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U.S.: Iranians Paid Others To Kill Saudi Diplomat

<p>The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, speaks to the press in Annapolis, Md., in 2007. The U.S. government said Tuesday that elements in the Iranian military plotted to kill the ambassador.</p>
Nicholas Kamm
AFP/Getty Images

The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, speaks to the press in Annapolis, Md., in 2007. The U.S. government said Tuesday that elements in the Iranian military plotted to kill the ambassador.

The Justice Department said Tuesday it had foiled a plot directed by elements in the Iranian government who sought to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S.

Attorney General Eric Holder said two men, Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri, have been accused in connection with the alleged plot. Authorities said they had planned a bombing to kill the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir.

Holder, speaking at a news conference along with FBI Director Robert Mueller, said the plot was "directed and approved" by senior members of Quds Force, which is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iranian military.

"High-up officials in those agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot," Holder said.

Holder said the plot "constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, including a convention that explicitly protects diplomats from being harmed.

"The United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions," he said.

One Suspect Arrested; One At Large

Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who also holds an Iranian passport, has been in custody since Sept. 29, while Shakuri remains at large and is believed to be in the Middle East, authorities said.

The two men are charged with conspiracy to murder a foreign official, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, and conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism, among other charges.

Arbabsiar allegedly met on a number of occasions in Mexico with a DEA confidential source who has posed as an associate of a violent international drug trafficking cartel.

According to the complaint, Arbabsiar arranged to hire the source to carry out the assassination. Arbabsiar allegedly arranged a down payment of approximately $100,000 on a $1.5 million contract to be wired into a U.S. bank account. The assassination was to have taken place in the United States.

After The Embassy, Other Missions Planned

The Justice Department said that on May 24, 2011, Arbabsiar asked the confidential source — identified in the complaint as "CS-1" — about the possibility of using explosives in the attack. CS-1 responded "that he was knowledgeable with respect to C-4 explosives," the department said.

Then, in June and July, Arbabsiar returned to Mexico to meet with CS-1. In those sessions, it said, Arbabsiar told the source "that his associates in Iran had discussed a number of violent missions for CS-1 and his associates to perform, including the murder of the Ambassador."

The United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions.

During a July 17 meeting, the department said, CS-1 said an accomplice had traveled to Washington to begin planning the assassination. One potential plan, he said, involved bombing a restaurant frequented by the ambassador.

"When CS-1 noted that others could be killed in the attack, including U.S. senators who dine at the restaurant, Arbabsiar allegedly dismissed these concerns as 'no big deal,'" the department said.

A Sense Of Urgency

After Arbabsiar was apprehended, law enforcement officials had him call Shakuri in Iran, while agents monitored the line.

During those phone calls in early October, officials say, Shakuri again confirmed that Arbabsiar should move forward with the plot to kill the Saudi diplomat — and he seemed to be in a hurry.

Officials say that in a call Oct. 5, Shakuri said to "[j]ust do it quickly, it's late..." Shakuri also told Arbabsiar that he would ask "his superiors about whether they would be willing to pay CS-1 additional money," according to the Justice Department.

Possible Motivations Behind The Plot

It remains unclear how many people in Iran's leadership may have known about the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador. And while the motive may have been simply to provoke the United States, the method allegedly chosen is an unusual one, according to counter-terrrorism expert Richard Clarke, a top White House adviser in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Saying that the factions who would hatch such a scheme were "looking for a fight," Clarke tells NPR's Guy Raz that "there may be elements inside Iran that think it would be good for them, in terms of domestic politics, for there to be a fight with the United States."

While such a conflict would likely cause many Iranians to support their country's cause, Clarke calls the operation to kill a Saudi diplomat, as described by the Justice Department, "a really strange plot."

Saying that Iran's covert agents "are very professional," Clarke says that it would be very unusual for them "to hire some Mexican drug gang so indirectly."

Clarke also said that if true, the plot to kill a high-level foreign official on U.S. soil "would cross a red line that hasn't been crossed in 30 years."

Reactions To News Of The Alleged Plot

A spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the allegations "a fabrication" and "a child's story."

Tuesday afternoon, the Saudi embassy in Washington released a statement about the attacks. It reads:

The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia would like to express its appreciation to the responsible agencies of the United States government for preventing a criminal act from taking place. The attempted plot is a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions and is not in accord with the principles of humanity.

Mueller said many lives could have been lost if a plot to kill the ambassador with bombs had been carried out in the U.S.

"We will not let other countries use our soil as their battleground," said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

Holder said the U.S. government would be taking action against the Iranian government as early as Tuesday, but declined specifics.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is preparing new penalties against Iran in the wake of the plot.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Clinton said the Treasury Department soon would put more people under sanctions. She also predicted the plot would further isolate Iran in the global community.

This story contains material from The Associated Press

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.