WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States accused Iran on Tuesday of backing a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, escalating tensions with Tehran and stirring up a hornet's nest in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have long jostled for power.
U.S. authorities said they had broken up a plot by two men linked to the Iranian government to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. One was arrested last month while the other was believed to be in Iran.
Iran denied the charges. Saudi Arabia called the plot "a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions."
Revelation of the alleged plot, and the apparent direct ties to the Tehran government, had the potential to further inflame tensions in the Middle East and the United States said Tehran must be held top account.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a Reuters interview, called it a "blatant violation" of international norms. She expressed hope that countries that have hesitated to enforce existing sanctions on Iran would now "go the extra mile."
FBI Director Robert Mueller told reporters the convoluted plot, involving drug cartels in Mexico, big payments of money and an attempt to kill the ambassador in a Washington restaurant, could have been material for a Hollywood movie.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pointed to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is the guardian of Iran's 32-year-old revolution, and the Quds force, its covert, operational arm.
"High-up officials in those (Iranian) agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot," Holder said.
"I think one has to be concerned about the chilling nature of what the Iranian government attempted to do here," he said.
QUDS FORCE CONNECTION
According to the indictment, one of the alleged plotters said after his arrest that he had been recruited and directed by men he understood were senior Quds Force officials.
There are no formal diplomatic ties between the Islamic republic and Washington, which accuses Tehran of backing terrorism and pursuing nuclear arms, a charge Iran has denied.
Iran already faces a raft of tough economic sanctions and Washington slapped further economic sanctions on five Iranians including four senior members of Quds.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have likewise long been at odds. The Saudis, who see themselves as the center of the Sunni sect of Islam, have been alarmed by what they see as expansionist tendencies by majority Shi'ite Iran, whose people are primarily Persian rather than Arab.
U.S. officials said there had also been initial discussions about other alleged plots, including attacking the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, however no charges for that were revealed on Tuesday.
Rejection the allegations, Iran's state English language Press TV said: "The Islamic Republic of Iran has rejected U.S. accusations of the country plotting to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington as a prefabricated scenario."
Last month hopes were raised of improved ties when Iran released two U.S. hikers accused of spying when they were arrested on the Iran-Iraq border in 2009. Holder said there was no link between the hikers's case and the alleged plot.
U.S. SAYS AMBASSADOR NEVER IN DANGER
U.S. officials identified the two alleged plotters as Gholam Shakuri, who is a member of the Quds force, and Manssor Arbabsiar, who was arrested on Sept. 29 when he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport from Mexico.
Arbabsiar, 56, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen and holds an Iranian passport, initially cooperated with authorities after being arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Sept. 29.
He made calls to Shakuri after being arrested and acted as if the plot was still a go, court documents said.
Arbabsiar made a brief appearance in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday where he was ordered detained and assigned a public defender. He appeared in blue jeans and a dress shirt, thinning gray hair and a scar on the left side of his face.
Officials said that the Saudi ambassador, Al-Jubeir, who is close to King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz and has been in his post since 2007, was never in danger. President Barack Obama was briefed in June about the alleged plot and through a spokesman expressed gratitude for it being disrupted.
The assassination plot began to unfold in May 2011 when Arbabsiar approached an individual in Mexico to help, but that individual turned out to be an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The confidential source, who was a paid informant but not identified, immediately tipped law enforcement agents, according to the criminal complaint. Arbabsiar paid $100,000 to the informant in July and August for the plot, a down payment on the $1.5 million requested.
LIKE A "HOLLYWOOD MOVIE"
Shakuri approved the plan to kill the ambassador during telephone conversations with Arbabsiar, the complaint said.
As part of the plot, the informant talked to Arbabsiar about trying to kill the ambassador at a Washington, D.C. restaurant he frequented, but warned him that could lead to dozens of others being killed, including U.S. lawmakers.
The criminal complaint said that Arbabsiar responded "no problem" and "no big deal".
After Arbabsiar was arrested in New York, he allegedly confessed and provided U.S. authorities with more details about the Iranian government's alleged involvement, Holder said.
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 added: "Though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost," he said.
The men are charged with one count of conspiracy to murder a foreign official, two counts of foreign travel and use of interstate and foreign commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire and one count each of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism.
Authorities said no explosives were acquired for the plot and the weapon of mass destruction charge can range from a simple improvised device to a more significant weapon. They face up to life in prison if convicted.
(Additional reporting by James Vicini, Mark Hosenball, Tabassum Zakaria, Matt Spetalnick and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by David Storey)
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