The Texas suspect charged in the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States claimed in recorded conversations that his Iranian handlers were actively involved in the drug trade and could arrange for large shipments of opium to be delivered to a Mexican drug cartel, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the probe.
Manssor Arbabsiar, in a 1996 Nueces County, Texas, Sheriff's Office photograph.
The criminal complaint against Manssor Arbabsiar, released by Justice Department officials this week, makes no mention of alleged drug smuggling by the Iranian Qods Force, an elite covert arm of the Iranian military whose top officials allegedly coordinated and funded the plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, according to U.S. officials.
But two U.S. law enforcement sources told NBC News that Arbabsiar, in recorded conversations with an undercover drug informant, said in coded language that the same individuals who were orchestrating the bombing plot against the ambassador were involved in drug dealing. He told the informant that his Iranian handlers could arrange to provide Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel, with “multi-ton” shipments of opium, the sources said.
The major drug deal never materialized, however, and the allegations about Qods Force drug smuggling were not pursued because U.S. officials wanted to focus on the attempt to assassinate al-Jubeir on U.S. soil, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The officials said Drug Enforcement Administration director Michele Leonhart was even asked not to appear at the press conference announcing the assassination plot charges -- a noticeable absence given that one of her agency’s informants uncovered the alleged plot. (President Barack Obama, however, later called and thanked Leonhart, said a law enforcement official.)
Arbabsiar’s assertions about Qods Force drug dealing inject another puzzling dimension into a case that has triggered a crisis in U.S.-Iranian relations. While accusing the Qods Force of arming terrorist groups throughout the Middle East and orchestrating attacks against American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have never publicly accused the organization of involvement in international narcotics smuggling.
If these allegations are true, “They would be a game changer,” said Douglas Farah, a national security analyst who has closely studied Qods Force activities in Latin American and frequently testified before Congress on the issue.
The Qods Force has built up a significant presence in Latin America, especially in Venezuela, where it has forged close ties with the government of anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez, said Farah. The organization has also long had extremely close ties with, and directly funded, Hezbollah -- a Mideast terror group that has long been linked to the drug trade and money laundering. But there has been no clear evidence linking the Qods Force directly to narcotics smuggling or to dealing with the Mexican cartels, said Farah.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment about the alleged drug discussions, saying the department was not prepared to discuss any aspect of the case that was not in the criminal complaint released this week. “This is not a drug case,” the spokesman said.
The man behind the alleged plot, Arbabsiar, was an Iranian-American used car salesman with a long history of financial troubles and brushes with the law, including criminal charges for resisting arrest in 1987 and a 2001 arrest for driving without a proper license, according to a Texas law enforcement official. But he had never been accused of any narcotics charges, said the official.
According to the criminal complaint released Tuesday, Arbabsiar first met in Mexico on May 24 of this year with a DEA informant who he believed was an operative of Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most-violent drug cartels. The informant had previously been convicted of state-level drug charges, but avoided jail time and got the charges dismissed by agreeing to serve as a paid undercover informant for the DEA’s Houston field division, according to U.S. officials.
A U.S. law enforcement official said Arbabsiar came to meet the informant by pure happenstance: While living in Corpus Christi, he had developed a friendship with the informant’s aunt, the official said. .
According to the complaint, Arbabsiar asked the informant the first time he met him if he was knowledgeable about explosives, explaining that he was interested in attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia. The informant replied that he was familiar with C-4, a type of plastic explosives, it said.
Within a week, Arbabsiar flew overseas and returned to the U.S. in late June, holding additional meetings with the informant that were secretly tape-recorded on behalf of the government. In one of these conversations, on July 14, the informant told Arbabsiar that he could arrange to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, but that it would take four men and cost $1.5 million. Arbabsiar agreed, leading U.S. officials to describe the scheme this week as a “$1.5 million” plot. (A key part of the criminal charges against Arbabsiar relates to two later wire transfers totaling $100,000 to a New York bank.)
It is not clear precisely when the discussions about Qods Force drug smuggling took place. But one analyst said that such claims by Arbabsiar could fuel skepticism about some aspects of the U.S. charges.
“This raises additional question marks about this case,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and the author of an upcoming book on U.S.-Iranian relations. “The Qods Force is associated with some other really nasty things, but not this. This doesn’t fit.”
But a senior U.S. law enforcement official disputed that analysis, saying that U.S. officials have received intelligence reports for some time indicating that Qods Forces officers have been working with Venezuelans -- including some officials in that country's government -- who have been involved in shipping cocaine to West Africa. But so far, the official said, there has not been enough evidence to bring any criminal charges against Iranians who have been implicated.