U.S. Says Iran Tied to Failed Assassination Plot; Iran Denies ChargesManssor Arbabsiar is shown in this courtroom sketch during an appearance in a Manhattan courtroom in New York, New York on October 11, 2011. Arbabsiar, 56, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen and holds an Iranian passport, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Sept. 29. U.S. authorities broke up a plot by two men linked to the Iranian government to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington. Arbabsiar was ordered detained and assigned a public defender.Reuters
The United States accused Iran on Tuesday of backing a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, escalating tensions with Tehran and stirring up a hornet's nest in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have long jostled for power.
U.S. authorities said they had broken up a plot by two men linked to the Iranian government to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. One was arrested last month while the other was believed to be in Iran.
Iran denied the charges.
Saudi Arabia called the plot "a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions."
Revelation of the alleged plot, and the apparent direct ties to the Tehran government, had the potential to further inflame tensions in the Middle East and the United States said Tehran must be held top account.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a Reuters interview, called it a "blatant violation" of international norms. She expressed hope that countries that have hesitated to enforce existing sanctions on Iran would now "go the extra mile."
FBI Director Robert Mueller told reporters the convoluted plot, involving drug cartels in Mexico, big payments of money and an attempt to kill the ambassador in a Washington restaurant, could have been material for a Hollywood movie.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pointed to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is the guardian of Iran's 32-year-old revolution, and the Quds force, its covert, operational arm.
"High-up officials in those (Iranian) agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot," Holder said.
"I think one has to be concerned about the chilling nature of what the Iranian government attempted to do here," he said.
QUDS FORCE CONNECTION
According to the indictment, one of the alleged plotters said after his arrest that he had been recruited and directed by men he understood were senior Quds Force officials.
There are no formal diplomatic ties between the Islamic republic and Washington, which accuses Tehran of backing terrorism and pursuing nuclear arms, a charge Iran has denied.
Iran already faces a raft of tough economic sanctions and Washington slapped further economic sanctions on five Iranians including four senior members of Quds.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have likewise long been at odds. The Saudis, who see themselves as the center of the Sunni sect of Islam, have been alarmed by what they see as expansionist tendencies by majority Shi'ite Iran, whose people are primarily Persian rather than Arab.
U.S. officials said there had also been initial discussions about other alleged plots, including attacking the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, however no charges for that were revealed on Tuesday.
Rejection the allegations, Iran's state English language Press TV said:
"The Islamic Republic of Iran has rejected U.S. accusations of the country plotting to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington as a prefabricated scenario."
Last month hopes were raised of improved ties when Iran released two U.S. hikers accused of spying when they were arrested on the Iran-Iraq border in 2009. Holder said there was no link between the hikers' case and the alleged plot.
U.S. SAYS AMBASSADOR NEVER IN DANGER
U.S. officials identified the two alleged plotters as Gholam Shakuri, who is a member of the Quds force, and Manssor Arbabsiar, who was arrested on September 29 when he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport from Mexico.
Arbabsiar, 56, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen and holds an Iranian passport, initially cooperated with authorities after being arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on September 29.
He made calls to Shakuri after being arrested and acted as if the plot was still a go, court documents said.
Arbabsiar made a brief appearance in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday where he was ordered detained and assigned a public defender. He appeared in blue jeans and a dress shirt, thinning gray hair and a scar on the left side of his face.
Officials said that the Saudi ambassador, Al-Jubeir, who is close to King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz and has been in his post since 2007, was never in danger. President Barack Obama was briefed in June about the alleged plot and through a spokesman expressed gratitude for it being disrupted.
The assassination plot began to unfold in May 2011 when Arbabsiar approached an individual in Mexico to help, but that individual turned out to be an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The confidential source, who was a paid informant but not identified, immediately tipped law enforcement agents, according to the criminal complaint. Arbabsiar paid $100,000 to the informant in July and August for the plot, a down payment on the $1.5 million requested.
LIKE A "HOLLYWOOD MOVIE"
Shakuri approved the plan to kill the ambassador during telephone conversations with Arbabsiar, the complaint said.
As part of the plot, the informant talked to Arbabsiar about trying to kill the ambassador at a Washington, D.C. restaurant he frequented, but warned him that could lead to dozens of others being killed, including U.S. lawmakers.
The criminal complaint said that Arbabsiar responded "no problem" and "no big deal".
After Arbabsiar was arrested in New York, he allegedly confessed and provided U.S. authorities with more details about the Iranian government's alleged involvement, Holder said.
"This case illustrates that we live in a world where borders and boundaries are increasingly irrelevant, a world where individuals from one country sought to conspire with a drug trafficking cartel in another country to assassinate a foreign official on United States soil."
