The United States has accused Iran of a “flagrant” violation of international law after claiming that its government was involved in a plan to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington in what officials called a “deadly murder plot.”
At a press conference last night, Eric Holder, the Attorney General, told American spies had foiled a conspiracy to detonate a bomb in a restaurant frequented by the diplomat, Adel al-Jubeir.
If it had succeeded, around a hundred bystanders could also have been killed.
Two men, including a member of Iran's special forces unit, the Quds Force, were charged with orchestrating the plot in New York federal court.
One of the duo, Manssor Arbabsiar, was arrested at JFK airport a fortnight ago and was due to appear in court last night. The other, Gholam Shakuri, is still at large.
The explosive allegations will dramatically ratchet-up tension between the US and Tehran. They represent the first time in recent history that the country, a member of the so-called “Axis of Evil,” has been accused of sponsoring attempted terrorist activity on US soil.
Mr Holder said that retaliatory action against Tehran could commence overnight. “In addition to holding these individual conspirators accountable for their alleged role in this plot, the US is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions,” he said.
The news sent a diplomatic shockwave through the Middle East. King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, was informed of the plot two weeks ago, and officials in Riyadh predicted that they would send Iranian-Saudi relations to “their lowest point yet.”
Iran's mission to the United Nations responded by denying any involvement in the alleged bomb conspiracy or connection to Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalised US citizen. “We categorically reject these baseless allegations,” it said.
Details of the supposed plot, and how it was uncovered, were still emerging late last night. Robert Meuller, the FBI director who appeared alongside Holder at the press conference, said the case: “reads like the pages of a Hollywood script.”
Documents lodged in court say that the US got wind of the proposed attack thanks to an alleged drug smuggler who was arrested earlier this year and agreed to act as an informant for the Drugs Enforcement Administration in order to avoid prosecution.
The informant posed as a member of the Zetas drug cartel and agreed to meet with Arbabsiar and Shakuri in Mexico in May.
In July, Arbabsiar told the informant that he was expected Mexican cartel members to carry out the attacks, to avoid it being traced back to the Middle East. The planned strikes on foreign embassies in Washington had been authorised by his superiors, he claimed, even though may have resulted in “mass casualties”.
“They want that guy [the Ambassador] done [killed],” Arbabsiar is alleged to have said. When told that bombing the Saudi ambassador's favourite restaurant, could potentially kill US congressmen, who regularly dined there, he allegedly replied “no big deal.”
The informant, who has not been named, agreed a fee of $1.5 million for his pains. He received a down-payment of $100,000, allegedly from Iran, for his pains, and Arbabsiar was arrested on September 29th as he travelled to Mexico to finalise details of the plan.
Holder stressed that no explosives were ever acquired for the plot, meaning that the public was never in danger. The White House was first informed of the undercover operation in June, and President Obama had approved the arrest.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Treasury Department soon would put more people under sanctions. She also predicted the plot would further isolate Iran.
Iran rejected the US claims, with IRNA, the official Iranian news agency, calling the accusations “America's new propaganda scenario” against the Tehran government.
Alizreza Miryusefi, the press attache at Iran's mission to the United Nations, said the accusation was “totally baseless”.factfile
Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri are charged with one count of “conspiracy to murder a foreign official,” one count each of “conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction” and “conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism”. They face life in prison, if convicted.