Image: Manssor Arbabsiar is seen in a 2001 booking photo after he was charged for check fraud.
.  /  Nueces County Sheriff
Manssor Arbabsiar, seen in a 2001 booking photo after he was charged for check fraud, is one of two suspects in the alleged plot.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/12/2011 12:41:27 PM ET 2011-10-12T16:41:27

Senior U.S. politicians and a Saudia Arabian prince called Wednesday for Iran to be held accountable for an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

A diplomat told Reuters that the U.S. and Saudia Arabia were considering taking the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

House Speaker John Boehner told reporters that the plot was "a very serious breach of international behavior."

Speaking of the Iranian government, Boehner said the U.S. should "hold their feet to the fire."

However, he added, "I don't think I need to be specific in terms of what the administration could or should do."

Video: Clinton: Iran’s ‘dangerous escalation’ (on this page)

U.S. authorities said Tuesday they had broken up plans by two men linked to Iran's security agencies to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in Washington. They said it was foiled when the men tried to hire a hitman — a U.S. informant who was posing as a member of a Mexican drug cartel — to kill the diplomat with a bomb.

One suspect was arrested last month while the other is believed to be in Iran.

Story: Alleged plot may signal ominous turn by Iran regime

The motive for the alleged plot was not clear. Iran has in the past assassinated its own dissidents abroad, but an attempt to kill an ambassador would be a highly unusual departure.

U.S. officials said Wednesday it was "more than likely'' that Iran's supreme leader and the head of its Quds force knew of the alleged plot. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said it was quite possible that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did not know of the alleged plan.

Iran's supreme leader is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

'Childish and amateur game'
Iran has strongly denied the allegation.

Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, echoing Iran's official stance, said the allegation was a "mischievous, foolish" attempt to fuel tension between Tehran and Riyadh.

"These claims are vulgar ... It is a childish and amateur game ... We believe that our neighbors in the region are very well aware that America is using this story to ruin our relationship with Saudi Arabia," Larijani told parliament Wednesday in a speech broadcast live on state radio.

View complaint in alleged plot to kill Saudi ambassador (PDF)

However, the Saudi prince, Turki al-Faisal, a senior member of the royal family and a former ambassador to Washington, said in London Wednesday that he had no doubt Iran was behind the plot.

"The burden of proof is overwhelming... and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this," he said. "Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price."

Vice President Joe Biden echoed those hawkish sentiments, telling ABC News that Iran would be held accountable.

He said Washington was working for a new round of international sanctions against Iran, warning that "nothing has been taken off the table."

Image: Saudi ambassador
Nicholas Kamm  /  AFP - Getty Images
Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir was the target of an alleged plot by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the U.S. said Tuesday.

A Western diplomat told Reuters Wednesday that the United States was talking to Saudi Arabia and other allies about the matter.

"The United States and Saudi Arabia and other allies are discussing the possibility of taking this to the Security Council because this is an assault on a foreign diplomat in the U.S.," said the diplomat, who is familiar with such discussions.

The diplomat said formal talks were likely to begin on Wednesday but did not say whether any party would seek a resolution, sanctions or any other action.

"The U.S. is taking this very seriously," the diplomatic source said.

Military confrontation looms?
Iranian analyst Saaed Leylaz said it was hard to see why Iran would risk involving itself in such a plot.

"Killing the Saudi envoy in America has no benefit for Iran," he said. "The consequences of this plot are dangerous ... It could cause military confrontation in 2012 between Iran and America."

Ties to attack on U.S. troops in Iraq

The Obama administration has already begun its effort to further isolate Iran internationally by instructing U.S. diplomats abroad to tell their host governments about the plot. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was to individually brief members of the Security Council on Wednesday.

U.S. officials said the State Department had sent a cable classified as "secret" to all American embassies and consulates around the world telling them to put the case against Iran before foreign authorities.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the classified cable, said the document asks nations to consider appropriate steps in response to the alleged scheme, which has been described by President Barack Obama as "a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law." It does not, however, suggest any specific measures, the officials said.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, are regional rivals. The United States and other powers are putting pressure on Iran to abandon a nuclear program which they believe is aimed at developing nuclear arms. Iran has denied having such ambitions.

Interactive: Assassination plot (on this page)

However countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel have feared that Washington could take its eye off the ball on Iran. U.S. diplomatic cables from Riyadh leaked by Wikileaks over the past year — in which Jubeir features prominently — show Riyadh repeatedly pushing the United States to take a tougher stand, including the possible use of military force.

Tensions rose between Riyadh and Tehran when Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain put down pro-democracy protests let by the island state's Shiite majority that both governments accused Iran, a non-Arab Shiite state, of fomenting.

This month Riyadh accused some among its Shiite Muslim minority of conspiring with a foreign power — a reference to Iran — to cause instability, following street clashes in the Eastern Province.

Global travel alert
The State Department issued a three-month worldwide travel alert for American citizens, warning of the potential for anti-U.S. action, including within the United States.

"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," it said in a statement.

At a news conference Tuesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller said a convoluted plot involving monitored international calls, Mexican drug money and an attempt to blow up the ambassador in a Washington restaurant smacked of a Hollywood movie.

Attorney-General Eric Holder tied it to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), guardian of Iran's 1979 revolution, and the Quds Force, its covert, operational arm.

