WASHINGTON — For the first time in more than a generation, a foreign power was accused Tuesday of plotting a political assassination in the United States capital, an allegation that stunned analysts who said it would seem to be an incredibly incautious move and a mark of desperation, if proved true.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the charges against two Iranian-backed emissaries who the government alleged were arranging the killing of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Adel al Jubeir.
At a news conference, Holder said the men were connected to the Quds Force, part of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. They allegedly met in May in Mexico to allegedly hatch the plot, which the attorney general said involved plans to pay $1.5 million for the hit.
Documents filed in a Manhattan federal court identified the suspects as Manssor Arbabsiar and Ali Gholam Shakuri, both originally from Iran and both alleged to have ties to the Quds Force.
Arbabsiar was described as a naturalized American citizen who was arrested on Sept. 29. The whereabouts of Shakuri, said to be a Quds Forces official, are unknown and he has eluded arrest.
"From the little we know, we caught a lucky break," said Matthew Levitt, an Iran expert for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was an anti-terror official during the George W. Bush administration. "Bottom line, this is tremendously significant if it ends up being true. This is an upping of the ante in the extreme, it's a sharp break in Iran's modus operandi."
McClatchy learned from multiple sources late Tuesday that the two indicted men also had discussed potential terror attacks against Saudi and perhaps Israeli diplomats in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. It is unclear how far along those discussions had progressed. Argentina was the target of Iranian-backed terror attacks in the early 1990's.
The U.S. complaint does not mention the Argentine plots.
Iran has been the target of increasing financial sanctions by the United States and Europe for its nuclear ambitions and continued deception of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is also the main regional rival of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, where the dominant religious group, Sunni Islam, is sharply opposed to Shiite Islam, the dominant religious sect in Iran.
The criminal complaint, however, offered no specific motive for the alleged plot.
"The bottom line is it is just tremendously risky," said Levitt, adding it reflected that Iran is pushing back hard against something.
The last high-profile political assassination in Washington was the car bombing by agents loyal to Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet that killed that nation's former ambassador to the United States, Orlando Letelier, on Sept. 21, 1976.
Holder said the two alleged plotters had not yet acquired explosives but had arranged for nearly $100,000 to be wired to a New York bank account in the name of the hired hit man as a down payment. The proposed hit man was actually an informant working for U.S. law enforcement.
The charging documents say that Arbabsiar, a resident of the Texas port city of Corpus Christi, came to the attention of U.S. authorities after reaching out to the informant, who had begun working for the Drug Enforcement Administration after drug charged against him were dropped in the United States.
The complaint said Arbabsiar thought the informant could connect him with the violent Mexican drug gang Los Zetas.
Arbabsiar allegedly traveled at least twice to Mexico with the informant and said he was working with Quds Force officials on the plot.
The Zetas are notorious in Mexico for ruthlessness, which includes dumping headless bodies in public places to send disturbing messages. McClatchy has learned that at least two Zetas were arrested in Argentina the day before Arbabsiar's arrest in a move believed linked. The Zetas are believed involved in the smuggling of liquid cocaine to Argentina, according to a former Argentine officials who agreed to talk only if he was not identified.
The complaint doesn't name the Zetas but makes clear who they are because it references a cartel believed to be in possession of military-grade explosives.
In secretly taped talks with the informant, according to the complaint, Arbabsiar made clear he was working on behalf of a family member in Iranian intelligence. When asked if he'd like the ambassador killed alone or with civilian casualties, Arbabsiar responds coldly, "if the hundred go with him, (expletive) them."
The unidentified restaurant in Washington is near Capitol Hill, and the informant tells him that U.S. senators could be killed in a bombing. Arbabsiar allegedly responded that it was "no problem."
Shortly after Holder's announcement, the Treasury Department announced new financial sanctions against five individuals tied to the alleged plot. The sanctions, part of an executive order, included the two suspects along with Qud Forces commander Qasem Soleimani, senior Quds Forces official Hamed Abdollahah, the alleged coordinator of the plot, and Abdul Reza Shahlai, who also coordinated efforts and was a superior with responsibility for Shakhuri's movements.
Soleimani was already subject to U.S. financial sanctions imposed in May for his role in helping the Syrian government in its violent crackdown on the political opposition.
In a statement, Treasury said Shahlai and Shakuri met numerous times with Arbabsiar to "discuss the assassination and other planned attacks."
That's significant because the Department of Justice did not discuss other planned attacks, but McClatchy had learned from multiple sources that the men were apparently discussing possible attacks on Israeli and Saudi interests in Argentina.
There's precedent for that. Iran stands accused of orchestrating the July 1994 car bombing on the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead. In that plot, Iranian agents secured the vehicle from an allegedly corrupt local police officer and then brought in a suicide bomber to drive it, Argentine authorities allege.
The White House said Tuesday night that President Barack Obama had personally called the Saudi ambassador.
"President Obama underscored that the United States believes this plot to be a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, and reiterated our commitment to meet our responsibilities to ensure the security of diplomats serving in our country," a White House statement said.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington confirmed that it had been kept abreast of the investigation and that the Mexican government had helped arrest of Arbabsiar. Mexican immigration agents stopped him trying enter Mexico on Sept. 28 without the proper paperwork.
Mexico sent him back to the starting point of his trip and he was arrested during a stopover at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the embassy said.
"From the outset, Mexico and the United States shared information and coordinated their actions," the embassy statement said, adding that "Mexico was able to neutralize a significant risk to Mexico's national security, while at the same time reinforcing bilateral and reciprocal cooperation with the United States. This operation confirmed that adequate mechanisms and procedures are in place to anticipate and prevent the presence in Mexico of individuals that pose a risk to national security."
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