American officials charged that an alleged plot by Iran to blow up the Saudi ambassador as he dined in Washington marks a radical shift by Tehran toward direct confrontation with the United States.
The FBI said Tuesday that it had broken up a conspiracy orchestrated by a secretive unit of Iran's military with close ties to the country's senior leadership. In addition to criminal charges against two alleged perpetrators, the U.S. announced sanctions against five people, including two described as senior officials of Iran's Revolutionary Guard who were accused of overseeing the plot to kill Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir.
The high-profile nature of the administration's statements, featuring the secretary of State, attorney general and director of the FBI, appeared to reflect the White House's determination to hold Iran responsible for the incident.
"We see this as a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government's use of violence to advance its agenda," said a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
In a statement, the Saudi Embassy called the plot "a despicable violation of international norms."
Iran called the allegations a "fabrication."
Late Tuesday night, the State Department warned Americans at home and abroad to watch out for possible attacks linked to the alleged plot. In a travel alert, the department said the incident could signify "a more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries, to include possible attacks in the United States."
According to the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday, members of Iran's Quds Force, an elite Revolutionary Guard unit, tried to hire what they thought was a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi envoy. The complaint said that Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian American living in Texas, flew to Mexico and, at the behest of the Quds Force, agreed to pay a man he believed to be a cartel operative $1.5 million to kill the ambassador. Over time, the plot focused on bombing an unspecified restaurant the ambassador frequented, the complaint said.
The "cartel member" turned out to be a confidential informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He reported the solicitation to U.S. law enforcement and recorded his conversations with Arbabsiar, officials said.
Arbabsiar gave the man a down payment of about $100,000 and told him the plot should go ahead even if 100 or more bystanders would die in the explosion, the complaint said. "They want that guy done, if the 100 go with him," he allegedly said.
The case "reads like the pages of a Hollywood script," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told reporters in announcing the arrest along with Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., but "the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost."
At Arbabsiar's arraignment in New York on Tuesday, his lawyer said he would plead not guilty.
The fact that the man the Iranians allegedly contacted was an informant allowed U.S. officials to monitor the conversations from the outset in May, officials said.
"Was it a lucky break? Yes," said a U.S. law enforcement official, "but everybody jumped on it."
The plotters also discussed an attack against the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a Senate speech. An Israeli Embassy spokesman said he could not confirm that.
U.S. officials previously have accused the Quds Force of sponsoring terrorist attacks abroad, including assassinations, and of roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. But officials expressed shock and anger at the allegation that Iranian operatives would plan to kill a diplomat on U.S. soil.
Seth Jones, an expert on Iran with the Rand Corp., said if the Quds Force was plotting attacks inside the United States, it would amount to "a notable change in behavior." It would be very hard to believe that senior Iranian officials condoned such an operation, he said.
At the news conference announcing the case, Holder noted that the criminal complaint did not allege involvement by top officials of the Iranian government. Separately, U.S. intelligence officials would not say whether evidence directly linked senior members of the Iranian government to the conspiracy.
Other U.S. officials, however, went further.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the evidence suggested the purported plot was approved "at the highest levels of the Iranian government" in part because the Quds Force is believed to report directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The criminal complaint lays out a series of recorded phone conversations from May to October between the two men charged in the case, Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri, alleged to be an Iran-based member of the Quds Force. Arbabsiar was arrested Sept. 29 and confessed after being read his Miranda rights, the FBI said. Shakuri presumably remains in Iran.
While they interrogated him, U.S. officials showed Arbabsiar an array of seven photos, two of which were of senior members of the Quds Force, the complaint said. Arbabsiar identified one of the known Quds Force officials as a senior commander he met with in Iran who was coordinating the alleged plot.
Expressing outrage, lawmakers urged the Obama administration to confront Iran. Reps. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) called the alleged plot "an act of war." But no one was calling for a military strike, and the U.S. has been leveling economic sanctions against Iran for years, with no measurable change in behavior.
Rogers said he hoped the revelations put pressure on the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians to go along with tougher U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an appearance at the State Department, said, "We will be consulting with our friends and partners around the world about how we can send a very strong message that this kind of action, which violates international norms, must be ended."
Asked about possible military action, the White House official said, "We never rule out options, but clearly the actions we're discussing today are increasing economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran."
Saudi Arabia, the center of Sunni Islam, and Iran, a Shiite-dominated country, are bitter enemies. A State Department cable dated April 20, 2008, disclosed by WikiLeaks, quotes Al-Jubeir as telling American officials that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia wants to the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake" by launching military strikes against Iran's nuclear program.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born Mideast specialist who advised the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011, said the alleged plot suggested that the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran "is more intense and significant than we have assumed" and may have been further inflamed by the "Arab Spring."
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas in Washington, Geraldine Baum in New York and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston contributed to this report.