"I think one has to be concerned about the chilling nature of what the Iranian government attempted to do here," he said.

The primary evidence linking Iran to the alleged conspiracy is that the arrested suspect is said to have told U.S. law enforcement agents that he had been recruited and directed by men he understood were senior Quds Force officials.

U.S. officials identified the two alleged plotters as Gholam Shakuri, said to be a member of the Quds Force, who is believed to be at large in Iran, and Manssor Arbabsiar, who was arrested on September 29 when he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport from Mexico.

Detained man 'no mastermind'
Arbabsiar, 56, a naturalized U.S. citizen with an Iranian passport, initially cooperated with authorities after being arrested with help from the informant. He made calls to Shakuri after being arrested and acted as if the plot was still a go, court documents said.

As part of the plot, the informant talked to Arbabsiar about trying to kill the ambassador at a Washington, D.C. restaurant he frequented, but warned him that could lead to dozens of others being killed, including U.S. lawmakers.

The criminal complaint said that Arbabsiar responded "no problem" and "no big deal."

In a monitored call, Shakuri told Arbabsiar to execute the plot, saying "just do it quickly, it's late," court papers say.

Arbabsiar appeared briefly in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday where he was ordered detained and assigned a public defender. He appeared in blue jeans and a dress shirt, with thinning gray hair and a scar on the left side of his face.

A friend and one-time business partner of Arbabsiar, David Tomscha, said Arbabsiar, known as Jack to his friends, made an unlikely secret agent.

Tomscha said Arbabsiar was likeable, but a bit lazy and " no mastermind."

"I can't imagine him thinking up a plan like that. I mean, he didn't seem all that political. He was more of a businessman ... He was sort of a hustler," he said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Clinton: Iran’s ‘dangerous escalation’

  1. Transcript of: Clinton: Iran’s ‘dangerous escalation’

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Now to the alleged Iranian-backed plot to kill a Saudi official in Washington, DC. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling it a, quote, "dangerous escalation in Iran 's support for terrorism," and she sat down for an exclusive interview with Savannah Guthrie . Hey, Savannah , good morning.

    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE reporting: Good morning to you, Ann. You know, even top US officials say this plot to assassinate a diplomat at a Washington restaurant sounds like something that came right out of an international spy novel. But investigators say this was very real and it's made an already antagonistic relationship between the US and Iran that much worse. Secretary of State Clinton is saying Iran will be held accountable. Do we know that the top members of the Iranian government were aware of this plot?

    Secretary of State HILLARY CLINTON: We think that this was conceived and directed from Tehran . We know that it goes to a certain level within the Quds Force , which is part of the Revolutionary Guard, which is the military wing of the Iranian government . And we know that this was in the making and there was a lot of communication between the defendants and others in Tehran . So we're going to let the evidence unfold. But the important point to make is that this just is in violation of international norms. It is a state -sponsored act of terror and the world needs to speak out strongly against it.

    GUTHRIE: It's very brazen, as you mentioned.

    Sec. CLINTON: Yes.

    GUTHRIE: Which suggests the Iranians didn't particularly fear retaliation by the US.

    Sec. CLINTON: Well, I think it's a little hard to tell what was really going on, why this was given a seal of approval, why there was a go-ahead from Tehran . Whether within their military and their government the kinds of debates and divisions that we are now watching unfold because it's difficult to know who's actually making the decisions. Was this for political purposes? Was this just a crazy idea that got out of hand?

    GUTHRIE: Do you think the Ayatollah ordered it?

    Sec. CLINTON: We don't know, we don't know and I'm not going to speculate.

    GUTHRIE: Well, Tehran , of course, denies all of this, insists America fabricated the entire plot in part as a way to distract from those Occupy Wall Street protests, Ann.

    CURRY: Meantime, she also talked about her future. You asked her about that. What did she have to say?

    GUTHRIE: Yes, she did. She's made it no secret, of course, that she plans to leave her current role as secretary of state at the end of this term. And then we talked about all that talk in Washington that she could be added to the Obama ticket as vice president. Do you ever google yourself?

    Sec. CLINTON: I don't.

    GUTHRIE: If you googled...

    Sec. CLINTON: I'm a little worried about that.

    GUTHRIE: Yeah. If you googled yourself today, you would find suggestion that perhaps you would be vice president, that you could do -- there would be a switcheroo and that you might possibly be the vice president and Biden would come over as secretary of state . Is there any chance you would be vice president in the second term?

    Sec. CLINTON: No. There is not.

    GUTHRIE: Is it -- is it in the realm of possibility?

    Sec. CLINTON: I do not think it's even in the realm of possibility. And in large measure because I think Vice President Biden has done an amazingly good job. He has taken on the burden of selling the economic plan, of traveling the country, of answering people's questions.

    GUTHRIE: Has anyone ever raised the possibility with you?

    Sec. CLINTON: No, no. I just -- I think it's maybe a subject for speculation on Google , but it's not a serious issue in the administration.

    GUTHRIE: All right. So what is in her future? We're going to talk about whether she'll ever run for office again and whether she thinks her daughter Chelsea ever would. Our full interview airs Monday on TODAY, Ann.

Timeline: Assassination plot

Following are some key dates in the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States, as described by court papers filed in New York and by U.S. Justice Department officials at a news conference in Washington.

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