At a press conference on October 11, the Obama administration unveiled a spectacular charge against the government of Iran: The Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, right in Washington, DC, in a place where large numbers of innocent bystanders could have been killed. High-level officials of the Qods Force were said to be involved, the only question being how far up in the Iranian government the complicity went.
The US tale of the Iranian plot was greeted with unusual skepticism on the part of Iran specialists and independent policy analysts, and even elements of the mainstream media. The critics observed that the alleged assassination scheme was not in Iran's interest, and that it bore scant resemblance to past operations attributed to the foreign special operations branch of Iranian intelligence. The Qods Force, it was widely believed, would not send a person like Iranian-American used car dealer Manssor Arbabsiar, known to friends in Corpus Christi, Texas as forgetful and disorganized, to hire the hit squad for such a sensitive covert action.
But administration officials claimed they had hard evidence to back up the charge. They cited a 21-page deposition by a supervising FBI agent in the "amended criminal complaint" filed against Arbabsiar and an accomplice who remains at large, Gholam Shakuri.  It was all there, the officials insisted: several meetings between Arbabsiar and a man he thought was a member of a leading Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, with a reputation for cold-blooded killing; incriminating statements, all secretly recorded, by Arbabsiar and Shakuri, his alleged handler in Tehran; and finally, Arbabsiar's confession after his arrest, which clearly implicates Qods Force agents in a plan to murder a foreign diplomat on US soil.
A close analysis of the FBI deposition reveals, however, that independent evidence for the charge that Arbabsiar was sent by the Qods Force on a mission to arrange for the assassination of Jubeir is lacking. The FBI account is full of holes and contradictions, moreover. The document gives good reason to doubt that Arbabsiar and his confederates in Iran had the intention of assassinating Jubeir, and to believe instead that the FBI hatched the plot as part of a sting operation.
The Case of the Missing Quotes
The FBI account suggests that, from the inaugural meetings between Arbabsiar and his supposed Los Zetas contact, a Drug Enforcement Agency informant, Arbabsiar was advocating a terrorist strike against the Saudi embassy. The government narrative states that, in the very first meeting on May 24, Arbabsiar asked the informant about his "knowledge, if any, with respect to explosives" and said he was interested in "among other things, attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia." It also notes that in the meetings prior to July 14, the DEA informant "had reported that he and Arbabsiar had discussed the possibility of attacks on a number of other targets," including "foreign government facilities associated with Saudi Arabia and with another country," located "within and outside the United States."
But the allegations that the Iranian-American used car salesman wanted to "attack" the Saudi embassy and other targets rest entirely upon the testimony of the DEA informant with whom he was meeting. The informant is a drug dealer who had been indicted for a narcotics violation in a US state but had the charges dropped "in exchange for cooperation in various drug investigations," according to the FBI account. The informant is not an independent source of information, but someone paid to help pursue FBI objectives.
The most suspicious aspect of the administration's case, in fact, is the complete absence of any direct quote from Arbabsiar suggesting interest in, much less advocacy of, assassinating the Saudi ambassador or carrying out other attacks in a series of meetings with the DEA informant between June 23 and July 14. The deposition does not even indicate how many times the two actually met during those three weeks, suggesting that the number was substantial, and that the lack of primary evidence from those meetings is a sensitive issue. And although the FBI account specifies that the July 14 and 17 meetings were recorded "at the direction of law enforcement agents," it is carefully ambiguous about whether or not the earlier meetings were recorded.
The lack of quotations is a crucial problem for the official case for a simple reason: If Arbabsiar had said anything even hinting in the May 24 meeting or in a subsequent meeting at the desire to mount a terrorist attack, it would have triggered the immediate involvement of the FBI's National Security Branch and its counter-terrorism division. The FBI would then have instructed the DEA informant to record all of the meetings with Arbabsiar, as is standard practice in such cases, according to a former FBI official interviewed for this article. And that would mean that those meetings were indeed recorded.
The fact that the FBI account does not include a single quotation from Arbabsiar in the June 23-July 14 meetings means either that Arbabsiar did not say anything that raised such alarms at the FBI or that he was saying something sufficiently different from what is now claimed that the administration chooses not to quote from it. In either case, the lack of such quotes further suggests that it was not Arbabsiar, but the DEA informant, acting as part of an FBI sting operation, who pushed the idea of assassinating Jubeir. The most likely explanation is that Arbabsiar was suggesting surveillance of targets that could be hit if Iran were to be attacked by Israel with Saudi connivance.
"The Saudi Arabia" and the $100,000
The July 14 meeting between Arbabsiar and the DEA informant is the first from which the criminal complaint offers actual quotations from the secretly recorded conversation. The FBI's retelling supplies selected bits of conversation -- mostly from the informant -- aimed at portraying the meeting as revolving around the assassination plot. But when carefully studied, the account reveals a different story.
The quotations attributed to the DEA informant suggest that he was under orders to get a response from Arbabsiar that could be interpreted as assent to an assassination plot. For example, the informant tells Arbabsiar, "You just want the, the main guy." There is no quoted response from the car dealer. Instead, the FBI narrative simply asserts that Arbabsiar "confirmed that he just wanted the 'ambassador.'" At the end of the meeting, the informant declares, "We're gonna start doing the guy." But again, no response from Arbabsiar is quoted.
Two statements by the informant appear on their face to relate to a broader set of Saudi targets than Adel al-Jubeir. The informant tells Arbabsiar that he would need "at least four guys" and would "take the one point five for the Saudi Arabia." The FBI agent who signed the deposition explains, "I understand this to mean that he would need to use four men to assassinate the Ambassador and that the cost to Arbabsiar of the assassination would be $1.5 million." But, apart from the agent's surmise, there is no hint that either cited phrase referred to a proposal to assassinate the ambassador. Given that there had already been discussion of multiple Saudi targets, as well as those of an unnamed third country (probably Israel), it seems more reasonable to interpret the words "the Saudi Arabia" to refer to a set of missions relating to Saudi Arabia in order to distinguish them from the other target list.
Then the informant repeats the same wording, telling Arbabsiar he would "go ahead and work on the Saudi Arabia, get all the information that we can." This language does not show that Arbabsiar proposed the killing of Jubeir, much less approved it. And the FBI narrative states that the Iranian-American "agreed that the assassination of the Ambassador should be handled first." Again, that curious wording does not assert that Arbabsiar said an assassination should be carried out first, but suggests he was agreeing that the subject should be discussed first.
The absence of any quote from Arbabsiar about an assassination plot, combined with the multiple ambiguities surrounding the statements attributed to the DEA informant, suggest that the main subject of the July 14 meeting was something broader than an assassination plot, and that it was the government's own agent who had brought up the subject of assassinating the ambassador in the meeting, rather than Arbabsiar.