MEXICO CITY — The alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States has cast Mexico into the news as a potential staging area for a terrorist operation.
But experts say the likelihood of such a plot going undetected in Mexico by U.S. authorities is low and that Mexico's drug cartels would be unlikely to become involved.
U.S. officials alleged Tuesday that an Iranian-American and a member of Iran's al Quds Force sought to enlist a Mexican drug cartel in a plot to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al Jubeir in Washington, perhaps by bombing a restaurant he was known to frequent.
One of the men, Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, a naturalized U.S. citizen holding Iranian and U.S. passports, was said to have met in the Mexican border city of Reynosa with a Drug Enforcement Administration informant who he thought was a member of a violent drug cartel.
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The barrage of 251,287 unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks released more than a month ago suggest that American diplomats maintain a steady focus on Iran's activities in Latin America. In Mexico, that meant keeping an eye on a mosque in Torreon, watching the impact of Iran's "dynamic" new ambassador, gauging public attitudes toward Iran and coaching agents at Mexico's National Security and Investigation Center — CISEN in its Spanish initials — the domestic intelligence agency.
Strategic Forecasting Inc., an Austin, Texas, global intelligence firm commonly called Stratfor, on Wednesday described as unlikely any use of Mexico as a staging ground for a terrorist attack emanating from the Middle East.
It noted that while the U.S.-Mexico border is porous and prone to security breaches, the U.S. government has "extremely active intelligence capabilities" embedded in Mexico. It added that Mexico is generally hostile to enemies of the United States, not wanting to risk possible intervention by U.S. forces should its territory be used in any attack.
The cartels, too, have pragmatic interests in maintaining their core business of narcotics smuggling without greater interference, it added.
"Any plan to use Mexican drug cartels to carry out attacks against the United States would threaten the very existence of the cartel," a Stratfor analysis said.
"Mexican drug cartels are already facing challenges — struggling with one another and with the Mexican government for control over transportation routes that will allow them to transit cocaine from South America to the United States. Any foray into international terrorism would be bad for business," Stratfor said.
At least four U.S. diplomatic cables from 2008 and 2009 indicate how closely U.S. envoys in Mexico track Iranian activities.
One cable from Oct. 23, 2009, was sent to the State Department four days after Dennis Blair, then the director of national intelligence, met with President Felipe Calderon. The cable indicated that Calderon had brought up the issue of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his relations with Iran.
"Calderon underscored that Iran's growing influence in Latin American should be of considerable concern to the United States, and Chavez is doing all he can to aid and abet it," the cable said.
Another cable said U.S. and Israeli experts seemed pleased with the Mexican intelligence agency's abilities to keep tabs on Iranians of interest.
"Mexican authorities, especially CISEN, track potential Iranian related security concerns closely, keeping an eye out for any undesirable Iranian activities or persons," said the secret cable, dated March 6, 2009.
Another cable from early 2008 noted that Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri Abyaneh had "hit the ground running" on arrival in a bid to increase Iran's presence in Mexico. He appealed for Mexico to allow Iran to open a consulate in Tijuana, and he seemed eager to exert influence over the small Muslim community.
Despite symbolic pledges in areas such as energy cooperation, the cable said Iran wasn't finding fertile ground in Mexico for much more than cultural exchanges.
Even there, the cable said, "there is little evidence of keen appreciation among the public for a steady diet of Farsi films and artifacts that would soften the turf for its closer identification with Iranian political and diplomatic interests."
Ghadiri Abyaneh left his post in Mexico in mid-2010, and Iran has had no active ambassador in the country since then.
U.S. diplomats noted that the Mexican intelligence agency had "watch listed" Dr. Edgardo Ruben Assad, who's also known as Sheikh Soheil Assad but whose nationality is unclear, for travel to Mexico because of his possible ties to bombings in Argentina in the early 1990s.
The March 2009 cable said the Iranian Embassy was pressuring Mexico to let Assad back in the country, and it noted that the Soraya Mosque in Torreon in Coahuila, a northern state that shares a 318-mile border with Texas, had sought Assad to serve as its cultural and educational attache.
Assad's whereabouts couldn't be determined Wednesday.
After giving a rundown of multiple Iranian initiatives in Mexico, the cable summarized that the nation saw Iran's efforts "as increasingly troublesome and counterproductive to relations."
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