WASHINGTON — The United States accused Iranian government agents Tuesday of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States and immediately used the thwarted plot to ratchet up sanctions and recruit international allies to try to further isolate Tehran.
Two men, including a member of Iran's special foreign actions unit known as the Quds Force, were charged in New York federal court with conspiring to kill the Saudi diplomat, Adel Al-Jubeir. Justice Department officials say the men tried to hire a purported member of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the assassination with a bomb attack while Al-Jubeir dined at his favorite restaurant.
"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?" Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Clinton said the United States would use the case as leverage with other countries that have been reluctant to apply harsh sanctions or penalties against Iran. Clinton said she and President Barack Obama called world leaders to tell them of the developments.
"This really, in the minds of many diplomats and government officials, crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for," Clinton said. She said she and Obama want to "enlist more countries in working together against what is becoming a clearer and clearer threat" from Iran.
The U.S. criminal complaint said the Iranian plotters hired a would-be assassin in Mexico who was a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and told U.S. authorities all about their plot, which they code-named "Chevrolet."
FBI Director Robert Mueller said many lives could have been lost. But Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said no explosives were placed and no one was in any danger because of the informant's cooperation with authorities.
Attorney General Eric Holder, appearing at a news conference with Mueller and Bharara, declared, "The United States is committed to holding Iran responsible for its actions."
Shortly afterward, the Treasury Department announced economic penalties against Arbabsiar and four Quds Force officers it says were involved.
Asked whether the plot was blessed by the very top echelons of the Iranian government, Holder said the Justice Department was not making that accusation. But he said the conspiracy was conceived, sponsored and directed from Tehran. The U.S. describes the Quds Force as Iran's primary foreign action arm for supporting terrorists and extremists around the world.
Iran's U.N. ambassador on Tuesday voiced outrage and complained of politically motivated "warmongering" by the U.S.
"The Iranian nation seeks a world free from terrorism and considers the current U.S. warmongering and propaganda machine against Iran as a threat not just against itself but to the peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region," Iranian U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee said in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
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."
Late Tuesday, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert to Americans living and traveling abroad, urging citizens to be cautious.
The alleged target was Al-Jubeir, a commoner educated at North Texas University and Georgetown who was foreign affairs adviser to Saudi King Abdullah when he was crown prince. A month after the 2001 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 Arab hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, Abdullah sent al-Jubeir to the United States to rebuild Saudi Arabia's image in the United States. He was appointed ambassador in 2007.
Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are the Middle East's two most powerful countries and have long vied for power and influence across the region. Saudi Arabia and other countries like Bahrain have accused Iran of trying to create dissent in their countries this year, during democracy movements across the region.View complaint in alleged plot to kill Saudi ambassador (PDF)
Obama called the Saudi ambassador and expressed solidarity with the kingdom, the White House said.
"President Obama underscored that the United States believes this plot to be a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, and reiterated our commitment to meet our responsibilities to ensure the security of diplomats serving in our country," the White House said in a statement.
The Saudi Embassy said in a statement that it appreciated the U.S. efforts to prevent the crime. "The attempted plot is a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions and is not in accord with the principles of humanity," the statement read.
Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old U.S. citizen who also holds an Iranian passport, was charged along with Gholam Shakuri, who authorities said was a Quds Force member and remains at large in Iran. The Treasury Department listed addresses for Arbabsiar in two Texas cities — the Austin suburb of Round Rock and the Gulf city of Corpus Christi — and prosecutors say he frequently traveled to Mexico for business.
The complaint filed in federal court says Arbabsiar confessed that his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai was a high-ranking member of the Quds Force who told him to hire someone in the narcotics business to target Al-Jubeir. U.S. authorities described Shakuri as Shahlai's deputy who helped provide funding for the plot. Shahlai was identified by the Treasury Department in 2008, during George W. Bush's administration, as a Quds deputy commander who planned the Jan. 20, 2007, attack in Karbala, Iraq, that killed five American soldiers and wounded three others.
Arbabsiar, Shakuri, Shahlai and two others — Qasem Soleimani, a Quds commander who allegedly oversaw the plot, and Hamed Abdollahi, a senior Quds officer who helped coordinate — were sanctioned Tuesday by the Treasury Department for their alleged involvement. The department described all except Arbabsiar as Quds officers.
A senior U.S. official told NBC News that U.S. intelligence has a "high degree" of confidence that the "Quds Force at the highest levels" was involved in the alleged plot and that this was not some "rogue operation."
The complaint alleges that early this year Arbabsiar approached the DEA informant, who he believed was associated with a well-known Mexican drug cartel with access to military-grade weapons and explosives and had a history of assassinations.
Justice Department officials say Arbabsiar initially asked the informant about his knowledge of plastic explosives for a plot to blow up a Saudi embassy. But through subsequent meetings in Mexico over the past six months in which they spoke English, secretly recorded for U.S. authorities, Arbabsiar offered $1.5 million for the death of the ambassador. He eventually wired nearly $100,000 to an account number that the informant provided, authorities said.Ties to attack on U.S. troops in Iraq
The DEA informant is no stranger to criminal activity; the criminal complaint reveals he was charged with violating drug laws in the United States but the charges were dismissed when the informant cooperated with several drug investigations. The complaint said the informant has continued to provide reliable information that has led to numerous drug seizures and is paid for his work.
According to transcripts of their recorded conversations cited in the complaint, the informant told Arbabsiar he would kill the ambassador however he wanted — "blow him up or shoot him" — and Arbabsiar responded he should use whatever method is easiest. The plot eventually centered on targeting Al-Jubeir in his favorite restaurant and Arbabsiar was quoted as saying killing him alone would be better, "but sometime, you know, you have no choice." Arbabsiar dismisses the possibility that 100-150 others in the restaurant could be killed along with the ambassador as "no problem" and "no big deal."
Arbabsiar was arrested Sept. 29 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and was ordered held without bail during his brief first court appearance Thursday afternoon. Prosecutors said he faces up to life in prison if convicted.
The complaint said that after his arrest, Arbabsiar made several calls to Shakuri in which they discussed the purchase of their "Chevrolet," and Shakuri urged Arbabsiar to "just do it quickly."
In 2001, Arbabsiar was booked into Texas' Nueces County Jail on a charge of check fraud that was later dismissed for lack of evidence. He was also arrested in Nueces County in 1993, 1996 and 1997 on traffic violations, records show.
Members of Congress were quick to condemn Iran over the plot. Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul said if it was indeed sponsored by the Iranian government, "this would constitute an act of war not only against the Saudis and Israelis but against the United States as well."
"This is dangerous new territory for Iran," said Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. "It is the latest in a series of aggressive actions — from their nuclear program to state sponsorship of terrorism, from complicity in killing our soldiers in Iraq to now plotting hostile acts on U.S. soil."
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski and Michelle Acevedo, as well as the Associated Press and Reuters, contributed to this report.