The Obama administration today gave United Nations diplomats detailed intelligence to support charges that Iran plotted to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States.
In a possible prelude to a bid for tighter sanctions, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, flanked by officials from the FBI, the CIA and the Justice and State Departments, briefed Security Council members on the evidence. Colombia’s Nestor Osorio said Rice and her Saudi counterpart provided “much more information” about how U.S. law enforcement and intelligence foiled the plot than has been reported in the media.
Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old Iranian citizen with a U.S. passport who was working as a used car salesman in Texas, and Gholam Shakuri, a member of the Quds Force Iranian military unit, were charged yesterday with conspiracy to use plastic explosives to murder Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.
Although the alleged plot was unprofessional, featuring a Drug Enforcement Administration informer, whom the Iranians thought was a member of a Mexican drug cartel, and wire transfers of money, U.S. officials are convinced that it was not a rogue operation. Instead, U.S. officials told reporters Wednesday, the plan probably was discussed and vetted at high levels in the Iranian government.
The Quds Force, with several thousand officers, is the arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for covert and special operations outside Iran, including arming and training Iraqi Shiite Muslim militias to attack U.S. troops. It’s begun playing a more prominent role in Iranian foreign policy, and its special external operations unit reports directly to Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, and to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
However, the U.S. officials said, it’s quite possible that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not know of the risky plan to murder an ambassador in a restaurant in the American capital.
The gravity of the allegations has raised the possibility the U.S. will pursue punitive measures at the world body against Iran, which is already under four rounds of UN sanctions because of its nuclear program.
“In coming days, the exchange of rhetoric will be aggressive, and Saudi Arabia will likely downgrade, or even break, relations with Iran,” Cliff Kupchan, an analyst at New York-based research firm Eurasia Group, said in an e-mail. The U.S. will “likely to seek Security Council action, measures such as financial sanctions.”
The alleged Iranian-backed plot is a “dangerous” escalation by the Islamic regime, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today in Washington, and “Iran must be held accountable” for its actions. White House press secretary Jay Carney today called it an “attempted terrorist act.”
French Ambassador Gerard Araud said the UN briefings were convincing and credible.
“Given the position and seriousness of the people who came to give us an explanation, it is not to be taken lightly,” Colombia’s Osorio told reporters today in New York.
Russia’s Vitaly Churkin sounded a more skeptical tone, saying it all looked “rather bizarre.”
The U.S. officials who spoke to reporters agreed that other operations in which the Quds Force played a role, including the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, involved much better tradecraft than did the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.
They said the wire transfers of money to the man the Iranians thought would kill the ambassador finally convinced them that the plot was real.
The alleged plot by Iran dealers to pay Mexican drug barons to kill the Saudi ambassador in a fashionable Washington restaurant sounded so far-fetched to prompt even Clinton to ask: “Nobody could make that up, right?”
Former State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley described it as “straight out of Hollywood.”
The U.S. officials said that some of the the political hardliners who’ve recently reached high positions in the Iranian government have little or no experience in the West and may have failed to understand how the U.S. and other countries would respond to the plot to kill a diplomat on foreign soil.
Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, told reporters that the U.S. accusation is “a really big lie” and it “doesn’t make sense.” He also accused the U.S. of setting a “dangerous precedent.”
“I find it hard to believe that senior officials in Iran approved this,” said Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former aide to Mideast Quartet envoy Tony Blair, the former U.K. prime minister. “However, if they did, then it suggests a degree of recklessness that is extremely worrisome, and not befitting a wannabe nuclear power.”
Separately,the U.S. imposed sanctions on Mahan Air, an Iranian commercial airline accused of “secretly ferrying operatives, weapons and funds” on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Mahan Air is “yet another facet of the IRGC’s extensive infiltration of Iran’s commercial sector to facilitate its support for terrorism,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, in an e-mailed statement.
Under the designation, U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in commercial or financial transactions with Mahan Air, and any assets it may hold under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen, the Treasury release said.
The Treasury said that the Tehran-based airline provides transportation, funds transfers and personnel travel services to the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of the IRGC.
-- With assistance from Roger Runningen and Indira Lakshmanan in Washington. Editors: John Walcott, Terry Atlas