Two men, including an Iran-based member of Iran’s Qods Force, have been charged in a plot to murder the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, U.S. officials announced Tuesday.
In a press release, the Department of Justice identified the two men as Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen with both Iranian and U.S. passports, and Gholam Shakuri, a member of the Qods Force, which is a special operations unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
According to the release, both men have been charged with conspiracy to murder a foreign official; conspiracy to engage in foreign travel and use of interstate and foreign commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire; conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives); and conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism transcending national boundaries.
Arbabsiar was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on September 29, and is due to appear in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday. Shakuri remains at large
According to the criminal complaint, the plot stretches back to the spring of 2011. Arbabsiar allegedly travelled to Mexico several times to meet with a person he thought to be a drug cartel member with knowledge of explosives. In fact, Arbabsiar was meeting with a DEA confidential source. Arbabsiar allegedly had $100,000 wired to a bank account as down payment for the assassination. Arbabsiar allegedly told the DEA source that his cousin was a “big general” in the Iranian military, and the release states that when the DEA source raised the prospect of bystanders being killed in the attack, Arbabsiar responded: “They want that guy [the Ambassador] done [killed], if the hundred go with him f**k ‘em.”
After his arrest, Arbabsiar allegedly confessed to participating in the murder plot. From the release:
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. He allegedly said these Iranian officials were aware of and approved of the use of CS-1 in connection with the plot; as well as payments to CS-1; the means by which the Ambassador would be killed in the United States and the casualties that would likely result.
According to The Washington Post, officials at a press conference Tuesday described how the plot envisioned later striking other targets around the world.
“It reads like pages from a Hollywood script,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said, “the impact would have been very real.”
The Post also reports that Iran denied any connection to the plot, calling the accusations "American propaganda."
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In an interview with the Associated Press after news of the arrests broke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is preparing new penalties against Iran, and said the Treasury Department will soon put more people under sanctions.
Later Tuesday, the Treasury Department announced that it was sanctioning five individuals in connection with the plot, including three Qods Force officers not charged in the complaint. In addition to Arbabsiar and Shakuri, Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani, senior Qods Force official Hamed Abdollahi and Abdul Reza Shahlai, who was Shakuri's superior, were also sanctioned. As a result of the designations, the Treasury Department said, "U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions with these individuals, and any assets they may hold in the U.S. are frozen."
The U.S. State Department describes the Qods Force as a branch of the IRGC and "the regime’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad. The Qods Force provides aid in the form of weapons, training, and funding to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraq-based militants, and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan."
The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington D.C. released a statement Tuesday "to express its appreciation to the responsible agencies of the United States government for preventing a criminal act from taking place."
"The attempted plot is a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions and is not in accord with the principles of humanity," the statement said.
In an interview with CNN, an anonymous U.S. official said it was "still unclear" who in the Iranian government knew about and approved of the plot.
"It could be someone in the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] who was freelancing, it could be one stovepipe of the Quds force that felt they had the resources and the means to conduct something," the official said.
But Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who was briefed about the plot this summer, said he was confident calling the plot "an Iranian government sanctioned event."
"You can imagine something this significant, committing an act of terror on foreign soil, I can say it was an Iranian government sanctioned event," Rogers told CNN. "We need to be careful as this unfolds. But again, as a former F.B.I. agent myself, its a little shocking to see at the level of the transaction, the amount of the money, the quickness of the decisions that were made in order for certain elements of this to fall into place tells us that it is clearly tied to the highest levels of the Iranian government."