Legal questions follow Iran’s ‘bizarre plot’

Plot described by the US Attorney General sounds like a bad action movie, but why would he lie?

eric holder
Is a man described as having mismatched socks and constantly losing his cell phone really capable of carrying out such an intricate plot involving Mexican drug cartels and Iranian military operatives? [GALLO/GETTY]

“Did an elite branch of Iran’s military handpick a divorced, 56-year-old Iranian-American used-car salesman from Texas to hire a hitman from a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the ambassador to Saudi Arabia by blowing up a bomb in a crowded restaurant in Washington?” 

This is how Reza Sayyah of CNN quite succinctly summarised the bombshell that the US Attorney General Eric Holder dropped in Washington DC on October 11.  

I am of a certain generation and analytical bend of mind that I cannot believe that Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, can in bright daylight come to national television and just straight lie about a matter so dire and dangerous in its actual and potential consequences.

We have no way of challenging the veracity of what he says. He is privy to intelligence. We are not. He is a figure of authority – we must take what he says seriously. The very assumption and presumption of a democracy is that people in position of such power and authority don’t just lie.  

And yet: Every which way you look at it: The story is so outlandish, so bizarre, so utterly ridiculous that it has left almost everyone across the political spectrum with a sense of: “… say what?” 

Various views

Pepe Escobar has just written a piece for Al Jazeera blasting this report and considering it a plot to invade Iran.

“No one,” he said rhetorically, “ever lost money betting on the dull predictability of the US government. Just as Occupy Wall Street is firing imaginations all across the spectrum – piercing the noxious revolving door between government and casino capitalism – Washington brought us all down to earth, sensationally advertising an Iranian cum Mexican cartel terror plot straight out of The Fast and the Furious movie franchise. The potential victim: Adel al-Jubeir, the ambassador in the US of that lovely counter-revolutionary Mecca, Saudi Arabia.” 

Escobar may indeed be right, but he does not deal with the matter of the US Attorney General Eric Holder coming on national television and looking the world straight in the eye and saying what he said. Escobar just sidesteps it, with perfect political poignancy, of course. So does Max Fisher of The Atlantic, who too dismisses the veracity of this report, and thus we are at mercy of someone like Steve Clemens, also of The Atlantic, who comes and says no in fact the Islamic Republic is perfectly capable of trying to do what Eric Holder says they were trying to do.  

But it is not just Pepe Escobar doubting the story. We have Julian Borger of the Guardian, who lists no less than eight perfectly legitimate questions as holes in Eric Holder’s account. Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, Stephen Walt, and John Glaser also raise serious and unanswered questions about the Attorney General’s story – with which we are back to square one: Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States. 

His socks would not match … he was not capable of carrying out this plan.

New York Times

The story is in fact so bad that even The New York Times, not known exactly for its habitual questioning of the official lines of the US government when it comes to warmongering in the Middle East, published a piece about the used car salesman at the centre of the plot in which we learn that he was a rowdy, incompetent fool. According to his friend: “His socks would not match … He was always losing his keys and his cellphone. He was not capable of carrying out this plan.” 

But, again, none of these points can come together to discount the straight face with which Attorney General Eric Holder insisted that this indeed was the case – that this old car salesman with his mismatched socks and misplaced cellphone and keys was the key evidence that Iranians were trying to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, and such.  

Holding on fast to our conviction that we must begin with the straight face of the US Attorney General, we must then ask ourselves: Was Eric Holder also party to the legal maneuvering that evidently went on for months in the Obama White House that provided a jurdical narrative that allowed the United States to assassinate one of its own citizens? 

According to the New York Times, the Obama administration had a “secret legal memorandum that opened the door to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen.” The newspaper adds: “The document that laid out the administration’s justification – a roughly 50-page memorandum [was prepared] by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, completed around June 2010” – and more specifically that it was “prepared by two lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.” 

Rule of jurists?

