Hiring Narcos to Murder the Saudi Ambassador? If It’s True, Tehran Is Pretty Dumb

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A man enters the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, DC, on October 11, 2011. (Photo: Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images)

If Iranian government operatives really did try to contract a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., as the Obama Administration alleges today, then they weren’t just being diabolical. They were being fairly stupid.

Granted, the Zetas – the drug mafia that Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar allegedly thought he was dealing with on behalf of Tehran – are certainly Mexico’s most bloodthirsty: they are the narcos that brought beheadings and wholesale massacres of innocent civilians to the nightmarish drug war scene south of the border. But even the Zetas, founded more than a decade ago by former Mexican army commandos, know better than to venture north of the border and invite the kind of U.S. law enforcement heat that a political assassination of this magnitude would have brought on them. They’re more than willing to murder high and low inside Mexico – the Zetas are the chief suspects, for example, in last year’s assassination of Tamaulipas state gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre, and earlier this year a gang member killed a U.S. agent at a narco-roadblock in San Luis Potosí state – but they’ve rarely if ever directed that kind of mayhem inside the U.S.

And for good reason: they’ve experienced the vast difference between cops, prosecutors and judges in Mexico, whom they can buy off or kill with impunity, and the U.S. judicial system. In 2005 and 2006, for example, Zetas murdered at least five rival gangsters in Laredo, Texas, just across the border from one of their strongholds, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. A number of Zetas were arrested and prosecuted as a result and sent away to U.S. prisons – which are a lot harder to break out of than Mexican penitentiaries are, and where you can’t live the comfortable life that drug lords make for themselves inside Mexican lockups. Zeta leaders like Heriberto Lazcano, aka El Verdugo, or The Executioner, learned fairly quickly that the world across the Rio Grande was a different ballgame – and that if they didn’t want to jeopardize their lucrative drug distribution networks in the U.S., it was best to avoid bloodshed there as well.

(See “Day of the Dead: The Drug War Is Mexico’s Tragedy. Now Its Survivors Are Fighting Back”)

One of my TIME colleagues in Mexico, Ioan Grillo, whose book, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, is being published this month, agrees. “For the Zetas, political murder is done concretely to protect their own business interests inside Mexico,” Grillo told me today. “It’s just not their modus operandi to carry out political murders in the U.S.”

Had Arbabsiar actually been dealing with the Zetas – and not a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant who posed as a Zeta operative – they probably would have conveyed that reality to him fairly quickly. And they would have likely dismissed the $1.5 million that Arbabsiar allegedly offered the D.E.A. informant. Ditto for the opium the Iranians allegedly threw into the deal. The Zetas, after all, are part of a Mexican drug-trafficking, kidnapping and extortion industry that rakes in as much as $40 billion a year. To risk that kind of cash flow by carrying out a five-alarm international hit for a million and a half bucks seems a non-starter. It also seems an organization like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, for whom the Justice Department says Arbabsiar may have been working, should know better. Arbabsiar, who lives near Mexico in Corpus Christi, Texas, certainly should have been wiser.

Or perhaps Tehran has been listening to all the right-wing hysteria about Mexican drug violence spilling across the border into the U.S. The problem: for the reasons I cite above, it’s simply not true. The U.S. side of the border, in fact, is one of the safest corridors in America. According to the F.B.I., the four large U.S. cities with the lowest violent crime rates are all in border states. That’s not exactly an indication that Mexican drug gangs like the Zetas are eager to rain down bombs and bullets further north in cities like Washington, D.C., where the Saudi ambassador assassination was supposedly to have taken place.

That doesn’t mean the Zetas aren’t capable of atrocities outside of Mexico: just this year they murdered and beheaded almost 30 peasants on a ranch in northern Guatemala. But again, they commit them in the interests of their criminal business, and in drug transshipment countries like Guatemala where the police and judicial systems are just as weak as they are in Mexico.

All of those considerations may make it harder for many to believe that the alleged Iranian terror plot that the Obama Administration foiled was all that adept or serious. I’m not suggesting that a rogue regime like Iran’s isn’t capable of this kind of conspiracy; but if the charges are true, it’s a sign that the ayatollahs in Tehran are a pretty clueless bunch. And I have some advice for them: get Ioan Grillo’s book translated into Farsi as soon as you can.

MORE: The Saudi-Iranian Cold War: Is This the Future of the Middle East?