Less than 24 hours after disclosing the disruption of the alleged plot, the Obama administration spent much of Wednesday outlining the evidence, not only to journalists but also to international allies and members of Congress. In briefings and phone calls, U.S. officials sought to explain how Iran’s vaunted Quds Force allegedly ended up enlisting a used-car salesman and a Mexican drug gang in a plan to kill Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador and blow up embassies in Washington and Buenos Aires.
Western diplomats who were privately briefed by U.S. officials at U.N. headquarters in New York said the Americans expressed concern that the plot’s cartoonish quality would invite suspicions and conspiracy theories. “Everyone was surprised by the amateurishness of the plotters,” said one U.N. Security Council diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol.
Although Justice Department officials say they convincingly linked the assassination plan to “elements of the Iranian government” — specifically the Quds Force — U.S. officials acknowledged that the case bore few of the hallmarks of a unit that has trained and equipped militants and assassins around the world.
“What we’re seeing would be inconsistent with the high standards we’ve seen in the past,” said a senior U.S. official, one of four who briefed reporters on the case. The officials agreed to speak on the condition that their names and professional affiliations not be revealed.
Many of those involved in the case identified a long list of improbables that argued against official Iranian ties to the alleged plot. It was out of character for Iran to undertake such a risky mission, and it strained credulity to imagine how professional operatives would stoop to hiring unknown drug-cartel members for a high-level political assassination.
“We had to be convinced,” the official said.
After months of undercover work, investigators began to see compelling evidence — including money transfers from Iran — that linked the plot to the Quds Force. While acknowledging that they did not have conclusive proof, the U.S. officials said they believed that Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, were at a minimum aware of the scheme’s general outlines.
“We do not think it was a rogue operation, in any way,” a second official said. But he added: “We don’t have specific knowledge that Suleimani knew” about about the fine details of the alleged plot.
The officials said American investigators theorized that the operatives’ sloppiness reflected Iran’s inexperience in working in North America, where even the globally networked Quds Force lacks connections and contacts. They said the oddly brazen nature of the plot may also reflect the naivete of the hard-line clerics who have come to dominate Iran’s leadership in recent years.