WASHINGTON - In a move certain to escalate tensions on a number of fronts, the
United States Justice Department on Tuesday charged a dual Iranian-American
national and an alleged member of the Islamic Republic's special operations
unit of conspiring to assassinate the Saudi ambassador here.
A 21-page indictment filed in New York federal court said the two named
defendants, US-based Manssor Arbabsiar and Iran-based Gholam Shakuri, sought to
hire someone who they believed was a member of a Mexican drug cartel but who
was actually an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to carry out
the plot in exchange for US$1.5 million.
Arbabsiar, who allegedly arranged a down payment of $100,000 to the informant,
was arrested on September 29 at JFK Airport in
New York on a return flight from Mexico where he had been denied entry.
Once in custody, he cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
in making calls to his cousin and alleged co-conspirator Shakuri in Iran to
confirm and record details of the plot, which featured the bombing of a
restaurant frequented by Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, according to the
Shakuri, it alleged, is a member of Iran's Qods Force, a specialized unit of
the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which US officials have
accused of providing training, weapons and even direction to indigenous
militias that have carried out attacks against US military forces in Iraq and
"The criminal complaint unsealed today exposes a deadly plot directed by
factions of the Iranian government to assassinate a foreign ambassador on US
soil with explosives," said Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced the
The spokesman at the Iranian mission at the United Nations in New York, Alireza
Miryousefi, said his government "categorically reject[s] these baseless
While Iran specialists said they were dumbfounded by the plot and what the
regime could hope to gain from such an action, senior officials in the
administration of President Barack Obama told reporters they planned to impose
new sanctions on the regime and intensify efforts to isolate and punish it
"This really, in the minds of many diplomats and government officials, crosses
a line that Iran needs to be held to account for," Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton told the Associated Press (AP).
She added that the plot "creates a potential for international reaction that
will further isolate Iran, that will raise questions about what they're up to,
not only in the United States and Mexico".
"The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit
murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up,
right?" she was quoted as telling AP.
The indictment comes as anti-Iran hawks, who have been frustrated that the
so-called Arab Spring has pushed Tehran out of the media spotlight, are both
pressing the US Congress to impose a new round of economic sanctions against
Iran - including banning all transactions with Iran's Central Bank - and
persuading Republican presidential hopefuls to attack Obama for not pursuing a
more confrontational policy.
Tuesday's indictment will no doubt work in their favor. Indeed, Representative
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs
Committee who is also the principal author of pending sanctions legislation,
seized on the indictment to promote her cause.
"The multi-faceted threat posed by Iran becomes more severe with each passing
day," she said in a statement that cited Iran's alleged "campaign to partner
with extremist groups, drug traffickers and other outlaws based in the Western
"Tehran is actively working to attack our homeland and our allies and interests
all around the world, and we simply can't spare any more time. Responsible
nations must unite against this threat and immediately bring to bear crippling
pressure on the Iranian regime and its enablers," she said.
Elliott Abrams, a prominent neo-conservative who served as former president
George W Bush's top Middle East aide, also jumped on the announcement.
"The recklessness - is the only appropriate word - of this planned act of
terrorism in our nation's capital should teach us that the regime in Tehran
cannot be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons," he wrote on his blog at the
Council on Foreign Relations website. "If they will act this way now, how will
they act if they ever get nuclear arms?"
United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI), a hawkish group whose founders included
two key members of the Obama foreign policy team, called openly on Tuesday for
the president to "make it clear that Iran will face consequences for its
actions, including military retaliation for attacks on Americans".
Others voiced caution. "If the alleged Iranian action was aimed at provoking
the US, the Obama administration should be careful not to walk into such a
trap," noted Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
"A war with Iran would be devastating to US interests and to the people of
Iran," he added.
Parsi also noted that the alleged plot was taking place amid growing regional
tensions over the fate of the so-called Arab Spring as "Iran, the US and Saudi
Arabia are jockeying for influence throughout the region in Egypt, Lebanon, the
Palestinian Territories, Syria and elsewhere. If today's allegations are true,
this means that regional rivalries may have spilled over onto US shores," he
Among other recent events, he cited the revelation by WikiLeaks cables
suggesting that King Abdullah and al-Jubeir were pushing the US to attack Iran;
Saudi accusations that Tehran was seeking to overthrow Bahrain's Sunni royal
family and inciting the Shi'ite population in Riyadh's Eastern province; and
the assassination of nuclear scientists in Iran which Tehran has blamed on the
US and Israel.
Regional specialists here expressed bafflement over both the plot and the
"Let's suppose they succeeded in knocking off al-Jubeir who, to my mind,
doesn't have any enemies," said Thomas Lippman, a Gulf expert at the Middle
East Institute (MEI). "What would they accomplish besides infuriating the
United States and Saudi Arabia? It's been years since the Iranians were in the
business of going around and blowing people up."
Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert also based at MEI, agreed that such a plot was
neither "consistent of the typical actions of the regime", nor did it appear
that "the regime has anything strategic to gain from wanting to do this".
At the same time, he told Inter Press Service, "We've seen a number of cases
over the years where they seem to act irrationally and incompetently," as in
the case of its aborted efforts to ship weapons through Nigeria last year.
"It may be that someone in Iran is trying to undermine any potential for
rapprochement between the US and Iran," he said, noting recent clashes between
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and officials close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
over the former's more forthcoming stance on relations with the US.
"The question is, would they go so far as to try to pull something like this
off? It doesn't seem consistent with a regime that is generally very cautious
and has tended to not want to invite serious US reaction to its actions."
According to the indictment, Arbabsiar first made contact with the informant,
who pretended to be an associate of the Zetas drug cartel, in Mexico in late
May in regard to a possible attack using explosives on the Saudi Embassy in
Washington. In June and July, he held additional meetings with the informant
during which they discussed murdering the ambassador at a restaurant and
claimed that his cousin was a "big general" in the Iranian military.
At a July 17 meeting in Mexico, the informant asked about possible collateral
deaths resulting from such a bombing, to which Arbabsiar allegedly said: "They
want that guy [al-Jubeir] done, if one hundred go with him, f**k 'em."
After allegedly obtaining Shakuri's approval, Arbabsiar transferred about
$100,000 to an FBI-controlled bank account in August as a down payment on the
On September 20, the informant allegedly asked Arbabsiar to either pay one half
of the total $1.5 million price or that he personally travel to Mexico as
collateral for final payment. Arbabsiar chose the latter option, flying to
Mexico on or about September 28 where he was refused entry and returned. He was
then arrested at JFK.
The Justice Department said he confessed several hours later, telling agents
that he had been "recruited, funded and directed by men he understood to be
senior officials in Iran's Qods Force". He also admitted to meeting several
times in Iran with Shakuri and another senior Qods Force official who allegedly
approved the assassination plan.
While in custody, Arbabsiar made monitored phone calls to Shakuri, who
allegedly told him on October 5 to "just do it quickly, it's late".
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.