Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Iran was accused by the Justice Department of sponsoring a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. in a conspiracy involving a secret Iranian military unit and a citizen of the Islamic Republic with a U.S. passport.
Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, and Gholam Shakuri were charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, in this case C-4 plastic explosives, to murder Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir and attack Saudi installations in the U.S. in a plan hatched earlier this year. Targets included “foreign government facilities associated with Saudi Arabia and with another country,” the U.S. said in a complaint filed in Manhattan federal court.
The plotters, one of whom is in U.S. custody, also targeted Israel’s embassy in Washington, as well as the embassies of Israel and Saudi Arabia in Argentina, according to a federal law enforcement official familiar with the matter.
The alleged plot was “directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday. “High-up officials in those agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible.”
Iran said it “categorically” rejected the claim, which it described as an “evil plot.”
“These attitudes, which are based on the age-old and hostile policies of the American-Zionist axis, are a ridiculous show in line with a scenario that aims to divide and that emanates from enemies of the region,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said in comments reported late yesterday by the state-run Press TV news channel.
Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, said the allegations were a U.S. effort “to divert attention from the current economic and social problems at home” and uprisings against U.S.-backed dictatorial regimes abroad. His comments were made in a letter sent yesterday to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the presidents of the United Nations’ General Assembly and Security Council.
Vice President Joe Biden today described the alleged plot as “an outrageous act” that violates “the sanctity and safety” of diplomats.
“The Iranians are going to have to be held accountable,” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Asked about the possibility of additional sanctions against Iran, he said, “Nothing has been taken off the table.”
The U.S. will hold Iran responsible for any terrorist actions tied to the plot, Holder said. The State Department issued a worldwide travel alert warning Americans of the potential for “anti-U.S. actions” following the plot’s disruption.
President Barack Obama called the Saudi ambassador yesterday to express solidarity with Saudi Arabia, the White House said in a statement. Obama also attended a meeting of his national security team to thank them for their work, the White House said.
“To devise a plot to assassinate a representative of a country in a third country and to use drug barons and other such characters in order to achieve that aim is beyond description,” said Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Al-Faisal at the Oil & Money conference in London when asked about the alleged plot. “The burden of proof and the amount of evidence on the case is overwhelming and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for it. This is unacceptable and something that, in the authorities in Iran, somebody will have to pay a price.”
Like Holder, Obama called the plot “a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law,” and the president “reiterated our commitment to meet our responsibilities to ensure the security of diplomats serving in our country. He also underscored the close partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” according to the White House statement.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that foiling the plot was “a terrific achievement by our law enforcement and intelligence communities.”
‘Very Strong Message’
“We will be consulting with our friends and partners around the world about how we can send a very strong message that this kind of action, which violates international norms, must be ended, and other areas where we can cooperate more closely in order to send a strong message to Iran and further isolate it from the international community will also be considered,” she said.
Obama was briefed on the alleged plot in June, said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Arbabsiar, who has dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, conspired for several months in the murder-for-hire plot with Shakuri, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a criminal complaint unsealed yesterday.
Shakuri was an Iran-based member of that country’s “Qods Force,” the U.S. said in the complaint. Others from the Qods Force in Iran were also involved and helped bankroll the plot, which was to have cost $1.5 million, prosecutors said.
‘Covert Operations Abroad’
The U.S. State Department has described the group as an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which conducts “covert operations abroad” and has sponsored attacks against U.S. coalition forces in Iraq.
The U.S. Treasury Department in October 2007 designated the Qods Force as “having provided material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.”
While Shakuri remains at large, Arbabsiar was arrested about 8 p.m. on Sept. 29 as he departed a flight from Mexico at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, prosecutors said. He was brought yesterday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Dolinger, who ordered him held without bail.
His court-appointed lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, said he would plead not guilty and consented to detention.
Arbabsiar met on several occasions in Mexico with a confidential informant of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration posing as an associate of the Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, according to the federal law enforcement official, who declined to be identified because the official wasn’t authorized to publicly comment.
Arbabsiar told the informant that his cousin was a “big general” in Iran who focused his attention on matters “outside Iran,” prosecutors said in the complaint.
The two men also discussed killing the ambassador in a restaurant that the diplomat frequented, prosecutors said.
When the informant expressed concern that 100 to 150 people could be injured in a bombing of the restaurant, including “senators who dine there,” Arbabsiar said “no big deal,” the U.S. said in the complaint.
