Are the Iranian terror charges a Mexican “Curveball”?

Sensational allegations from an unknown informant justify talk of war in the Middle East. Sound familiar?

Topics: Iran, ,

Are the Iranian terror charges a Mexican "Curveball"?Manssor Arbabsiar is shown in this 1996 Nueces County, Texas, Sheriff's Office photograph. An unknown informant's allegations against Mansoor Arrabsiar are reminiscent of "Curveball's" bogus allegations in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Credit: Ho New / Reuters)

The key to the U.S. government’s case against two Iranian-born men charged Tuesday with plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington is an anonymous member of a Mexican drug cartel who has been charged with narcotic-related offenses and is currently on the payroll of the U.S. government.

One anonymous source is not considered the basis of a credible news story but “CS-1,” as he is identified in court papers, appears to be the linchpin to the U.S. government’s five-count indictment of Mansoor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Gholam Shakuri, allegedly an Iranian intelligence officer. The Obama administration has seized on the indictment to mobilize the U.S. government worldwide to a more confrontational stance against Tehran, something advocates of U.S. military action against Iran have long sought.

Within hours, the indictment revived talk of war betweeen the United States and Iran. The  Wall Street Journal called the indictment  ”a sobering wake-up call” for those opposed to military action. The Iranian government called the charges  a threat to “the peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region.”

While the indictment has provoked skepticism among independent observers, and ridicule from Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, the critical role of an anonymous informant in the government’s case has drawn less attention. Virtually all of the overt acts alleged in the indictment took place in the presence of the informant or in response to his offer to carry out violent acts. His account of the alleged terror plot is driving U.S. foreign policy yet his veracity is far from established.

The informant’s bona fides as a disinterested witness to criminal behavior are impossible to corroborate. According to the indictment, CS-1 was once charged in “connection with a narcotics offense” in an unnamed U.S. state, but those charges were dropped in return for his cooperation in various drug investigations. The informant has reportedly “provided reliable and independently corroborated information” leading to “numerous seizures” of narcotics, but no specific examples are given. A U.S. official who anonymously briefed selected journalists on the indictment on Wednesday did not offer any more details of the informant’s past performance either.

The informant is said to be associated with an unnamed “large, sophisticated and violent” Mexican drug cartel, according to the indictment. ABC News reported that the informant presented himself as a member of the Zetas, one of Mexico’s most notorious drug gangs. The indictment says he “posed” as a member of a cartel. But that doesn’t mean that he was a member of the Zetas. He may be a member of another cartel who is just be a good actor. In any case, the informant is dependent on U.S. government officials for safety and money.

While the indictment says that CS-1 is a DEA informant, a footnote explains that he has been paid “by federal law enforcement officials” for his work. Given the CIA’s escalating involvement in the Mexican drug war, the possibility that the informant works for the Agency should not be ruled out. As the New York Times reported this summer, “the United States has trained nearly 4,500 new federal police agents and assisted in conducting wiretaps, running informants and interrogating suspects.” [emphasis added]

The U.S. team working with the Mexican counterdrug officials is based at the Pentagon’s Northern Command (in an undisclosed location), so the secretive U.S. counterdrug policy in Mexico must be viewed as part of U.S. military posture worldwide. The possible role of the CIA and the Pentagon in cultivating cartel informants is obviously relevant to an indictment that has mobilized the U.S. government worldwide to a more confrontational stance against Tehran, something advocates of U.S. military action against Iran in both agencies have long sought.

Yet the government’s sensational charges depend largely on one unknown informant’s credibility, a situation reminiscent of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.  Then the uncorroborated claims of one anonymous source, known as “Curveball,” proved to be influential in justifying war.  They were also completely fabricated.

Curveball’s allegations were used by the Bush White House to drive policy toward Iraq, just as the Arbabsiar indictment is being used by the Obama White House to drive Iran policy. Curveball claimed he had worked on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program; the indictment says Arbabsiar and Shakuri sought to obtain “weapons of mass destruction” to carry out the assassination. One disillusioned CIA official later described Curveball as “a guy trying to get his green card” — which might be CS-1′s goal too, if there is any truth to his reputation ratting out legendarily vicious Mexican drug traffickers.

Whether CS-1 is a Mexican Curveball remains to be seen. CS-1′s credibility will be tested when Arbabsiar is brought to trial and prosecutors will have to disclose much more of their evidence. (Shakuri is believed to be in Iran and is unlikely to see the inside of a U.S. courtroom.)

But the indictment indicates the government may have difficulty corroborating at least some of CS-1′s claims. For example, Arbabsiar initially told CS-1 that he was interested in talking C-4 explosives, according to one passage in the indictment. Another passage says that after his arrest Arbabsiar waived his Miranda rights and immediately confessed. Arbabsiar reportedly said he had approached CS-1 with the idea of kidnapping the Saudi ambassador. Leave aside whether a man serious about organizing a political assassination in Washington would immediately tell the U.S. government about his plans. The contradiction in the indictment remains: Did Arbabsiar concoct a kidnapping plot or a bombing scheme?

The first several meetings between the two men were not recorded, according to the indictment. U.S. officials had to rely on CS-1′s account of the meetings, suggesting that Washington has no independent means of confirming how the relationship between CS-1 and Arrabsiar developed.

The informant did arrange an audio recording of a meeting on July 14, 2011. According to the FBI agent who signed the indictment, “a draft transcript” of the meeting shows that the informant helped Arbabsiar develop the alleged plan telling him he would need “at least four guys” to carry out a bombing of a Washington restaurant where the Saudi ambassador was known to eat.

If that happened it would be a first, says Eric Olson, a specialist in Mexican security affairs at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“I know of no case where the cartels have worked with any terrorist or foreign organization to carry out attacks in the United States,” Olson said in a telephone interview. Olson said it was not even clear what the informant’s relationship to the cartel was.

“Remember the Zetas are not organized as a military organization the way the Iranians are,” Olson said. “They are much more diffuse.”

In short, the Iranian terror case is an improbable story based on a unknown source that is shaping U.S. policy. Writing in the Huffington Post, Reza Marashi and Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council said:

Hawks in Washington will use these new allegations to support their preconceived notions on why defusing the Iran crisis cannot be done — the timing isn’t right; we need to garner more leverage by escalating the pressure; this regime needs enmity with America for its survival and so forth. Ironically, their counterparts in Tehran will echo similar sentiments.

And yet no one outside of the U.S. government knows if the source at the heart of the story is talking straight or throwing a curveball.

Jefferson Morley

Jefferson Morley is a staff writer for Salon in Washington and author of the forthcoming book, Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (Nan Talese/Doubleday).

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>