In a scenario that sounds like a right-wing fever dream, the Justice Department today filed a criminal complaint against two Iranian men—one a member of the nations ultra-secret Quds force, another who has dual Iranian-American citizenship—of trying to hire a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.

There are many, many strange things about this story. The upshot: The U.S. has charged Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old Iranian-American businessman, and Gholam Shakuri, an Iranian intelligence agent with the nation's Qods force, with conspiracy to murder the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. According to a criminal complaint unsealed today, Arbabsiar's unnamed cousin is an operative in the Qods force, a covert division of Iran's Revolutionary Guard that conducts terrorist attacks abroad. Arbabsiar travels to Mexico frequently for business, and in the spring of 2011, the complaint says, his cousin asked him to make contact with drug gangs who may be willing to carry out attacks for Iran.

In what is either a triumph of spycraft or a coincidence for the ages, the cartel contact that Arbabsiar happened to connect with was a rat who had been acting as a paid informant for the DEA. From that point on, the U.S. had the government of Iran on the wrong end of an international sting operation.

The Iranians wanted to pay $1.5 million to the Mexicans to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, preferably with a bomb, at his favorite restaurant in Washington. Arbabsiar wired a total of $100,000 to the informant as a down payment, and discussed the plot at length with him in person and on the phone—conversations that were all recorded. The other named defendant in the complaint, Gholam Shakuri, was one of Arbabsiar's contacts in the Qods force, who was responsible for forwarding money to Arbabsiar to pay the Mexicans.

The plot moved forward, or so the Iranians thought, all summer, with the informant convincing Arbabsiar that he had already sent a team to Washington to lay the groundwork. Last month, the FBI arrested Arbabsiar, who astonishingly cooperated with the feds. From custody, he called Shakuri in Iran to discuss the plot as FBI translators listened in, and for two weeks we had an operative of Iran's most secret intelligence agency communicating with his handler in Iran from U.S. custody.

The weird thing is that Shakuri is still in Iran and presumably beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. And Arbabsiar is cooperating. So why did the U.S. file charges now? They've already got the only guy they're going to get, and he's cooperating and providing a presumably invaluable intelligence service—so why blow it up?

One wonders if there might be a relation to the case of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who was kidnapped in Iran in 2007 and is believed to be in Iranian custody. It's hard to imagine the U.S. giving in to a prisoner exchange given the seriousness of the charges, but you never know.

[Image via Getty]