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United for Peace of Pierce County - NEWS: US alleges bizarre Quds Force plot to hire Los Zetas to murder Saudi ambassador

Iran's U.N. ambassador rejected as "fabricated and baseless allegations" American charges made public by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday according to which Iranian officials in the Quds Force (part of the Revolutionary Guards) plotted "to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States in a bizarre scheme involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman [in Texas] who believed he was hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million," the New York Times reported Tuesday.[1]  --  Iran specialists "said it seemed unlikely that the government would back a brazen murder and bombing plan on American soil," Charlie Savage and Scott Shane.  --  The case supposedly "began in May, when a Drug Enforcement Administration informant with ties to high-level leaders of Los Zetas" told DEA agents he had been approached "by an Iranian friend of his aunt’s in Corpus Christi -- [Mansour J.] Arbabsiar -- with a proposition to hire the cartel to carry out terrorist attacks" in the U.S.  --  Arbabsiar was arrested at Kennedy Int'l Airport in New York on Sept. 29.  --  Curiously enough, the Justice Department released a letter to the court on Tuesday "saying Mr. Arbabsiar had repeatedly waived his right to be quickly brought before a judge and to have a lawyer present during questioning" and that Arbabsiar "had confessed to his role in the plot and had provided “extremely valuable intelligence.”  --  AP reported that "No one answered the door Tuesday at Arbabsiar's two-story home, decorated for Halloween, at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Austin suburb of Round Rock."[2] ...



By Charlie Savage and Scott Shane

New York Times

October 12, 2011 (posted Oct. 11)

WASHINGTON -- 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 FBI’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 FBI 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.

Minutes after the Justice Department laid out the charges, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against five people -- including four “senior” members of the Quds Force, which the United States designated as a terrorist group in 2007.

White House officials said President Obama called the Saudi ambassador on Tuesday to express solidarity, saying the president “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.”

Mr. Arbabsiar, who has lived in Texas for many years, made a brief appearance in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, dressed in a blue checked shirt and with a pronounced scar on his left cheek.  He did not enter a plea, but his lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, said after the hearing that “if he is indicted, he will plead not guilty.”

The case began in May, when a Drug Enforcement Administration informant with ties to high-level leaders of Los Zetas told agents of a bizarre conversation.  He had been approached, he said, by an Iranian friend of his aunt’s in Corpus Christi -- Mr. Arbabsiar -- with a proposition to hire the cartel to carry out terrorist attacks inside the United States.  Mr. Arbabsiar believed that the informant was an actual member of Los Zetas.

Over the next two months, Mr. Arbabsiar and the informant worked out a deal under which Mr. Arbabsiar would pay $1.5 million to Los Zetas to kill the Saudi ambassador at a restaurant in Washington, officials said.

The complaint quotes Mr. Arbabsiar as making conflicting statements about the possibility of bystander deaths; at one point he is said to say that killing the ambassador alone would be preferable, but on another occasion he said it would be “no big deal” if many others at the restaurant -- possibly including United States senators -- died in any bombing.

There was never any risk, officials said, because the informant was working for the drug agency, and their meetings in Mexico and telephone conversations, were being recorded by law enforcement authorities.

In early August, on a visit to Iran, Mr. Arbabsiar wired nearly $100,000 to the informant’s bank account as a down payment, according to court documents.  In late September, he flew to Mexico City from Iran, intending to serve as human “collateral” to ensure that Los Zetas would be paid the rest of their money after killing the ambassador.

But the government of Mexico, at the request of the United States, denied entry to Mr. Arbabsiar and put him on a commercial flight with a stopover in New York, where he was arrested.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department released a letter to the court saying Mr. Arbabsiar had repeatedly waived his right to be quickly brought before a judge and to have a lawyer present during questioning.  The letter said he had confessed to his role in the plot and had provided “extremely valuable intelligence.”

Mr. Holder said the United States “is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions” but declined to answer a question about Iranian officials’ motivation for the alleged plot.

Experts on Iran expressed astonishment at both the apparently clumsy tradecraft and the uncertain goal of the intended mayhem on United States soil.

Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian-American scholar who studies the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said he thought it unlikely that the plot was approved at a high level by Iranian officials.  “It’s not typical of the Quds Force or the IRGC to operate in the U.S., for fear of retaliation,” Mr. Nafisi said.  Iran’s last lethal operation on American soil, he said, was in 1980, when a critic of the Islamic government was murdered at his Bethesda, Md., home.

Mr. Nafisi said it was conceivable that elements of the Revolutionary Guards might have concocted the plot without top-level approval, perhaps to prevent reconciliation between Iran and the United States.

But Iran’s Islamic government has a long history of attempts to eliminate enemies living overseas, said Roya Hakakian, author of *Assassins of the Turquoise Palace*, a book on the murder of four Iranians in a Berlin restaurant in 1992.  A German court found that the murders were approved at the highest levels of the Iranian government.

The gunman in the Berlin killings was also accused of plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to Sweden, Ms. Hakakian said.

--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.



By Nedra Pickler

Associated Press
October 11, 2011

The Obama administration accused Iranian government agents Tuesday of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States and immediately used the thwarted plot to ratchet up sanctions and recruit international allies to try to further isolate Tehran.

Two men, including a member of Iran's special foreign actions unit known as the Quds Force, were charged in New York federal court with conspiring to kill the Saudi diplomat, Adel Al-Jubeir.  Justice Department officials say the men tried to hire a purported member of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the assassination with a bomb attack while Al-Jubeir dined at his favorite restaurant.

"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?" Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Clinton was blunt in saying the United States would use the case as leverage with other countries that have been reluctant to apply harsh sanctions or penalties against Iran.  Clinton said she and President Barack Obama called world leaders to tell them of the developments.

"This really, in the minds of many diplomats and government officials, crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for," Clinton said.  She said she and Obama want to "enlist more countries in working together against what is becoming a clearer and clearer threat" from Iran.

The U.S. criminal complaint said the Iranian plotters hired a would-be assassin in Mexico who was a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and told U.S. authorities all about their plot, which they code-named "Chevrolet."

FBI Director Robert Mueller said many lives could have been lost.  But Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said no explosives were actually placed and no one was in any danger because of the informant's cooperation with authorities.

Attorney General Eric Holder, appearing at a news conference with Mueller and Bharara, declared, "The United States is committed to holding Iran responsible for its actions."

Shortly afterward, the Treasury Department announced economic penalties against Arbabsiar and four Quds Force officers it says were involved.

Asked whether the plot was blessed by the very top echelons of the Iranian government, Holder said the Justice Department was not making that accusation.  But he said the conspiracy was conceived, sponsored, and directed from Tehran.  The U.S. describes the Quds Force as Iran's primary foreign action arm for supporting terrorists and extremists around the world.

The White House said Obama told al-Jubeir in a phone call that the foiled plot to assassinate him is a "flagrant" violation of U.S. and international law.  Obama also told al-Jubeir he is committed to ensuring the security of diplomats in the United States, the White House said, and met with his national security team to thank them for disrupting the plot.

The Obama administration has often said that no option is off the table with Iran, a position that a U.S. official said had not changed Tuesday.  But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the policy publicly, said the emphasis now is on increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran.

The State Department is warning Americans around the world of the potential for terrorist attacks against U.S. interests following the exposure of an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States.

The alleged target was Al-Jubeir, a commoner educated at University of North Texas and Georgetown who was foreign affairs adviser to Saudi King Abdullah when he was crown prince.  A month after the 2001 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 Arab hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, Abdullah sent al-Jubeir to the United States to rebuild Saudi Arabia's image in the United States.  He was appointed ambassador in 2007.

Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are the Mideast's two most powerful countries and have long vied for power and influence across the region.  Saudi Arabia and other countries like Bahrain have accused Iran of trying to create dissent in their countries this year, during democracy movements across the region.

The Saudi Embassy said in a statement that it appreciated the U.S. efforts to prevent the crime.  "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 read.

Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old U.S. citizen who also holds an Iranian passport, was charged along with Gholam Shakuri, who authorities said was a Quds Force member and is still at large in Iran.  The Treasury Department listed addresses for Arbabsiar in two Texas cities -- the Austin suburb of Round Rock and the Gulf city of Corpus Christi -- and prosecutors say he frequently traveled to Mexico for business.

The complaint filed in federal court says Arbabsiar confessed that his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai was a high-ranking member of the Quds Force who told him to hire someone in the narcotics business to target Al-Jubeir.  U.S. authorities described Shakuri as Shahlai's deputy who helped provide funding for the plot.  Shahlai was identified by the Treasury Department in 2008, during George W. Bush's administration, as a Quds deputy commander who planned the Jan. 20, 2007, attack in Karbala, Iraq, that killed five American soldiers and wounded three others.

Arbabsiar, Shakuri, and Shahlai and two others -- Qasem Soleimani, a Quds commander who allegedly oversaw the plot, and Hamed Abdollahi, a senior Quds officer who helped coordinate -- were sanctioned Tuesday by the Treasury Department for their alleged involvement.  The department described all except Arbabsiar as Quds officers.

The complaint alleges this past spring that Arbabsiar approached the DEA informant, who he believed was associated with a well-known Mexican drug cartel with access to military-grade weapons and explosives and has a history of assassinations.  Justice Department officials say Arbabsiar initially asked the informant about his knowledge of plastic explosives for a plot to blow up a Saudi embassy.  But through subsequent meetings in Mexico over the past six months in which they spoke English, secretly recorded for U.S. authorities, Arbabsiar offered $1.5 million for the death of the ambassador.  He eventually wired nearly $100,000 to an account number that the informant provided, authorities said.

The DEA informant is no stranger to criminal activity -- the criminal complaint reveals he was charged with violating drug laws in the United States but the charges were dismissed when the informant cooperated with several drug investigations.  The complaint said the informant has continued to provide reliable information that has led to numerous drug seizures and is paid for his work.

According to transcripts of their recorded conversations cited in the complaint, the informant told Arbabsiar he would kill the ambassador however he wanted -- "blow him up or shoot him" -- and Arbabsiar responded he should use whatever method is easiest.  The plot eventually centered on targeting Al-Jubeir in his favorite restaurant and Arbabsiar was quoted as saying killing him alone would be better, "but sometime, you know, you have no choice."  Arbabsiar dismisses the possibility that 100-150 others in the restaurant could be killed along with the ambassador as "no problem" and "no big deal."

Arbabsiar was arrested Sept. 29 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and was ordered held without bail during his brief first court appearance Thursday afternoon.  Prosecutors said he faces up to life in prison if convicted.

The complaint said that after his arrest, Arbabsiar made several calls to Shakuri in which they discussed the purchase of their "Chevrolet," and Shakuri urged Arbabsiar to "just do it quickly."

No one answered the door Tuesday at Arbabsiar's two-story home, decorated for Halloween, at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Austin suburb of Round Rock.  A neighbor said he frequently saw Arbabsiar walking around smoking cigarettes and talking on a cellphone in a language the neighbor didn't understand.  Public records show Arbabsiar has been married at least twice and has a history of arrests in Texas for offenses that include evading arrest and theft.

David Tomscha told The Associated Press in an interview that he and Arbabsiar once owned a used car lot together in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Tomscha said Arbabsiar was likable, but a bit lazy, and "sort of a hustler."

Iran called the accusation both false and baseless.  In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mihman-parast condemned such acts and said "such worn-out tricks which are upon old and hostile policies of the U.S. and the Zionist regime is a comic show in direction of making special scenarios with the aim of sowing discord."

Members of Congress were quick to condemn Iran over the plot.  Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul said if it was indeed sponsored by the Iranian government, "this would constitute an act of war not only against the Saudis and Israelis but against the United States as well."

"This is dangerous new territory for Iran," said Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.  "It is the latest in a series of aggressive actions -- from their nuclear program to state sponsorship of terrorism, from complicity in killing our soldiers in Iraq to now plotting hostile acts on U.S. soil."

--Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Desmond Butler in Washington, Will Weissert in Round Rock, Texas, Danny Robbins in Dallas, and Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.