It sounds like something from a thriller: An Iranian allegedly hired a Mexican drug gangster to murder the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Iran’s leadership is even supposedly behind it. The incident highlights a simmering conflict.

FBI Director Robert Mueller gets to the point: It “reads like the pages of a Hollywood script,” but “the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost." The U.S. accuses Iran of having hired a hit man from the sphere of the Mexican drug cartel to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington in an amateurishly arranged plot with the code name “Chevrolet.” But the Iranian-American middleman — a used car salesman — was caught in the net of an agent in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Alarmed Americans

The U.S. is alarmed and fears new attacks — worldwide. A written warning after the discovered plot says that the U.S. government sees evidence of a “more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries.” According to the U.S., the alleged murder plot should result in a new round of international sanctions against Iran. But is Tehran’s leadership really behind it? And what does that mean for the Near and Middle East? An analysis.

What Is the U.S.’ Accusation?

According to information from U.S. undercover agents, “elements of the Iranian government” are supposed to have planned and financed a bomb attack on the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The conspiracy — described by the FBI as fit for a screenplay, and available on FTD.de — broadly played out as follows.

At the center of the plans described by U.S. authorities is Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian who became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was arrested at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on Sept. 29 on his way back from Mexico. The U.S.’ accusations are based on the testimony of the 56-year-old [Arbabsiar] that the plot was forged from Tehran’s highest echelons: in the Revolutionary Guards and its elite Quds Force. According to the U.S., the connection is Iranian Quds member Gholam Shakuri, who is supposed to have driven the plans of attack. U.S. authorities wiretapped his telephone calls.

Arbabsiar had taken up contact with a man in the sphere of the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas. Arbabsiar allegedly paid him $100,000 in July and August as down payment for the hit. The supposed killer had demanded a total of $1.5 million.

However, the contact person in Mexico was an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and he promptly alerted the local authorities. After his arrest, Arbabsiar confessed and cooperated with U.S. authorities. In subsequent telephone calls with Shakuri, the suspected backer in Iran, he gave no notice of his arrest. Instead, he gave the green light for the planned attack.

Is the Iranian Leadership Behind This?

Iran declares that the accusations are completely unfounded and dismisses them as “comedy” and “fairy tales for children.” Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee criticized them as pure warmongering by the U.S. "The U.S. allegation is, obviously, a politically motivated move and a showcase of its long-standing animosity towards the Iranian nation."

Representatives of the U.S. government conceded that the evidence of collusion of the leadership in Tehran was thin. News agency Reuters quoted an unnamed government representative as saying: It was "more than likely" that the supreme leader and the Quds elite military unit had known of the plans. This conclusion was based on, above all, analyses and knowledge about the workings of the Quds Force. Other parts of the fragmented Iranian leadership like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "didn't necessarily know about this," continued the report.

If the leadership in Tehran were actually behind the assassination attempt, it would be an extremely clever chess move: Although they were at least held responsible for the attack on the U.S. government in Lebanon in 1983, they have never yet acted directly in U.S. territory. Iran experts are amazed by the clumsily executed course of action. The New York Times quoted renowned Iranian-American political scientist Rasool Nafisi with the words: “It’s not typical of the Quds Force or the IRGC to operate in the U.S., for fear of retaliation.” Nafisi considers it unlikely that Iran’s leadership approved the action; he rather believes that the Revolutionary Guards may have acted of their own accord.

Alireza Nader, political analyst and Iran expert at the renowned think thank RAND Corporation, is also very skeptical. Admittedly, Iran has a long history of supporting terrorism. Yet, he poses the question in The Washington Post: “Why would Iran want to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington?” This would be outside the “norm.” Former CIA agent Robert Baer is also quoted in the newspaper: “Maybe things have really fallen apart in Tehran, or maybe there’s a radical group that wants to stir up the pot,” he said. “But the Quds are better than this. If they wanted to come after you, you’d be dead already.”

What Does This Mean for the Near and Middle East?

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been considered rivals in the Near East for decades. The upheavals of the “Arab Spring” have further fueled their race for influence in the region. Additionally, the tensions have come to light quite openly ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein, who had been a geostrategic buffer between the two nations. The conflicts are not only politically motivated, but grounded in religion besides: In Saudi Arabia, the Sunnis dominate; Iran is the stronghold of the Shiites.

For now, the U.S. proceeds on the assumption that the Iranian regime is especially vulnerable. The extremely well-connected U.S. political columnist David Ignatius assumes that a raging internal fight between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei is weakening the government. The fact is that Iran’s most important political ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, has been weakened for months by a domestic rebellion.

The Washington Post quotes an unnamed White House staff member with regard to the alleged conspiracy by Iran: “We’re going to try to use this to isolate them to the maximum extent possible.” According to the newspaper, a U.S. security adviser flew to Saudi Arabia immediately after the plans became known. Goal of the mission: to design a strategy with King Abdullah to keep Iran in check politically. And delivery of weapons to the Saudis.

In return, Saudi Arabia has already officially thanked the U.S. The assassination plan was: “a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions, that it's not in accord with the principles of humanity,” as stated by the country’s embassy in Washington. The Iranian government, however, was not mentioned by name in the text.

What Role Does Mexico Play?

The Mexican government was apparently privy to the U.S. information relatively early on. A warning had been issued to the Mexican border police due to the U.S. arrest warrant for the used car dealer Arbabsiar. Upon consultation with Washington, they denied him entry on Sept. 28 and instead put him on a plane to New York, where he was arrested by U.S. authorities.

Concerns of the U.S.

It might cause concerns for the U.S. anyway if the plans for the attack were carried out by Mexican drug cartels. It does appear that the gangs have developed into broad-based and transnational criminal organizations in recent years. According to media reports, FBI agents warn that the Mexican Mafia’s learning curve for attacks is rising sharply: from primitive pipe bombs to remote-controlled assassinations with the newest plastic explosives.