In contrast to operations in nations such as Argentina or Iraq, spectacular attacks on heavily-guarded diplomatic targets in Washington would risk rapid discovery by U.S. authorities and demand major retaliation. Moreover, an alliance between Iranian Islamic extremists and the ruthless capitalists of Mexican cartels for an act of terrorism would be unprecedented — “a monumental leap of faith,” as former DEA official Braun put it.
Western counterterrorism officials say Iranian intelligence has established a growing presence in Latin America, which has large Arab immigrant communities. Iranian and Hezbollah operatives have expanded their roles in crime, fundraising and recruitment in longtime outposts such as Venezuela and the area where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. A DEA investigation in 2009 identified a Hezbollah operative in Mexico who had drug connections and access to a stockpile of military arms allegedly stolen from Iraq, according to court documents.
“I believe the Hezbollah-Iranian presence in Latin America constitutes a clear threat to the security of the U.S. homeland,” Roger Noriega, a former top State Department official on Latin American affairs, testified in July at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
But U.S. diplomats downplay the warnings about Iranian and Hezbollah activity in the hemisphere, saying it consists mostly of fundraising. Even officials who take the Iranian threat seriously say they have not seen previous indications of a close partnership between Iranian spies and Mexican drug mafias.
“The main question is: Is there any conceivable way that Mexican DTOs [drug-trafficking organizations] would cooperate with the Quds Force?” a U.S. intelligence official said. “”It doesn’t make good business sense.”
The Zetas of Mexico have massive firepower and formidable systems of communications and intelligence gathering. Mexican cartels have built trafficking networks from Atlanta to Los Angeles; they have been accused of killing U.S. Border Patrol agents, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent based in Mexico and people connected to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez.
In contrast to the bloody turf wars in Mexico, however, Mexican gangsters have largely avoided shootouts and major killings north of the border. They and their corrupt allies in Mexican law enforcement have a keen understanding of a U.S. mentality in which such violence, not to mention links to Islamic terrorism, would trigger a backlash.
The use of Mexican gunmen would certainly make it harder to trace the plot back to Iran. But experts and officials said they doubt that Mexican traffickers would become embroiled with Iran in a kamikaze-like attack that could incite the wrath of the U.S. government. In the wiretapped conversations, the informant posing as a Zetas hit man told Arbabsiar that the planned bombing in Washington might kill many bystanders, including U.S. senators dining at the restaurant frequented by Ambassador Al-Jubeir.
According to the Department of Justice, the Iranian-American allegedly responded: “They want that guy [the ambassador] done [killed]; if the hundred go with him, f**k ‘em.”
Arbabsiar apparently did not realize that his interlocutor’s willingness to engage in the slaughter was suspicious. It is harder to believe, however, that chiefs of the crack Quds Force would have been so unsophisticated - or relied on Arbabsiar to hire Mexican triggermen with whom they had not worked in the past, some officials said.
“Assuming they wanted to run an op and have the Mexican cartels take point, they have Hezbollah guys all over South America they have been working through a long time,” said Faddis, the former CIA official. “They have a million other hard-wired ways to get in contact with the cartels.”
A potential explanation: The Iranian-American suspect may have been trying sell the Quds Force on a plan beyond his capacity to execute.
“He may have been trying to bilk them,” Faddis said. “Maybe they got involved to the point of trying to figure out what he can deliver, and it turns out U.S. law enforcement is all over him.”
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has become a veritable state within a state, Western intelligence officials say. The elite force’s dominance of Iran’s politics and economy has been accompanied by factional infighting, mafia-like moneymaking and sloppy tradecraft. Two IRGC officials were implicated in arms trafficking last year in Nigeria, and one was arrested. The year before, Italian police arrested two alleged Iranian operatives who were wiretapped discussing arms deals and espionage against opposition figures with bosses at the Iranian embassy in Rome and in Tehran.
“When you are dealing with the Iranians, there is often no such thing as the Iranian government but multiple power centers,” Faddis said. “Sometimes they do things that don’t make sense or are contradictory.”