The alleged Iranian plot to pay the Zetas drug gang to murder a Washington ambassador sounds like the idea of someone who has little knowledge and even less contact with criminal groups in Mexico.

The story would be almost comical, if it did not threaten to destabilize the Middle East. It is filled with holes, beginning with the Iranian spies who, if the U.S. is to be believed, did not do their homework about undercover operations or the Zetas or Mexico or drug trafficking or criminal groups, or indeed much of anything.

The indictment (available for download here) says that an Iranian-American car dealer, Manssor Arbabsiar, based in Corpus Christi, Texas, was moonlighting as a spy for the Qods Force, a special operations unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Specifically, it says, he was working with someone described as his “cousin,” Gholam Shakuri, who is presumably a member of the Qods with access to a lot of money to pay assassins via wire transfers.

At some point (the indictment does not say), Arbabsiar met a man he took for a member of the Zetas cartel, who turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Administration informant. The two then met numerous times in Reynosa, according to an ABC news account, where they hatched a plan to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington DC for a fee of $1.5 million.

Reynosa, as a quick Google search will tell you, is not Zetas but Gulf Cartel territory. But neither Arbabsiar or the Qods appear to be avid readers of InSight Crime, Southern Pulse, Borderland Beat, Molly’s Frontera List or any other of the sites that cover this type of criminal organization.

If they were, they would have also known that neither the Zetas, nor any other Mexian criminal group for that matter, are really interested in committing acts of political violence on U.S. soil, much less ones involving foreign governments. They are interested in committing criminal acts, mostly in Mexico.

“I find it hard to belive that Los Zetas would entertain the thought of bombing a target on U.S. soil,” Southern Pulse’s Director Samuel Logan told InSight Crime in an online chat. “They and other Mexican organized criminal groups use street gangs for their U.S. operations precisely because they respect the FBI and the U.S. justice system. If it’s true that Los Zetas agreed to target a foreign national on U.S. soil, with a bomb no less, this group is either more stupid or more desperate than we thought – or both.”

To be fair, no one is saying that the Zetas were involved in the plot; the core issue is whether the Iranian government thought the Zetas would be involved, which speaks to the lack of understanding or contact they have with the Mexican underworld.

“The clearly amateurish nature of Iran’s involvement here shows that we have less to fear,” writes James Bosworth in his blog, referring to the often-invoked specter of Islamic militants seeking Mexican drug cartel assistance to get at the United States. “The fact that an Iranian Qods-linked official is poking around the border looking for Zetas sicarios and ends up with the DEA informant suggests that Iran and Hezbollah have far less ties to the Mexican organized crime scene than some analysts would want you to believe. If they were as linked and conspiring as some analysts claim, they would have just picked up the phone and called their friends to either set up the operation or at least verify that the guy they are paying $1.5 million to is legit. Instead, they screwed up and got caught relatively easily.”

The indictment says that the informant strung Arbabsiar along, even pushing him to transfer payment into a bank account secretly controlled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), also a no-no in the world of hiring assassins (hint: use cash). On September 29, the Mexicans denied Arbabsiar entry and he was rerouted to New York, where the U.S. captured him.

After a few hours, he confessed. After a few days, he was making calls to his Qod “cousin.” Using the code name “Chevrolet” to refer to the plot (why would a car dealer use a carmaker as the code name?), they had this interesting conversation:

Arbasiar: “I wanted to tell you, Chevrolet is ready, it’s ready, to be done. I should continue, right?”

Shakuri: “Yes. Yes, yes.”


“You mean you are buying all of it? … I don’t know for now, it’s ready, okay?”

“So buy it, buy it.”

“Buy it? Okay.”

“Buy it, yes, buy all of it.”

The U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement of the “foiled plot” was met with healthy skepticism in the media. “If Iranian government operatives really did try to contract a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., as the Obama Administration alleges today, then they weren’t just being diabolical. They were being fairly stupid,” wrote Time’s Tim Padgett.

The New York Times quoted Hillary Clinton, asking the very pertinent question: “The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?”

But while some news outlets are skeptical, other are keeping the theory alive and seem to almost be promoting a rift between the U.S. and Iran over this plot. ABC’s Good Morning America let Vice President Joe Biden say, without questioning him, that the “Iranians are going to have to be held accountable.” (See video below.)

“We’re in the process of uniting public opinion toward continuing to isolate and condemn their behavior,” Biden added.

He probably did not need to tell ABC that, as it was doing his job for him. ABC’s host, Robin Roberts, followed up his statements with the question, “Are sanctions enough?”

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...