In an editorial mildly criticising this assassination The New York Times asserted: “But the memo … is an insufficient foundation for a momentous decision by the government to kill one of its own citizens, no matter how dangerous a threat he was believed to be. For one thing, the administration has refused to make it public or even acknowledge its existence.” 

Now, the question is this: Was Mr Holder party for that “roughly 50-page memorandum by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, completed around June 2010” that provided a legal justification for the assassination of an American citizen? The same assassination that has prompted the Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul to suggest that “the Obama administration’s killing of a US-born radical cleric in Yemen was an impeachable offense” and that “we have crossed that barrier from republic to dictatorship?”

Once we start pondering that question, we are of course instantly reminded of yet another evidently trustworthy American official, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who too with a straight face went to the UN in February 2003 and told the world body that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, as a prelude to the US led invasion of Iraq.

Later on, when it turned out that Iraq had no such weapons – too late for hundreds of thousands of murdered or millions of refugee Iraqis – the Bush White House and Mr Powel said this was “faulty intelligence”. 

So the question ultimately boils down to this: What is the difference between a “lie” and a “faulty intelligence” – except perhaps for the legalese language game in which the legal profession thrives? This points to the calamity we face today – that in fact both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States are ruled by lawyers. 

The rule of the Ayatollahs in Iran is the rule of the jurists, of the Shia legal scholars, with their own peculiar penchant for Perso-Arabic legalese. Scarcely anyone, except for that profession, understands it. The Supreme Leader occupies the office of Vali-ye Faqih/The Master Jurist, established and theorised by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini.

And lo and behold the same holds true in the United States, where from President Obama to Attorney General Eric Holder, people are ruled by lawyers – and their penchant for legalese Gobbledygook. Under this framework, officials can offer a used-car salesman with mismatched socks and misplaced keys as a star witness, just a few weeks after having provided legal justification for the assassination of an American citizen.

While the lawyers may find amusing or empowering their ability to manipulate words to get away with murder – the rest of humanity is at the receiving end of the dire consequences of what they say. The instant impact of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement is that the right wing hawks in the US and Saudi Arabia are now salivating about this news and itching to attack Iran.

Mutual interests

The suspected plot was concocted in Washington to distract Americans from … the Occupy Wall Street movement.

– Ayatollah Khamenei

Both the military machinery of the United States and the tyrants ruling Iran will be the sole beneficiaries of this scenario – while millions of Iranians, just like Iraqis at the mercy of “false intelligence” of Collin Powell, are its potential victims.  

The best thing that happened to the American war machine and penchant for imperialist adventurism is the Islamic Republic, and the best thing that happened to the Islamist tyranny in Iran are the warmongers in the United States.

Both of them – joined by Saudi Arabi and Israel – are doing their best to pull back the clock to before the Green Movement, before the Arab Spring, before the European Summer, and before the American Fall. In rejecting American charges, Ayatollah Khamenei has said, “the suspected plot was concocted in Washington to distract Americans from their own traumatic economic problems, highlighted by the Occupy Wall Street movement.” 

The worst thing that can happen to the Occupy Wall Street movement is for a tyrant to endorse it, as indeed the worst thing that happened to the Green Movement in Iran was for the US, Israel, or Saudi Arabia to rejoice in it.  

In days, weeks, and months to come, we are all bound to learn more details of this accusation.

Hopefully, we will still live in a world in which one can trust the Attorney General of the United States. But if it turns out that in Eric Holder we have a déjà vu of Colin Powell, then the Obama Administration is facing a deeper calamity than Bush’s government. 

Before that potential calamity comes becomes reality, we can still ask the US Attorney General something of a legalese nature that any layman can pose: Sir, would you, as a lawyer, go to court to make a case for shoplifting, let alone a case so dire and dangerous in its consequences, with a used car salesman with mismatched socks and misplaced keys as your star witness? Honestly sir?   

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his recent books is Iran:  A People Interrupted (The New Press, 2007).

The views expresed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.