Washington (CNN) — U.S. agents have disrupted an Iranian assassination-for-hire scheme targeting Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.
Elements of the Iranian government directed the alleged plan, Holder said. A naturalized U.S. citizen holding Iranian and U.S. passports and a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were directly involved, the FBI said in a statement.
“The U.S. is committed to holding Iran accountable,” Holder told reporters.
A spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that the alleged plot was “a fabrication.”
The Iranian government was awaiting details about the accusations, spokesman Ali Akbar Javanfekr said. He suggested U.S. authorities were attempting to distract American citizens.
“They want to take the public’s mind off the serious domestic problems they’re facing these days and scare them with fabricated problems outside the country,” he said.
The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington issued a statement Tuesday thanking U.S. authorities for stepping in.
“The attempted plot is a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions and is not in accord with the principles of humanity,” the embassy’s statement said.
The Saudi ambassador was not the only intended target, U.S. officials said. Suspects also discussed attacking Israeli and Saudi embassies in Washington and possibly Buenos Aires, Argentina, a senior U.S. official said.
It is unclear why Iran targeted the Saudi ambassador, the senior U.S. official said, or how widespread knowledge or approval of the plot was within Ahmadinejad’s government.
Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, and Gholam Shakuri, an Iran-based member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, began planning this spring to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, an FBI agent’s affidavit released Tuesday alleged.
Charges against them include conspiracy to murder a foreign official, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, the affidavit said.
Authorities unraveled the plot with the help of an informant posing as an associate of a Mexican drug cartel, Holder said.
Arbabsiar and the undercover informant allegedly discussed using explosives to kill the ambassador and possibly attacking a crowded restaurant, according to the affidavit.
Arbabsiar also told the informant he wanted to target additional government facilities associated with Saudi Arabia and a second, undisclosed country within and outside of the United States, FBI agent O. Robert Woloszyn’s affidavit said.
The alleged plot read “like the pages of a Hollywood script,” but the implications were real, FBI Director Robert Mueller said.
“This case illustrates that we live in a world where borders and boundaries are increasingly irrelevant — a world where individuals from one country sought to conspire with a drug trafficking cartel in another country to assassinate a foreign official on United States soil,” he said.
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, told reporters Tuesday that the alleged $1.5 million plot was “well-funded and pernicious.”
“Details of that murder plot are chilling,” he said.
A U.S. official said Tuesday that the United States is likely to respond with additional sanctions against Iran. The United States will also be taking up the issue with the U.N. Security Council and other members of the international community, the official said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that additional actions to further isolate the Iranian regime will be considered.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions Tuesday targeting Arbabsiar, Shakuri and three others tied to the alleged plot.
In the affidavit, Woloszyn alleged the case involves a branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that is suspected of being involved in a number of foreign operations.
The branch, the Quds Force, is accused by U.S. officials of sponsoring attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, and in October 2007, the Treasury Department designated it as “providing material to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations,” the affidavit said.
Often considered regional rivals, the oil-rich Saudi Kingdom has been at odds with its Iranian counterpart.
The country’s Sunni leaders have at times discussed directly intervening in Iraq following the U.S. military withdrawal, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report. Iran has largely supported Shiite militias in Iraq.