By CHARLIE SAVAGE and SCOTT SHANE – Published: October 11, 2011
WASHINGTON – The New York Times — The United States on Tuesday accused Iranian officials of plotting to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States in a bizarre scheme involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman who believed he was hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million.
The alleged plot also included plans to pay the cartel, Los Zetas, to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina, according to a law enforcement official.
The plotters also discussed a side deal between the Quds Force, part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Los Zetas to funnel tons of opium from the Middle East to Mexico, the official said. The plans never progressed, though, because the two suspects — the Iranian-American and an Iranian Quds Force officer — unwittingly were dealing with an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, officials said.Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who announced the murder plot at a news conference in Washington, said it was “directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds Force.” He added that “high-up officials in those agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot.”
The charges heightened tensions in an already fraught relationship between Iran and the United States.
The Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, said his nation was “outraged” about the accusations. In a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Khazaee said that Iran “strongly and categorically rejects these fabricated and baseless allegations, based on the suspicious claims by an individual.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a bitter regional rivalry, one that has intensified as they have jockeyed for influence since the political upheavals of the Arab Spring. The Saudi Embassy in Washington denounced the plot against the ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, as “a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions.”
Mr. Holder’s assertion and the F.B.I.’s account of official Iranian involvement in the plot, reportedly code-named “Chevrolet,” provoked puzzlement from specialists on Iran, who said it seemed unlikely that the government would back a brazen murder and bombing plan on American soil.
Investigators, too, were initially skeptical about ties to Iran, officials said. They said, though, that the F.B.I. monitored calls to Iran about the plot and found money had been wired from a Quds Force bank account. In addition, the Iranian-American accused in the scheme, Mansour J. Arbabsiar, correctly identified a known Quds Force officer from a photo array, and his cousin — who he said recruited him for the plot — is another Quds official.
It remained unclear, though, whether the plot was conceived by a rogue element or had approval from top officials of the Revolutionary Guards or the Iranian government.
“It’s so outside their normal track of activity,” said a senior law enforcement official who had been involved in the investigation and would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a rogue plan or they’re using very different tactics. We just don’t know.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed her incredulity in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?” she asked, also saying that the plot “crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for.”
The State Department issued an alert on Tuesday for Americans traveling or living abroad regarding “the potential for anti-U.S. actions following the disruption” of the plot, which it said “may indicate a more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity.”
Mr. Arbabsiar, 56, a naturalized American citizen who lives in Corpus Christi, Tex., was named in a federal criminal complaint in New York along with Gholam Shakuri, whom the Justice Department identified as a member of the Quds Force.
Mr. Arbabsiar, who one official said sold used cars for a living, was arrested Sept. 29 at Kennedy International Airport in New York; Mr. Shakuri remains at large and is believed to be in Iran.
Reporting was contributed by Anthony Shadid from Beirut, Lebanon; Eric Schmitt, Steven Lee Myers and Mark Landler from Washington; J. David Goodman and Benjamin Weiser from New York; and Randal C. Archibold from Mexico City.