Friday, October 14, 2011

Iran into a trap. . .

Iran stole the headlines earlier this week with allegations that operatives associated with Iran's Quds Force tried to hire a Mexican cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Already, some news outlets are posting alarmist commentary, warning of the nefarious connections between the Quds and the Zetas; others are advocating a more measured response. A recent Financial Times article does a good job articulating the debate between the two sides.

Some, like AEI contributor Jose Cardenas, argue we should assume terrorist organizations are working with Mexican cartels; indeed, we should be surprised if they aren't working together. Others, like Sylvia Longmire, argue that cartels are unlikely to work with terrorists for fear of jeopardizing their lucrative business model by incurring the wrath of the U.S. military. They argue that the paltry sum of $1.5 million wouldn't be enough money to persuade any cartel to execute such a risky plot. In the middle are analysts who argue that while the central command of the Zetas or the Sinaloa Cartel would be unlikely to assist terrorists, the cartels use a diffuse network of gangs to accomplish their goals. These decentralized components might be more likely to take on a terrorist client.

One last group (not mentioned in the FT article) asks whether CS-1, the alleged DEA informant who posed as a Zeta, is a new Curveball. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the U.S. government relied on intelligence from a defected Iraqi codenamed "Curveball." Later, the informant admitted he had falsified his reports. Jefferson Morley of Salon highlights some of problems with the U.S. building its case on the credibility of CS-1, and warns that until his credibility is better established we should be wary of escalating already heightened tensions with Iran.

In my view, the U.S. does not need to worry about a possible Iran-Mexican cartel link. First, as far as we know the Iranians never met with an actual Zeta — only a U.S. informant posing as a cartel representative. None of the information we have about the case shows that Mexican cartels would be willing to work with international terrorist organizations. Second, we have no proof any of the cartels would have the capability to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, especially in Washington, D.C., a city far from the border. While Mexican crime organizations have a drug trafficking presence in hundreds of U.S. cities, there is little evidence that these networks are capable of staging a violent attack. Lastly, performing an act of international terrorism on U.S. soil would be extremely risky and would threaten their business model. The U.S. would act aggressively to crush any cartel that worked with a terrorist organization. Until the drug trade becomes less lucrative, cartels have every incentive not to work with terrorists.

In the end, it appears the Iranians were duped. We know that Iran has courted different groups elsewhere in Latin America, and it is likely they were trying to do the same in Mexico. However, in doing so they demonstrated a lack of understanding of the capabilities and interests of Mexican criminal organizations. Unless new information surfaces later, indicating Los Zetas (or any other group) actually expressed interest in working with the Iranians, it is probably safe to assume Iran acted haphazardly. Furthermore, by publicizing this story the U.S. government is sending a strong message to both the cartels and terrorist organizations. To potential terrorists, the U.S. government is saying "We've infiltrated the cartels, so don't bother trying to use them to carry out an attack in the U.S." Meanwhile, the Zetas and other groups in Mexico now have further confirmation the U.S. government has infiltrated their operations, which could seed mistrust and discord within those organizations.

This is a bizarre — but fascinating — story. It will be interesting to see what actions the U.S. will take to hold Iran accountable, and whether this leads to any changes in U.S. policy with respect to the drug war in Latin America.

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