U.S. authorities broke up a plot by two men linked to the Iranian government to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said one of two men charged in the plot, both originally from Iran, had been arrested and had confessed.
The other man, who was still at large, was described in the criminal complaint as being a member of the elite Quds Force, which is part of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
"High-up (Iranian) officials in those agencies ... were responsible for this plot," Holder told a news conference. "I think one has to be concerned about the chilling nature of what the Iranian government attempted to do here," he said.
The two men were charged in a U.S. court. Gholam Shakuri was described in the criminal complaint as a member of the Quds Force and is believed to be in Iran.
The arrested suspected was Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen and holds an Iranian passport. He was
detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on September 29.
Arbabsiar made a brief appearance in a Manhattan courtroom where he was ordered detained and assigned a public defender. He appeared in blue jeans and a dress shirt. He had thinning gray hair and a scar on the left side of his face.
Iran swiftly rejected the allegation. "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," state English language Press TV said, without elaborating or giving a source.
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.
The United States slapped economic sanctions on five Iranians including four senior members of the Quds.
The target of the plot was Saudi ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, according to the criminal complaint. U.S. allied Saudi Arabia and Iran, both major oil exporting countries, are historic regional rivals that have struggled for dominance in the Gulf.
Relations were already sour between the Tehran and Washington, which accuses the Islamic republic of backing terrorism and pursuing nuclear arms, a charge Iran has denied.
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' case and the alleged plot.
Officials said that the Saudi ambassador, Adel Al-Jubeir, 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 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.
Shakuri approved the plan to kill the ambassador during telephone conversations with Arbabsiar, the complaint said.
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.
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.