U.S. Foils Plot To Kill Saudi Ambassador

The Justice Department has charged an Iranian-American man, among others, with plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, elements of Iran's government directed the plot.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning we're looking at accusations that portray a story of international intrigue - a dramatic plot involving the targeting of a diplomat with the help of a drug cartel. The U.S. government claims that, quote, elements of the Iranian government sought the assassination of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. An Iranian-American allegedly tried to hire a Mexican drug cartel to carry out that killing in Washington, D.C. U.S. officials say the plot was thwarted because the would-be hit man was actually a paid informant for the U.S. government. The Iranian-American is now under arrest.

Joining us to discuss this entire story is NPR's Tom Gjelten. And, you know, what can I say, strange story. What are we to make of it?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: You know, Renee, we have to say two things. It's - you have to say it's brazen and you have to say it's bizarre. I mean the idea here was allegedly to assassinate a diplomat on U.S. territory. That is pretty brazen. The Iranians have been known to send out hit squads before, Renee, against dissident exiles, against the Jewish community in Argentina, but this goes way above and beyond.

The Iranians here are alleged to have approved a plan to bomb a restaurant where the Saudi ambassador would be having dinner here in Washington, D.C. on U.S. territory without apparent regard for civilian casualties. Here is what the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Preet Bharara, said yesterday. He's talking about what the informant relayed of his conversation with the Iranian operative.

PREET BHARARA: When the confidential source noted that there could be 100 or 150 people in a fictional restaurant where the requested bombing would take place, including possibly members of the United States Congress, the lead defendant, acting on behalf of a component of the government of Iran, said, no problem and no big deal.

GJELTEN: And Renee, let me read just a bit from the complaint to back that up. The Iranian, a man by the name of Mansor Arbabsiar, has said he's acting on the behest of his cousin back in Iran, whom he describes as a big general. This is a conversation with the informant. I don't know what exactly your cousin wants me to do, the informant says. Arbabsiar responds: He wants you to kill the guy. The informant then says: There's going to be like American people there in the restaurant, to which Arbabsiar allegedly says: Sometimes, you know, you have no choice.

MONTAGNE: Well, Tom, as you have just said, if true, it would be incredibly brazen to try and do something like this.

GJELTEN: Yeah. And as I say, also bizarre, I mean bizarre in the sense that Arbabsiar went to Mexico and hired someone he believed to be a hit man for a drug cartel, but Renee, who was actually a paid informant for the U.S. government. It raises the question of how well the Iranian intelligence service checked this guy out. It's really hard to believe.

MONTAGNE: Well, again, the question is whether this really is the work of the Iranian government. I mean...

GJELTEN: That is the big question. And here is what Attorney General Eric Holder said about this yesterday. He chose his words very carefully.

ERIC HOLDER: This was directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government, and specifically senior members of the Quds Force, which is a part of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian military. High-up officials in those agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot.

GJELTEN: Now, Renee, let's point out who the Quds Force is. They do overseas mission for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They've been implicated in terrorism and assassinations before and in attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. But here's something to keep in mind: If Iran were a normal government, a plot like this would have to be approved, no doubt, by the country's leadership. But Iran is not a normal government. The Quds Force is somewhat independent and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, certainly has enemies out there to get him. So it's hard to figure this out.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, what is the evidence besides the word of this Mr. Arbabsiar, the Iranian-American, who you're saying is now under arrest?

GJELTEN: The only evidence we know of is what's in the complaint. He was arrested and after he was arrested he made phone calls under the supervision of U.S. authorities back to his people in Iran, and those phone calls were recorded, so there is evidence of the Iranians back in Iran talking to him about what he was to do.

MONTAGNE: And talking about holding Iran accountable, how might the U.S. do this?

GJELTEN: Well, the United States clearly wants to move internationally. They'd like to see toughened sanctions. They're going to be talking about this plot with U.S. allies and hoping to build more international support for isolating Iran, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tom Gjelten.

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