It’s not everyday that the U.S. Attorney General and director of the FBI stand at a press conference and accuse military officials in a foreign country of plotting to assassinate an ambassador to the United States.
But that’s just what happened Tuesday, when Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller went before the cameras at the Justice Department and laid out the details of an alleged plot to kill the Saudi Arabian Ambassador, involving a Texas-based Iranian-American named Manssor Arbabsiar.
In a plot described by Mueller as something from the “pages of a Hollywood script” and by Gawker’s John Cook as “a scenario that sounds like a right-wing fever dream,” the feds say Arbabsiar, a used car salesman, plotted with high-ranking Iranian military officials to have a member of a Mexican drug cartel kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador.
“The complaint alleges that this conspiracy was conceived, sponsored and directed from Iran and constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, including a convention that explicitly protects diplomats from being harmed,” Holder told reporters, pledging that the U.S. “is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions.”
But just where should that blame fall? Does the U.S. really think that Iranian leadership signed off on the plan? After all, it seems a likely possibility that you might not know when a general in your Revolutionary Guard’s covert division goes off plotting an assassination plot (or, say, when some agents under your command concoct a flawed anti-gunrunning plan that lets guns flow across the Mexican border).
Holder clarified at the press conference that the complaint did not charge that Iranian government leadership knew of or signed off on the attack. But court papers do allege that the plot was coordinated by major players in the Quds Force, the Iran’s external special operations unit.
According to court documents, the plot allegedly developed when Arbabsiar, known as “Jack” to friends in Texas, visited Iran in the early spring of 2011.
Arbabsiar told agents that his cousin, identified by the Treasury Department as Abdul-Reza Shahlai (who Arbabsiar had “long understood” was a high-ranking “big general” in Iran’s Quds Force) had recruited him for the mission during his trip. Shahlai allegedly told Arbabsiar that he wanted him to find someone to kidnap Saudi Arabian ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir.
Most of Arbabsiar’s dealings were with Gholam Shakuri, who was described in court documents as a deputy to Iranian Official #1 (Shahlai), who has also been charged as a codefendant but is still at large in Iran.
After Arbabsiar (pictured to the right in a 2001 mugshot obtained by ABC News) allegedly met with a man he thought was affiliated with a Mexican drug cartel (but was, as it turned out, a DEA informant), he allegedly met with Shakuri and a third individual described in court documents as “Iranian Official #2” but identified as Quds official Halem Abdollahi.
Arbabsiar allegedly positively identified a non-publicly available photo of Quds Force member Abdollahi from an array of seven photographs shown to him by agents after his arrest.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for one, is taking the whole thing pretty seriously, telling the Associated Press that the plot “crosses a line” and could persuade even reluctant nations to line up against Tehran. “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?” Clinton told the AP.
The federal complaint against Arbabsiar is embedded below.