In a case that reads like a spy novel, a US-Iranian citizen was charged in New York Tuesday for allegedly plotting with an Iranian special operations officer to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
The alleged plot – code named “Chevrolet” – involved a promised $1.5 million payment to an associate of a violent drug cartel in Mexico who suggested he would plant an explosive device in the ambassador’s favorite restaurant in Washington.
Based on that promise, a $100,000 down payment was wired through a bank in New York City.
What the alleged Iranian conspirators did not know is that their would-be assassin was, in fact, an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
The assassination plot never developed beyond mere talk.
“This conspiracy was conceived, was sponsored, and was directed from Iran, and constitutes a flagrant violation of US and international law,” Mr. Holder said.
When pressed for details about whether senior Iranian government officials had known about or authorized the assassination, Holder said: “We are not making that charge at this point.”
The attorney general said federal agents had information that senior members of a special operations branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were responsible for the plot.
Charges were filed in federal court in Manhattan against Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalized US citizen, and Gholam Shakuri, a colonel in the Iran-based Quds Force, a commando group accused by the US of sponsoring terror attacks outside Iran. (Al-Quds is Arabic for Jersusalem.)
Mr. Arbabsiar was arrested Sept. 29 at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. He made his initial appearance in court on Tuesday. If convicted he faces up to life in prison.
Mr. Shakuri remains at large and is presumed to be in Tehran.
The alleged plot began in early spring when Arbabsiar was approached and recruited by his cousin during a trip to Iran, according to federal documents.
Arbabsiar has said he was given “thousands of dollars” to find a drug dealer in Mexico willing to kidnap the Saudi ambassador in Washington and to undertake several other covert operations for payment.
On May 24, Arbabsiar traveled from Houston to Mexico where he met the DEA’s confidential source. During several meetings, Arbabsiar agreed to pay the confidential source to kill the ambassador.
The negotiations were allegedly conducted at the direction and approval of Shakuri, as well as Arbabsiar’s cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, and two other members of the Quds Force – Qasem Soleimani and Hamed Abdollahi.
Most of the meetings in Mexico were recorded by the confidential source.
At a meeting on July 17, the would-be assassin told Arbabsiar that one of his associates had begun surveillance of the ambassador and that there might be significant bystander casualties. “I don’t know exactly what your cousin wants me to do,” the confidential source said.
“He wants you to kill this guy,” Arbabsiar responds, according to federal documents.
“There’s gonna be like American people there … in the restaurant,” the confidential source replied. “You want me to do it outside or in the restaurant?”
Arbabsiar: “Doesn’t matter how you do it. I mean if you do it by himself, kill is better, but … sometime, you know, you have no choice.”
The would-be assassin warned that there might be 100 or 150 other diners in the restaurant during the bombing – including many US senators.
“They want that guy [the ambassador] done [killed],” Arbabsiar is quoted as saying. Adding that he had no qualms, “If the hundred go with him."
At one point Arbabsiar attempted to reassure the confidential source that his backers had the $1.5 million. “This is politics, ok … it’s not like, eh, personal,” he said, according to federal documents.
He said his cousin in Iran “has the government behind him … he’s not paying from his pocket.”
On Aug. 1 and Aug. 9, two installments totaling nearly $100,000 were wired to a decoy bank account set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The confidential source then told Arbabsiar that he’d need at least half the $1.5 million before the assassination.
When the Iranians balked at paying more, the confidential source told Abbabsiar he must come to Mexico and provide himself as collateral for the remaining $1.4 million payment or the assassination was off.
Arbabsiar flew from New York to Mexico on Sept. 28. Mexican authorities refused to allow him to enter the country and instead placed him on a return flight to New York, where federal agents were waiting to arrest him.
Arbabsiar was apparently questioned for several hours before being given Miranda warnings. At some point he agreed to waive his right to remain silent and to consult a lawyer and offered a confession of his role in the assassination plot, officials say.
In the days after his arrest, at the direction of federal agents, Arbabsiar also made tape recorded phone calls to Shakuri in Iran.
“I wanted to tell you the Chevrolet is ready,” Arbabsiar told Shakuri during an Oct. 5 telephone call recorded by the FBI. “It’s ready, uh, to be done. I should continue, right?”
Shakuri is quoted in court papers as responding: “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
When Arbabsiar said the would-be assassin wanted more money upfront, Shakuri responded: “Tell him to finish his work, then we’ll give him the rest. He should buy the car for us first.”
Shakuri added: “Just do it quickly, it’s late, just buy it for me and bring it already.”