That plot, which was disrupted when Arbabsiar was lured back to the US and arrested, dramatically changed the US intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s capabilities and intent—an assassination on US soil had long been thought to be a red line the Iranian regime wouldn’t cross. And it helped drive the Obama administration’s efforts to strike a nuclear deal that would stop the country from developing a workable device.
One former senior official I interviewed who had worked at three intelligence agencies in his career, and who also requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized by his employer to speak publicly, speculated that if Taherzadeh and Ali were part of an Iranian plot—and no evidence so far suggests they are—it may have been one of several avenues and schemes launched in the wake of the the audacious US assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in early 2020.
“We’ve seen intelligence agencies do ham-handed and stupid stuff. It could have fallen into the category of a just not-well-thought-though case,” the former senior official says. “If you’re Iran, and you’re upset about Soleimani, you’re going to pull a lot of levers. Maybe they said, ‘It can’t hurt to move this forward.’”
Indeed, as the Arbabsiar case illustrates, the oddity of Taherzadeh and Ali’s alleged actions doesn’t necessarily shed light on whether they were acting on their own or as part of an intelligence operation. “Agencies are not perfect, and different parts of an agency have different levels of competence,” Triplett says.
But the former prosecutor says the sheer weirdness of the case makes him question any foreign connection. He says that many foreign-influence and intelligence cases involve comparatively small amounts of money; the largess of the suspects, while seeming to indicate access to substantial resources, may very well point to the opposite conclusion.
“This is a ton of money. This doesn’t strike me as quiet and surreptitious—this is quite loud,” the prosecutor says. “When you look at some of these similar cases, that’s not how this stuff is done at all. There’s a real sloppiness here.”
Regardless of the outcome, experts agree this case illustrates how unprepared most government officials and law enforcement personnel in the nation’s capital are to confront a possible counterintelligence operation—even though the FBI estimates that there are more than 100 foreign intelligence agencies operating in the United States, from allies and adversaries alike.
“The vast majority of US government and agencies are unprepared for counterintelligence,” Triplett says. “There are permissive environments in the world, and DC is definitely one of them. The number of foreign intelligence groups that are running around DC—and the US generally—is enormous. There’s all sorts of networking, influence peddling—it’s all perfect for intelligence operations.”
The fact that Secret Service, NCIS, and even DHS personnel were apparently fooled about the authenticity of Taherzadeh and Ali doesn’t actually surprise experts in the field. There’s a human tendency to accept people are who they say they are.
“Outside of the FBI and certain intelligence agencies, the average federal law enforcement agent is not trained very much on counterintelligence matters,” says the senior official. “If they are, it’s an annual mandatory training and very high-level. They’re focused on their work—not thinking about how they’re a possible target of a foreign intelligence agency. If you’re an average officer in these agencies, you’re not thinking about Iranian intelligence. Your radar is not up.”