US busts Iran plot to murder Saudi ambassador
WASHINGTON – Agence France-Presse
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) announce a plot was foiled involving men allegedly linked to the Iranian government to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. AFP PhotoTensions ran high on Wednesday after the United States said it had foiled a high-level Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington and warned it would hold Tehran accountable
In an explosive twist to the bitter showdown with the Islamic Republic, the Justice Department on Tuesday charged two men with conspiring with Iranian government factions to blow up Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir on US soil.
The New York Times cited an unnamed law enforcement official as saying the plot also included plans to pay a notorious Mexican drug cartel to bomb the Israeli embassy in Washington and the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Argentina.
US Attorney General Eric Holder said the "conspiracy was conceived, sponsored and directed from Iran and constitutes a flagrant violation of US and international law." "In addition to holding these individual conspirators accountable for their alleged role in this plot, the United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions." A criminal complaint named Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, a naturalized US citizen holding Iranian and US passports, and Gholam Shakuri, an Iran-based member of the Quds Force, a unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Shakuri remains at large while Arbabsiar was arrested on September 29 at New York's John F. Kennedy airport and appeared in court Tuesday in Manhattan.
His lawyer said he would plead not guilty, if charged.
The alleged attempt, dubbed a "Hollywood" scenario by one top US official, was broken open by a paid US source posing as a member of a "violent" Mexico-based drug cartel known for "numerous" assassinations and murders.
The defendants believed the cartel would provide explosives for an attack on the ambassador, according to the complaint.
Mexico said it cooperated closely with the US investigation and said Arbabsiar was arrested after he was denied entry to the country and sent away on a flight to New York, where he was arrested by US authorities.
The allegations promise to aggravate already tense relations between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program, its hardline rhetoric towards Israel and its support for militant groups in the Middle East.
An aide to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the allegations as a "prefabricated scenario" designed to "turn public attention away from domestic problems within the United States." In a formal complaint lodged with the United Nations, Iran called the allegations an "evil plot" and accused the United States and Israel of engineering the murder of Iranian nuclear scientists.
But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would consult its allies about how to "further isolate" Iran.
And the State Department said the alleged plot "may indicate a more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries, to include possible attacks on the United States." News of the plot will also sow even deeper distrust between fierce Gulf antagonists Iran and Saudi Arabia, which called the plot a "despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions." Holder said the plot against Jubeir, known as Saudi King Abdullah's closest adviser on foreign affairs, was directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government, and specifically senior members of the Quds Force.
The Treasury Department froze US assets of Shakuri and Arbabsiar, and three others -- Qasem Soleimani, Hamed Abdollahi and Abdul Reza Shahlai -- who it said were senior Quds Force officers involved in the case.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said the plot was disrupted before anyone was in imminent danger or explosives were bought, but could have caused carnage.
"Though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost," Mueller said.
The Justice Department said the plot was infiltrated partly by a US Drug Enforcement Agency agent posing as a member of the cartel.
Holder alleged that in a series of meetings, Arbabsiar set up an international conspiracy by the Iranian government to pay the cartel $1.5 million to murder the ambassador.
Arbabsiar -- with Shakuri's approval -- then facilitated the wiring of approximately $100,000 into a US bank account as a down payment for the assassination attempt, the complaint said.
The Justice Department said Arbabsiar had confessed and provided testimony about the role of Iranian government elements.
Preet Bharara, US attorney for the southern district of New York, said the plot was "chilling" and alleged the confidential source named in the complaint had told one of the defendants an attack could take place in a restaurant holding up to 150 people. The defendant apparently answered "no big deal