U.S. officials on Tuesday accused elements of the Iranian government of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, allegations that aggravated the tense relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic.
The Justice Department unsealed charges against two Iranians — one of them a U.S. citizen — accusing them of orchestrating an elaborate murder-for-hire plot that targeted Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi envoy to Washington and a key adviser to King Abdullah. The Iranians planned to employ Mexican drug traffickers to kill Jubeir with a bomb as he ate at a restaurant, U.S. officials said.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that “the United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions,” but other officials indicated that it was not yet clear who in the Iranian government was behind the alleged plot.
“There’s a question of how high up did it go,” said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House thinking. “The Iranian government has a responsibility to explain that.”
Federal authorities said they foiled the plan because the Iranian American, Mansour Arbabsiar, happened to hire a paid informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration to carry it out. Arbabsiar, 56, was arrested Sept. 29 in New York and later implicated Iranian officials in Tehran in directing the plot, U.S. officials said.
In addition to Jubeir, officials said, the plot envisioned later striking other targets in the United States and abroad, including a Saudi embassy, though those plans appeared preliminary at best. Arbabsiar has acknowledged that he was recruited and funded by men he understood to be senior officers in the Quds Force, an elite division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for foreign operations, court documents say.
An Iran-based member of that force, Gholam Shakuri, is also charged in federal court in New York with conspiracy to murder a foreign official and to commit an act of international terrorism, along with other counts.
The Iranian government denied the accusations, calling them a new round of “American propaganda” and saying they were fabricated to divert attention from U.S. economic troubles and the Occupy Wall Street protests.
“The U.S. government and the CIA have very good experience in making up film scripts,” Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said in Tehran. “It appears that this new scenario is for diverting the U.S. public opinion from internal crises.”
Ali Larijani, Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator and current head of parliament, described the U.S. allegations Wednesday as “silly and mischievous.” He told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency: “They made noises that they arrested those who wanted to bomb the Saudi Embassy. Foolish words that, by using expanded media coverage, were clearly meant to cover up their internal problems.” He added: “We have normal relations with the Saudis. There is no reason that Iran wants to do these childish things they accuse us of.”
Quick U.S. reaction
The Treasury Department also announced financial sanctions against Shakuri, three other Quds Force officials and Arbabsiar, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration would work with allies to devise more actions to isolate the Islamic Republic.
The State Department also issued a worldwide travel alert for U.S. citizens over the suspected Iranian plot.
“The U.S. government assesses that this Iranian-backed plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador may indicate a more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries, to include possible attacks in the United States,” the department said in a statement on its Web site. The travel alert expires Jan. 11, 2012.
Arbabsiar appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and was ordered held without bail in a proceeding that did not require him to enter a plea. His court-appointed attorney, Sabrina Shroff, said outside the court that he would plead not guilty, Bloomberg News reported. Shakuri remains at large in Iran.
Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia are longtime rivals for regional dominance, a contest that moved into high gear with the U.S. elimination of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as a powerful buffer between them and began to play out in proxy battles in Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.
But some specialists on Iran expressed skepticism that the Islamic Republic would resort to killing a prominent Saudi official — a virtual act of war against that country — in the U.S. capital.