President Barack Obama said Thursday that the U.S. will make sure that Iranian officials are held accountable for "reckless behavior" in what he said was their direct role in an alleged assassination plot against the Saudi Arabian ambassador in the United States.
Obama said the U.S. will be able to support all of its allegations of Iranian involvement. "Those facts are there for all to see," he told a joint White House news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
The president remarks came as the State Department said the United States has had "direct contact" with the Iranian government about the incident and European leaders discussed their responses to the plot.
Two men, including a member of Iran's Quds Force special foreign actions unit, were charged in New York federal court on Wednesday with conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Abel Al-Jubeir, at a Washington restaurant. People in the Iranian government "were aware of this plot," Obama said. "There has to be accountability."
He said that one of the suspects was an individual of Iranian-American descent and had "direct links, was paid by, and was directed by individuals in the Iranian government."
Iran has denied the charges and expressed outrage at the accusations.
Obama said the scheme follows "a pattern of reckless behavior by the Iranian government."
"Our first step is to make sure that we prosecute those individuals who have been named in the indictment," Obama said.
He said evidence of Iranian government complicity has already been shared with key U.S. allies. "There will not be a dispute" over Iran's role, Obama said. Iran has denied any involvement in such a plot.
U.S. officials believe Iran hoped that such an attack — aimed at its chief enemies, the United States and Saudi Arabia — would be blamed on al-Qaida.
"There's a great similarity between how Iran operates and how North Korea operates, a willingness on their part to break international rules, to flout international norms, to not live up to their own commitments. And each time they do that, the United States will join with its partners and allies in making sure that they pay a price," Obama said.
"We don't take any options off the table in terms of how we operate with Iran," Obama said. But he said "what you can expect" is continued U.S. pressure on Tehran "until it makes a better choice in terms of how it's going to interact with the rest of the international community."
For his part, Lee said he was "deeply shocked" by the alleged assassination plot.
"I and the Korean people strongly condemn all forms of terrorism," the South Korean leader said. "Our two countries are working to bring peace and stability around the world."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday there's been "direct contact" between the United States and Iran. She gave no details.
Separately, a U.S. official says the contact was made through Iran's United Nations mission in New York. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomacy.
The two nations have no diplomatic relations and any direct contact is rare.
On Wednesday, a diplomat told Reuters that the United States and Saudi 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."
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.
Europeans measure responses
The alleged plot marks an escalation of Iran's sponsorship of terrorism overseas, Britain's foreign secretary said Thursday.
William Hague told lawmakers that Britain was working with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the European Union to agree on tough international action over the purported plan to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir in a bombing at his favorite Washington restaurant.
A U.S. criminal complaint accuses two Iranian suspects of hiring a would-be assassin in Mexico — who also was a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and told U.S. authorities about the details of the plot.
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 is still at large in Iran.
"This would appear to constitute a major escalation in Iran's sponsorship of terrorism outside its borders," Hague told the House of Commons on Thursday. "We are in close touch with the U.S. authorities and will work to agree an international response, along with the U.S., the rest of the EU and Saudi Arabia."
In Vienna, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister accused Tehran of "murder and mayhem" and said his country was working on a "measured response" to the alleged Iranian attempt to assassinate Riyadh's ambassador.
"We will not bow to such a pressure," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters. "We hold them accountable for any action they take against us."
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has demanded an explanation from Tehran over the alleged plot, the country's foreign ministry said in a statement.
"Indications of the involvement of Iranian government agencies cause even greater concern," the ministry said. "The federal government calls upon the Iranian government for a comprehensive explanation of the allegations. Those who took part the attack plans and their backers must be held accountable."
Meanwhile, in an initial cautious comment, Italy said that if the U.S. allegations were confirmed there could be "serious consequences" for Iran.
"If the facts are confirmed, they would constitute a grave responsibility which could bring about serious consequences," said a brief statement from Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's office.