U.S. says it foiled Iranian-backed plot to assassinate Saudi ambassador

Laura Rozen

The United States said Tuesday that it had disrupted a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. conceived by elements of the Iranian Qods force.

The accusations came in a Justice Department criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday afternoon at a press conference featuring Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller and a team of Justice Department prosecutors. The key suspect charged in the plot, a naturalized Iranian-American citizen identified as Manssor Arbabsiar, of Corpus Christie, Texas, was arrested late last month at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York; a second accused conspirator named in the complaint, an alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force official identified as Gohlam Shakuri, remains at large and is believed to be in Iran. The five-count criminal complaint also refers to other unnamed conspirators in the plot and suggested they also were members of the Qods force in Iran.

In a related action, the Treasury Department on Tuesday designated Arbabsiar and four alleged Iranian Qods force members, including Shakuri, Qasem Soleimani, Hamed Abdollahi, and Arbabsiar's cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai, as being connected to the alleged plot.

The alleged assassination plot --unraveled by federal agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI--was "conceived, sponsored and was directed from Iran" Holder said in a statement Tuesday. "The U.S. is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions."

President Obama was first briefed on the case in June, the White House said. "The disruption of this plot is a significant achievement by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and the President is enormously grateful for their exceptional work," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Federal officials said the disrupted plot sought to assassinate Saudi envoy to the U.S. Adel Al-Jubeir. It also discussed "subsequent bomb attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C.," ABC News reported on the complaint.

The case, called Operation Red Coalition, "began in May when an Iranian-American from Corpus Christi, Texas,"--Arbabsiar--"approached a DEA informant seeking the help of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador," the ABC News report on the unsealed complaint said. 

But the man Arbabsiar approached who he thought to be with a Mexican drug cartel turned out to be a confidential source for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

From May through September, Arbabsiar traveled to Mexico twice to meet with the DEA source to allegedly arrange the assassination. Arbabsiar is also accused in the complaint of having transferred $100,000 to the recruited-assassin's bank account--the down-payment on what he said would be $1.5 million paid in total after the assassination.

After he was arrested on September 29th at JFK Airport flying back from an attempted meeting with the hit man in Mexico, Arbabsiar allegedly told federal authorities that he had been recruited to organize the assassination by members of Iran's Qods Force, including his cousin, last spring. He also said that Qods force members had financed the plot.

"According to the complaint, Arbabsiar also admitted to agents that, in connection with this plot, he was recruited, funded, and directed by men he understood to be senior officials in Iran's Qods Force," the FBI press release said.

"Arbabsiar allegedly told agents that his cousin,"--identified by the Treasury Department as Abdul Reza Shahlai'--"a senior IRGC-[Qods Force] official and deputy to [Shakuri], who he had long understood to be a senior member of the Qods Force, had approached him in the early spring of 2011 about recruiting narco-traffickers to kidnap the Ambassador," the FBI document states.

"Arbabsiar told agents that he then met with the [confidential source] CS-1 in Mexico and discussed assassinating the Ambassador," the FBI document said. "According to the complaint, Arbabsiar said that, afterwards, he met several times in Iran with Shakuri and another senior Qods Force official, where he explained that the plan was to blow up a restaurant in the United States frequented by the Ambassador and that numerous bystanders could be killed, according to the complaint. The plan was allegedly approved by these officials"

The United States has previously accused the Qods Force of sponsoring militant attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran on Tuesday denied the American accusations.

Middle East experts noted that alleged plot emerges in the context of heightened tensions and competition for regional influence between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shiite Iran in the midst of the tumultuous Arab awakening uprisings.

"This alleged terror plot takes place at a time when tensions in the Middle East have reached a boiling point," Trita Parsi, with the National Iranian American Council said in a statement Tuesday. "If today's allegations are true, this means that regional rivalries may have spilled over onto U.S. shores."

The Saudi King sent a private letter to President Obama in September hand-delivered by Saudi ambassador al-Jubeir, who has been frequently absent from Washington much of that month. U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon traveled to meet with the Saudi King in Riyadh earlier this month.

A former Texas business partner of Arbabsiar and his former Texas A&I college roommate told a local Corpus Christie, Texas media outlet that Arbabsiar had moved back to Iran in 2010 after living in Texas for decades. The former business partner also suggested that if the allegations were true, that Arbabsiar was motivated by money, not by ideology.