While the informant had been charged with a narcotics offense, the charges were dismissed in exchange for his cooperation on other unrelated drug cases, according to the complaint.
The informant pretended to have access through the Mexico drug cartel to military-grade weaponry and explosives, the U.S. said. Arbabsiar arranged to pay the informant and others to murder the Saudi ambassador, prosecutors said in the complaint.
Arbabsiar wired them $100,000 as a down payment, to be followed by installments of $10,000, prosecutors said. The DEA informant said it would cost $1.5 million to carry out the attack.
At a May 24 meeting, Arbabsiar asked about the informant’s knowledge of explosives and said he was “interested in attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia,” according to prosecutors. The informant said he was familiar with plastic explosives.
That month, the informant told agents in the DEA Houston field office about requests being made by Arbabsiar to assist in terrorist attacks in the U.S. and other countries, according to the law enforcement official.
During a July 14 meeting, Arbabsiar told the informant that his cousin in Iran had asked him to “find someone to carry out the ambassador’s assassination.”
The two men met repeatedly in June and July, according to the government. The informant said he would need four men to carry out the murder, and some of the calls and meetings were recorded by the informant, prosecutors said.
Arbabsiar had befriended the informant’s aunt while living in the area of Corpus Christi, Texas, where Arbabsiar worked as a used car salesman, the federal law enforcement official said.
He later told the informant that the primary target for the attack was the Saudi ambassador and that targets for subsequent attacks were the Israeli embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Argentina, according to the federal law enforcement official.
Arbabsiar also told the informant that the same Iranian sponsors behind the assassination plot also controlled drug smuggling and could provide tons of opium, the federal law enforcement official said.
Federal agents became aware on Sept. 28 that Arbabsiar had left Iran and had already departed on a commercial flight from Frankfurt to Mexico. Mexican authorities, working with the DEA and the FBI, denied Arbabsiar entry to Mexico. He was then placed on a commercial flight routed to New York and was arrested when the plane landed.
“Though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost,” Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller said of the alleged plot at a Justice Department press conference.
In a related action yesterday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Arbabsiar and four other Qods force officials who the U.S. said coordinated and planned the operation. Those four individuals haven’t been publicly charged with crimes by federal prosecutors in New York.
One of those sanctioned was Abdul Reza Shahlai, identified by the Treasury Department as Arbabsiar’s cousin. The Treasury Department said Shahlai also approved $5 million as payment to help recruit others for the plot and for “all operations discussed.”
After Arbabsiar was arrested and advised of his rights, he confessed to his participation in the plot, prosecutors said. He told authorities that his cousin approached him “in the early spring of 2011” while he was in Iran, and asked him to work with him on the plot.
Code Word ‘Chevrolet’
Arbabsiar used code words during the plan, and called the assassination plot “Chevrolet,” according to prosecutors.
After he was arrested, Arbabsiar agreed to phone Shakuri in Iran in calls that were monitored, the U.S. said in the criminal complaint. During the calls, Shakuri told Arbabsiar to move forward with the plot “as quickly as possible.”
Shakuri also told Arbabsiar during the call that he would consult with his superiors about whether they would be willing to pay additional money for the hit men.
Arbabsiar faces as much as life in prison if convicted of all charges against him, prosecutors said.
‘Dangerous New Territory’
“This is dangerous new territory for Iran,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “It is the latest in a series of aggressive actions -- from their nuclear program to state sponsorship of terrorism, from complicity in killing our soldiers in Iraq to now plotting hostile acts on U.S. soil. This episode underscores the need for concerted international unity to confront Iran.”
The alleged plot illustrates a trend since 2009 of “a more aggressive, more anti-American, more risk-tolerant Iranian government,” said Ken Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
At the press conference yesterday, Holder said there is no “basis to believe” any other co-conspirators are still present in the U.S.
Bharara said the ambassador’s killing wasn’t the only scheme the men intended to carry out.
“The Saudi ambassador’s assassination was allegedly intended to be merely the opening act in a series of lethal attacks cooked up by the defendants and their cohorts in Iran,” Bharara said.
The charges were brought in New York because the wiring of the $100,000 payment was made through an unidentified bank in New York, Bharara’s office said. In a statement, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, said of the alleged plot that “Iran has shown the world once again it poses an existential threat to the world community.”
The case is U.S. v. Arbabsiar, 11-mag-2617, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
To contact the reporters on this story: Patricia Hurtado in New York federal court at firstname.lastname@example.org: Seth Stern in Washington at email@example.com: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.