Nightly News   |  October 11, 2011

Two indicted in foiled assassination plot

Two men allegedly working for "factions of the Iranian government" were charged with plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and to attack the Saudi and Israeli embassies, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reports.

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BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now to the midafternoon news conference that got everybody's attention. The US attorney general came to the podium and said the United States had indicted two Iranians and foiled an alleged terrorist plot that involved Mexican drug lords , murder for hire, and a lot of money to kill the Saudi ambassador. As he laid out the details, it all sounded so outlandish a lot of people wondered if it was all for real. With us from our Washington bureau tonight, our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell . Andrea , good evening.

ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Good evening, Brian . We've been running the traps. The attorney general and the FBI director laid out a plot that, as you say, on its face sounds bizarre. But US officials insists this was a real plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador and bomb his embassy here in Washington .

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (FBI Director): And though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost.

MITCHELL: An alleged $1 1/2 million plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia 's ambassador Adel al-Jubeir , a veteran diplomat and King Abdullah 's right-hand man, by blowing him up in an undetermined Washington restaurant and bombing the Saudi Embassy in Washington . US officials tell NBC News a secondary plot was to target Israel 's Embassy in Washington . The accused, an Iranian-born US citizen , Manssor Arbabsiar , was arraigned in Manhattan this afternoon. A co-conspirator named in the indictment remains at large, but the administration says Iran's government was behind it all.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (United States Attorney General): The complaint alleges that this conspiracy was conceived, was sponsored and was directed from Iran .

MITCHELL: Arbabsiar was arrested 12 days ago and officials say has been cooperating ever since. When pressed, even US officials acknowledge it all sounds like a cheap thriller. According to the complaint, since last spring, Arbabsiar met in Mexico with a man he thought was a member of a drug cartel, trying to hire an assassin to kill the Saudi diplomat. But from the start, the Mexican was an agent for the US government . The Iranian even got $100,000 supposedly wired from Iran to the US as a down payment to kill the Saudi ambassador at a Washington restaurant. When the agent warned there could also be senators dining there, others could die, Arbabsiar supposedly said, "No problem," or, "No big deal."

Mr. KENNETH POLLACK (Middle East Analyst): There are a lot of details about this that sound a little bit too salacious to be true. It suggests a willingness to act aggressively, even recklessly, on the part of the Iranian regime that, quite frankly, we haven't seen from the Iranians since the 1980s .

MITCHELL: Tonight Iran 's television dismissed the plot as a US fabrication. The US Treasury , though, has sanctioned five Iranians , including the man who has led the powerful Quds Force for more than a decade.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Secretary of State): This kind of action, which violates international norms, must be ended.

MITCHELL: Today President Obama visited the team that worked on foiling the alleged plot in the Situation Room to thank them for their work, and he also called the Saudi ambassador to express solidarity. US officials say top Iranian officials either knew about the plot or they have a military force running amok, and that either way they have to explain this to the world.

Brian: Now, Andrea , I know it's guesswork. Is this the kind of thing where we're likely to see Saudi retaliation?

WILLIAMS: I don't think you're going to see direct retaliation. I think that they are going to take their time, but this certainly sets the stage for what could be Saudi retaliation, Israeli retaliation. This is a lot of people on edge tonight.

MITCHELL: All right. Andrea Mitchell with the story out of Washington for us. Andrea , thanks.