in alleged criminal activity on behalf of al-Qaida (or another transnational terrorist group) to a matter of state actors (that is, the Quds Force). The US government is claiming that this case constitutes a diplomatic breach and an act of international violence planned by the Iranian authorities - in the president's words, "a flagrant violation of US and international law".

In terms of US foreign policy, this case could not have come at a worse time diplomatically when the entire region is in turmoil and relations between the US and Iran are tense at best over nuclear weapons, Israel, Iraq and the rumblings of the Arab uprising. Perhaps the most unsettling fact is the case's potential impact on US foreign policy. It provides an all-too-convenient justification for warmongers who see Iran as the next enemy to be confronted by the United States.

That makes this case, again, uncomfortably reminiscent of the recent Bronx synagogue case, a case that has elicited cries of entrapment from many sectors. In it, four men were convicted of participating in an FBI sting plan aimed at blowing up synagogues in Riverdale, New York. The defendants were vocally antisemitic, but the choices of the synagogue and of the explosive, as revealed in court proceedings, were those of the federal authorities: in other words, the US government appeared willing to risk inflaming passions with the details of a plot that would enhance fear and suspicion in a community where a large percentage of American Jews live.

The merits of the Arbabsiar accusations are not yet known. When and if they come to light in a courtroom, we will be better able to assess this case. But well before the claims of this case can be tested in court, the impact of these allegations - right or wrong - could irreversibly alter the trajectory of American foreign policy. Before the American public has had a chance to assess - and perhaps rethink - the contentious policy of FBI (and DEA) sting operations in terrorism cases, is it really a good idea to take this strategy out of the courts and into the arena of foreign policy? I think not.

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