With Iran allegations, U.S. demonstrates schizophrenia on assassinations and international law

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday accused the Iranian government of being involved in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, saying that “the conspiracy was conceived, sponsored and directed from Iran.” He added that the alleged assassination plot “constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, including a convention that explicitly protects diplomats from being harmed.”

Holder was apparently referring to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which the U.S. itself has recently come under criticism for flouting, namely by running a clandestine intelligence-gathering operation targeting UN officials.

As the Guardian reported last year based on secret U.S. embassy cables made public by WikiLeaks,

Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” …

The operation targeted at the UN appears to have involved all of Washington’s main intelligence agencies.

The Guardian pointed out that the U.S. spying campaign is likely a violation of the same Vienna Convention that Eric Holder is now citing, which provides that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable” and “the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable.”

Although she was directly implicated in this earlier breach of international norms, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in on the alleged Iranian plot today, calling it “a flagrant violation of international and U.S. law and a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government’s longstanding use of political violence and sponsorship of terrorism.”

Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC, “Every nation in the world, when they learn the facts of this, will be outraged that (Iran) would violate such an international norm, in addition to obviously being a crime to assassinate anybody, and in the process probably have killed scores of Americans.”

Biden’s assertion that it is “a crime to assassinate anybody” comes two weeks after the U.S. government’s extrajudicial assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and just a week after Reuters revealed a secret U.S. government “kill list” that designates perceived threats – including American citizens – as legitimate targets for assassination.

As Reuters reported on Oct. 5,

American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House’s National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.

The panel was behind the decision to add Awlaki, a U.S.-born militant preacher with alleged al Qaeda connections, to the target list. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen late last month.

The White House would not comment specifically on the Reuters story, but National Security Staff spokesman Tommy Vietor issued the following statement to ABC News:

I cannot provide details about our cooperation with the Yemeni government on counterterrorism operations. As a general matter, however, it would be entirely lawful for the United States to target the high-level leaders of enemy forces who are plotting to kill Americans both under the authority provided by Congress for the use of military force in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces as well as under established international law that recognizes our right of self-defense.

The legal analysis would be slightly different with respect to U.S. citizens, as we would have to take into account any constitutional protections that might apply to a U.S. citizen who is leading enemy forces in their efforts to kill innocent Americans. Any time we use force, I want to assure you that we do so with extraordinary care and in full accordance with U.S. law and the international law of armed conflict.

So, when the U.S. carries out assassinations in its “war on terror,” it is “in full accordance with U.S. law and the international law of armed conflict,” but when it is Iran alleged to be involved in an assassination plot, the U.S. vice president unequivocally asserts that it is “obviously a crime to assassinate anybody.”

Iran itself has been the target of an ongoing assassination campaign of its nuclear scientists. On July 23, Darioush Rezaei became the latest victim in a series of attacks over the past two years in which the Islamic republic’s elite physicists have been picked off one by one. The U.S. and Israel are widely suspected to be responsible for the assassinations.

For its part, Iran categorically denies any role in the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called the plot “an amateurish scenario,” pointing out that there have been similar allegations over the past few decades.

“The Islamic Republic never seeks to get involved in this kind of behavior and, despite 32 years of pressure brought to bear on Iran, the country has always acted and reacted ethically,” he said.

Independent observers have also raised doubts about the veracity of the U.S. claims. Middle East specialist Prof. Juan Cole, a vocal critic of the Iranian regime, wrote today on his blog Informed Comment,

As many observers have pointed out, the story given us by Attorney General Eric Holder about the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., makes no sense. Veteran CIA operative Bob Baer, now retired, notes that Iranian intelligence is highly professional and works independently or through trusted proxies, and this sloppy operation simply is not their modus operandi.

The US is alleging that Gholam Shakuri, a known member of the Quds Brigade, the special operations force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, was involved and that he was running an Iranian-American agent, Manssor Arbabsiar, a used car dealer with a conviction on check fraud. Arbabsiar wired $100,000 to a bank account he thought belonged to a member of the Zeta Mexican drug cartel, as a down payment on the $1.5 million demanded by the cartel member for carrying out the assassination.

As Cole points out, if Arbabsiar really had been an Iranian intelligence asset, he would have known that the U.S. closely monitors money transfers of more than $10,000. “The only safe way to undertake this transaction would have been cash, and no one in the Quds Brigade is so stupid as not to know this simple reality,” writes Cole.

Also, why would the Iranians use a Mexican drug cartel to carry out an assassination, if – as we have been told for years – the Iranian regime controls unknown numbers of Hezbollah sleeper cells within the United States? In June 2008, U.S. intelligence officials warned that Hezbollah sleeper cells were being activated in North, Central and South America, but now they claim that the Iranian regime is contracting a Mexican drug cartel to do its dirty work. The story simply makes no sense.

Perhaps this is why the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador to personally convey its outrage over the American charges and warn “against the repetition of such politically motivated allegations.” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi alleged that the United States is fabricating the incident to divert attention from its “economic troubles.”

The semi-official Fars news agency published an article with the headline: “U.S. Accusations Against Iran Aim to Divert World Attention from Wall Street Uprising,” a reference to the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests. The article quoted a senior member of Iran’s Parliament, Alaoddin Boroujerdi, as saying he had “no doubt this is a new American-Zionist plot to divert the public opinion from the crisis Obama is grappling with.”

Foreign Minister Salehi warned against the dangers of confrontation.

“We do not seek confrontation,” he said. “If they [the U.S.] want to confront us and impose their will on us, then that would be their end. If they are capable of hitting us with their fist, we are capable of slapping them. If we slap them it would be so hard that they can no longer hold their heads up. We emphasize that we do not want confrontation, that we want interaction. If they decide to create a confrontation and impose it on the Iranian nation, the consequences for them will be dire.”

Despite these warnings from Iran, it appears that the U.S. is exploiting the case to increase the level of confrontation.

As Clinton said today, “This kind of reckless act undermines international norms and the international system. Iran must be held accountable for its actions.” She noted that the United States had already imposed targeted sanctions on “individuals within the Iranian government who are associated with this plot and Iran’s support for terrorism.”

U.S. Representative Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security, called the alleged plot an “act of war” Tuesday.

“This would have been an act of war…this goes beyond anything that I’m aware of that’s happened before,” Rep. King continued, “it’s certainly raised relationship between the U.S. and Iran to a very precipitous level.”

King suggested that the U.S. take some type of military action against Iran, despite the fact that as U.S. intelligence officials concede, there is no evidence that the Iranian leadership had any knowledge of the alleged plot.

As Reuters reported today, U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was “more than likely” that Iran’s supreme leader and the head of its Quds force knew of the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, but acknowledged the claim was based on analysis rather than hard evidence.

The officials also acknowledged that the plan to hire a hit man from a Mexican drug cartel, was far “outside the pattern” of the Quds force’s past activity.

Despite these doubts, it appears that no options are being taken off the table, including a possible military response by the United States. If such an attack occurs, the U.S. would be breaching international law as a response to an alleged breach of international law by Iran.

But with the schizophrenia already on display over the alleged assassination plot and Iran’s “flagrant violations of international norms,” this would be par for the course.

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