WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iran assassination plot suspect Manssor Arbabsiar was introduced to an undercover federal informant by a woman Arbabsiar met years ago when he worked as a Texas used-car dealer, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
Arbabsiar approached the woman earlier this year after returning last spring from a trip to Iran, two U.S. officials briefed on the investigation into the alleged plot said.
He asked the woman, whose identity has not become public, whether she could introduce him to anyone who “knew explosives,” one of the U.S. officials said.
She arranged for Arbabsiar to get in touch with her nephew. What neither the woman nor Arbabsiar knew was that the nephew, whose identity is also unknown, had an established relationship with law enforcement agencies as a drug informant.
The woman’s small, but crucial role in the affair is the latest curious twist to U.S. allegations that Iranian agents tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
The allegations have roiled the Middle East, but have brought angry denunciations from Iran and skepticism from analysts — even some within the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama defended his handling of the case on Thursday, saying “we would not be bringing forward a case unless we knew exactly how to support all the allegations that are contained in the indictment.”
Yet it became increasingly clear that if Iran’s Quds Force, the covert arm of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards, had sought to strike U.S. targets, their alleged agent was hapless.
“If they’re looking for 007, they got Mr. Bean,” said David Tomscha, a friend and former business partner of Arbabsiar’s in Corpus Christi, Texas, where they ran a used-car dealership together a decade ago.
He said Arbabsiar was as far from a discreet, calculating super-spy capable of engineering such a plot as he could be. Instead, Arbabsiar was a scatter-brained type, having run a string of failed businesses, lost a Corpus Christi home to foreclosure and even sometimes found himself without electricity at home because he forgot to pay the bills.
Tomscha said he had no idea who the woman Arbabsiar contacted might be. The only women he knew Arbabsiar to be close to were his first wife, who Tomscha hasn’t met, and the second, who lives north of Corpus Christi in Round Rock, Texas.
A clerk at a convenience store near the home in Corpus Christi that Arbabsiar lost to foreclosure, who declined to be identified because her company frowns on workers speaking to media, said on Thursday that Arbabsiar used to come in every day for coffee, often wearing an open-necked shirt that revealed multiple gold chains around his neck.
“He looked like an expensive guy, but he wasn’t,” the clerk said. “He was one of those ‘very important people’ who acted important but wasn’t important.”
Officials inside the government who have studied the case say that the checkered background and indiscreet behavior of Arbabsiar, and the apparent lack of caution with which his Iranian interlocutors dealt with him, initially made official experts on Iran skeptical as to the plot’s authenticity.
According to court papers filed by federal investigators, in late May, Arbabsiar traveled to Mexico to meet with the drug informant. By that time, officials said, the informant had reported on the Iranian-American’s interest in explosives to contacts in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
The informant is a “paid confidential source” who at some point was charged with a drug offense by authorities in an unnamed U.S. state, the papers said. State authorities dropped charges after the suspect agreed to cooperate with authorities in investigating drug cases, they said.
Alarmed and intrigued at what they heard about a possible wider plot involving Iranians with government connections, DEA and FBI officers launched an elaborate investigation.
Federal authorities accuse Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri, who U.S. officials describe as a “case officer” for the Quds Force, with plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir.
Court papers indicate that some of Arbabsiar’s conversations discussing the alleged plot with the government informant were recorded. The documents also say that after his arrest Arbabsiar confessed to the plot, and disclosed that one of his cousins in Iran, whom U.S. officials identified as Abdul Reza Shahlai, was a high-ranking Quds Force official.
Under the supervision of investigators, Arbabsiar also recorded an incriminating phone conversation earlier this month with Shakuri back in Iran.
U.S. authorities say that before his arrest, Arbabsiar facilitated two wire transfers, totaling just under $100,000 from overseas to a U.S. bank account controlled by American investigators.
U.S. officials have declined to provide precise details regarding the money’s point of origin or how it was transferred to the United States. But they say that still-secret information about the wire transfers provides strong evidence corroborating the involvement of Quds Force operatives in the alleged plot.
In addition to wire transfer evidence which pointed to Quds Force, U.S. officials said a significant body of intelligence was found corroborating the role of Shahlai, Arbabsiar’s cousin, as a Quds Force commander who had previously been involved in anti-U.S. operations in the region. This intelligence, which is still classified, helped convince skeptics inside the government that the plot was real.
But many outside experts, and at least some officials inside the government, remain wary, with some expressing concern that the administration of President Barack Obama is inflating the significance of a questionable plot to score political and diplomatic points against Tehran.
A former U.S. intelligence official said it was unlikely that FBI Director Robert Mueller and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would publicly tout the alleged Iranian government angle if they had qualms about the intelligence.
“There are too many people who are defending it to think it’s totally bogus,” a former intelligence official said.
But the official added: “I’m having a real hard time believing it is as orchestrated and centrally run as they seem to be implying. If it weren’t for the fact that there were so many people standing up and publicly talking about it who ought to know, then I would be even more skeptical.”
Additional reporting by Kristen Hays in Corpus Christi and Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Warren Strobel and Anthony Boadle