May 30 (Bloomberg) -- Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American used-car salesman, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring with members of the Iranian military to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. with a bomb.
U.S. District Judge John Keenan in Manhattan said today that a shorter term wouldn’t reflect the seriousness of the crime. The bombing, which was to have taken place in a Washington restaurant, would have inflicted “mass casualties” had it been carried out, the judge said.
Prosecutors in the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan said Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri, who the U.S. said was a member of Iran’s Qods Force, hired a man who identified himself as a member of a Mexican drug cartel to kill Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir. The man they approached to be their assassin was an undercover informant for the U.S., prosecutors said.
Keenan noted that when Arbabsiar, 58, was informed by a co-defendant that 100 to 150 people, including U.S. senators, would be in the restaurant at the time of the attack, he replied: “No problem” and “No big deal.”
“He fully realized that this act would likely result in mass casualties,” Keenan said. “Nothing in the record before me warrants a sentence of less than 25 years.”
Arbabsiar confessed after he was arrested and agreed to make calls on behalf of the U.S. before he abruptly stopped cooperating, according to Keenan, who said the defendant was also to have benefitted financially from the plot. Arbabsiar said he agreed to pay $1.5 million for the killing and to arrange down payments for the murder, the government said.
“In a case like this, deterrence is of supreme importance,” the judge said. “Others who might have financial or political purposes in engaging in acts of violence against the United States or its interest must learn the lesson that such conduct will not be tolerated.”
The U.S. State Department has described the Qods Force as an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Arbabsiar was recruited by his cousin, a high-ranking member of the Qods Force in Iran, prosecutors said. The plan to assassinate the ambassador was a “priority” of the group because of the number of other people who would be killed, the U.S. alleged.
Qods Force members helped to bankroll the plot, prosecutors said. The group, designated as a terrorist supporter by the U.S. Treasury Department, conducts covert operations including terrorist attacks, assassinations and kidnappings outside of Iran, prosecutors allege.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, Arbabsiar sold used cars in Texas, where his wife and son still live. He said he came to the U.S. and studied mechanical engineering in Louisiana.
He pleaded guilty in October to traveling in the commission of a murder-for-hire plot, conspiring to commit a murder for hire and conspiring to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries. Today in court he apologized to Keenan.
“Whatever I did wrong, I take responsibility for it. I can’t change what I did. I have a good heart. I never hurt anyone,” Arbabsiar said. “I know you have to punish me for the things I did wrong. I respect that and hopefully one day I can go home and see my son and my family.”
He could have faced life in prison had he been convicted after trial, the judge said during the October plea hearing. His lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, who had asked for a 10-year term, today asked for leniency.
“Mr. Arbabsiar most certainly takes responsibility for his conduct here,” Shroff said. “He recognizes fully the import of what it is that could have happened,” she said. “I hope the court is able to sense his true remorse and his hopes.”
While Shroff’s sentencing memo wasn’t filed publicly, prosecutors said the defense argued that Arbabsiar suffers from bipolar disorder, which contributed to his willingness to join in the assassination plot. A psychiatrist working for the government disagreed with that diagnosis.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Glen Kopp today cited a report by probation officials recommending a 25-year prison sentence.
“The defendant’s participation in the instant offense and his disdain for the lives of potential innocent victims is disturbing,” Kopp said. “While we do not believe any mental health issues led him down this path, his motivation to involve himself in such a horrific crime is unclear.”
Arbabsiar admitted that he wired more than $100,000 into the country as part of the plot. The funds went through a bank in New York. Keenan today also ordered him to forfeit $125,000 he made as a result of the plot.
Arbabsiar also traveled to Mexico from Iran and met and recruited the would-be assassin, prosecutors said. The U.S. secretly recorded some of the conversations in which Arbabsiar told the undercover source that a relative of his in the Iranian military wanted the Saudi ambassador killed.
“Kill is better,” Arbabsiar said in a July 2011 conversation, according to a court filing. “This is politics, OK, it’s not like, eh, personal. This is politics, so these people, they pay.”
When the case was first announced in 2011, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. would hold Iran responsible for any terrorist actions tied to the plot, which he said was sponsored by the Iranian government. He called the conspiracy a “flagrant” violation of international law.
The case is U.S. v. Arbabsiar, 11-cr-00897, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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