"Though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost," he said.
The men are charged with one count of conspiracy to murder a foreign official, two counts of foreign travel and use of interstate and foreign commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire and one count each of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism.
Authorities said no explosives were acquired for the plot and the weapon of mass destruction charge can range from a simple improvised device to a more significant weapon. They face up to life in prison if convicted.
October 11, 2011
The United States disrupted an Iranian-backed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, D.C., the Justice Department said Tuesday.
The stunning accusations came in a Justice Department criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday afternoon at a press conference featuring Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller and a team of Justice Department prosecutors.
The key suspect charged in the plot, a naturalized Iranian-American citizen identified as Manssor Arbabsiar, was arrested late last month at JFK Airport; a second accused conspirator named in the complaint, an alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force official identified as Gohlam Shakuri, remains at large and is believed to be in Iran. The five-count criminal complaint also refers to other unnamed conspirators in the plot and suggested they also were members of the Qods force in Iran.
In a related action, the Treasury Department on Tuesday designated Arbabsiar and four alleged Iranian Qods force members, including Shakuri, Qasem Soleimani, Hamed Abdollahi, and Arbabsiar's cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai, as being connected to the alleged assassination plot.
The alleged assassination plot targeting Saudi envoy Adel Al-Jubeir--unraveled by federal agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI--was "conceived, sponsored and was directed from Iran" Holder said in a statement Tuesday.
"The U.S. is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions."
President Obama "was first briefed on this issue in June and directed his Administration to provide all necessary support to the investigation," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told journalists by email Tuesday.
"The disruption of his plot is a significant achievement by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and the President is enormously grateful for their exceptional work."
Federal officials said the disrupt plot sought to assassinate Saudi envoy to the U.S. Adel Al-Jubeir -- possibly by being one of his favorite Washington restaurants.
It also discussed "subsequent bomb attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C.," ABC News reported on the complaint.
The case, called Operation Red Coalition, "began in May when an Iranian-American from Corpus Christi, Texas,"--Arbabsiar--"approached a DEA informant seeking the help of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador," the ABC News report on the unsealed complaint said.
But the man Arbabsiar approached who he thought to be a member of a brutal Mexican drug cartel turned out to be a confidential source for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
From May through September, Arbabsiar traveled to Mexico twice to meet with the DEA source to arrange the assassination. Arbabsiar is also accused in the complaint of having transferred $100,000 to the recruited-assassin's bank account--the down-payment on what he said would be $1.5 million paid in total after the assassination. They money was transferred from Arbabsiar's Qods-force contacts in Iran, the complaint alleges.
After he was arrested on September 29th at JFK Airport flying back from an attempted meeting with the hit man in Mexico, Arbabsiar allegedly told federal authorities that he had been recruited to organize the assassination by members of Iran's Qods Force, including his cousin, last spring. He also said that Qods force members had financed the plot.
"According to the complaint, Arbabsiar also admitted to agents that, in connection with this plot, he was recruited, funded, and directed by men he understood to be senior officials in Iran's Qods Force," the FBI press release said.
"Arbabsiar allegedly told agents that his cousin,"--identified by the Treasury Department as Abdul Reza Shahlai''""s a senior IRGC-[Qods Force] official and deputy to [Shakuri], who he had long understood to be a senior member of the Qods Force, had approached him in the early spring of 2011 about recruiting narco-traffickers to kidnap the Ambassador," the FBI document states.
"Arbabsiar told agents that he then met with the [confidential source] CS-1 in Mexico and discussed assassinating the Ambassador," the FBI document said. "According to the complaint, Arbabsiar said that, afterwards, he met several times in Iran with Shakuri and another senior Qods Force official, where he explained that the plan was to blow up a restaurant in the United States frequented by the Ambassador and that numerous bystanders could be killed, according to the complaint. The plan was allegedly approved by these officials."
The United States has previously accused the Qods Force of sponsoring militant attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran on Tuesday denied the American accusations.
Middle East experts noted that alleged plot emerges in the context of heightened tensions and competition for regional influence between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shiite Iran in the midst of the tumultuous Arab awakening uprisings.
"This alleged terror plot takes place at a time when tensions in the Middle East have reached a boiling point," Trita Parsi, with the National Iranian American Council said in a statement Tuesday. "If today's allegations are true, this means that regional rivalries may have spilled over onto U.S. shores."
The Saudi King sent a private letter to President Obama in September hand-delivered by Saudi ambassador al-Jubeir, who has been frequently absent from Washington much of that month. U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon traveled to meet with the Saudi King in Riyadh earlier this month.