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Iranian spies infiltrate Washington

Monday - 3/26/2012, 11:23am  ET

Cafe-Milano512.jpg
Georgetown's stylish Café Milano restaurant is strongly believed to have been the intended scene of an assassination attempt on the life of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. (WTOP/J.J. Green)

Iranians after 'everything they can get'

J.J. Green, WTOP national security correspondent

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Iranian operatives on the cocktail circuit

WTOP's J.J. Green reports

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Information collection the goal

WTOP's J.J. Green reports

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J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Lunchtime at trendy Washington power lunch spots and weekends and evenings at lively night clubs may never be the same.

On Sept. 28, 2011, the FBI shut down an alleged plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to the United States with explosives. The Department of Justice says the alleged scheme was directed by elements of the Iranian government.

While never publicly acknowledged by U.S. officials, Georgetown's stylish Café Milano restaurant is strongly believed to have been the intended scene of an assassination attempt on the life of Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, while he lunched there.

One of two suspects, Mansour Arbabsiar, 56, is in custody pending trial in federal court in Manhattan. No trial date has been set as pretrial litigation continues. A U.S. official confirms the other suspect, Gholam Shakuri, an Iran-based member of Iran's Quds Force, remains at large in Iran.

The alleged plot -- clumsy, but aggressive -- has exposed a trail of Iranian operations in Washington that were running seamlessly out of the public's view.

"I think it's a given that the Iranians are operating assets inside the Beltway for the purpose of intelligence collection," says Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor.

The bumbling nature of the assassination plot was telling. Arbabsiar, a used car salesman from Texas, went to Mexico City to find a hit man to carry out the assassination in Washington. It turned out the hit man was an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration asset. Despite the blunder, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee, says Iran's spies are very forward-leaning.

"They're well-trained. They're trained by the former Soviet Union and Russian intelligence. So they've got state of the art training," Rogers says.

He says Iranian spies are seeking "U.S. government secrets, military secrets, (and they want to) try to recruit Americans to spy for the Iranians."

A U.S. official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the situation, said, "The poor planning in the Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. suggests that Tehran's network in our country is not as sophisticated or extensive as elsewhere in the world. But the intent to do harm on our soil is clearly there, and we need to keep our guard up."

The alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador suggests a change in Tehran's calculus about how to react to perceived threats to the regime.

Iran's U.S. diplomatic and official presence is restricted to their U.N. mission in New York, but they've allegedly come up with some creative ways to spy in Washington.

A former law enforcement source says they are likely working "the diplomatic cocktail scene in Washington."

The source also says, "Not only are official corridors of Washington their targets, but the Chinatown, Adams Morgan, and U Street neighborhoods, among others, are likely being probed for young idealistic political professionals willing to divulge information about the U.S."

"Journalists, inside the Beltway companies associated with the Department of Defense and CIA are of interest to them," Burton says.

But while they may be looking to snag the rare American willing to become an Iranian spy, he says they're more interested in foreign nationals.

Experts say Iran's interest in collecting information and promoting disinformation may be important, but the alleged assassination plot suggests they're not shy about using murder to settle scores.

Burton, a former U.S. State Department counterterrorism agent, says, "Iran has never been afraid of using assassination as a tool of foreign policy."

He cites the July 22, 1980 murder of Ali Akbar Tabatabai in Bethesda, Md., near Montgomery Mall as proof.

Tabatabai, a former member of the Shah of Iran's regime living in exile in the U.S., was gunned down at his home by an assassin dressed as a mailman. Burton says the man posing as the mail carrier was Dawud Salahuddin (known then as David Belfield).

According to a 2002 article in The New Yorker magazine, Salahuddin, who worked at the Iranian office in Washington as a security guard, first attempted to convince his Iranian employers to let him kill a more prominent American target, such as Henry Kissinger or Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. - a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Eventually Tabatabai was chosen. After the shooting, Salahuddin escaped and lives in Iran today.

Those events confirm what U.S. intelligence insiders know all too well. Iranian spies are in Washington and they have help.

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