US & Canada

Friends' shock at 'Iran plot' suspect Manssor Arbabsiar

Manssor Arbabsiar was last week charged in connection with an alleged Iranian-backed plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to the US. Mr Arbabsiar's friends and neighbours in the small southern Texas community where he has lived for 30 years have found the news very hard to accept, as BBC Persian's Majid Joneidi discovered.

Image caption Fun-loving, friendly, with a fondness for whisky - how Manssor Arbabsiar is described by friends

Corpus Christi, in southern Texas, looks like an ideal place for a vacation in October.

A tranquil coastal city, lined with palm trees and petroleum facilities in the suburbs that remind me very much of southern Iran.

Behind this calm, however, is a sense of unease shared by the small Iranian community as well as the rest of the city.

Corpus Christi, with all its southern charm, has become the focal point of the latest terror threat in the US.

Its resident of around three decades, Manssor 'Jack' Arbabsiar, is accused of wiring $100,000 to a US bank account for an informant posing as a Mexican drug cartel member, with whom he allegedly discussed the assassination of Saudi ambassador Adel al-Jubeir on US soil.

The 56-year-old Mr Arbabsiar, a one-time car salesman with dual US-Iranian citizenship, could face a life prison sentence if convicted on all charges.

Disbelief

Both the Iranians and Americans who knew him in Corpus Christi have said they were shocked to learn about the allegations against Mr Arbabsiar.

The picture they paint of him is of a fun-loving, friendly, if careless person, who loved whisky and women - not a typical 'jihadi' or sympathiser of the Iranian government.

Friends called him 'Jack' because of his love for Jack Daniel's whisky.

Ben Mohseni, an Iranian business owner and a long-time friend, said that when he heard Mr Arbabsiar's name in the news, he initially suspected him to be a victim of identity theft.

"I said," Mr Mohseni recalled, "that may be someone had stole his passport, while he was travelling to Iran." The disbelief turned into reality when his friend's photograph was aired on TV.

Three weeks earlier, Mr Arbabsiar had excitedly called Mr Mohseni from Iran, where he had established businesses in the past few years, to tell him that he was travelling back to Texas to witness his grandchild's birth.

"We used to gather together," an emotionally-overwhelmed Mr Mohseni added. "We enjoyed his company."

Siavash Sian, another long-time friend who drove three hours from Houston to give his recollection of Mr Arbabsiar, said it is hard to believe the news.

Mr Arbabsiar was a person who was not able to say "no" to his friends and would brag about himself, Mr Sian said.

His English was not that good, Mr Sian added, suggesting "maybe that has put him into trouble" with misunderstandings in his communications with law enforcement officials.

'Careless'

Friends and business associates of Mr Arbabsiar refer to him as a "careless and disorganised" person, who frequently lost personal belongings and could not handle easy paperwork.

Mr Mohseni said: "His wife, Marta, handled his work".

Benjamin Bighamian, another Iranian who knew Mr Arbabsiar, said: "He was very forgetful. Every time he visited me he either left behind his keys, suitcase or cell phone".

A problem which, according to another friend, led to a divorce from his first wife.

Mr Bighamian attributes his friend's "carelessness" to severe injuries he sustained during an attack in the 1980s that earned him the nickname "scarface".

He was stabbed several times in a night-time fight in Houston and left to die. Mr Bighamian said he believes Mr Arbabsiar "received head trauma, which has gone unnoticed".

Mr Bighamian said, amid his disbelief, anything is possible.

"He is in a very good financial situation, he did not need to commit such an act for money," Mr Bighamian said, adding: "Jack may have been fooled."

Other fellow Iranians are more sceptical.

Mr Sian said: "He received his US citizenship only eight months ago. How would it be possible to naturalise a person who has been on the watch list for so long?"

Dan Keetch, a local car dealer, said he was "surprised to hear the news, because this is not the Jack I knew".

Mr Keetch, a southern Republican with pictures of George Bush and presidential candidate Rick Perry hanging in his office, said that in the 20-plus years he knew Mr Arbabsiar, he was a "friendly, happy, good-looking guy" who never discussed politics.

"If this (turned out) to be true, I had missed it for a long time. Because I did not see that in his character," Mr Keetch said, adding that, in the car dealership business, one becomes quite a good judge of character.

Dan Keetch also recalled that, after the 9/11 attacks, Mr Arbabsiar went to his office to tell him how sorry he felt, and said that not all Middle Easterners were like those who committed the attacks.

He added: "Jack loved Texas. Corpus Christi was his home."

Today, the small Iranian community in Corpus Christi share similar sentiments.

While leaving Mr Bighamian's office, he told me at the doorstep: "Please mention that we are all sorry for what has happened."

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