WASHINGTON -- The United States yesterday accused Iranian officials of plotting to murder Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States in a scheme involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman who believed he was hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million.
The alleged plot also included plans to pay the cartel, Los Zetas, to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Argentina, according to a law enforcement official.
The plotters also discussed a side deal between the Quds Force, part of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Los Zetas to funnel tons of opium from the Middle East to Mexico, the official said.
The plans never progressed because the two suspects -- the Iranian-American and an Iranian Quds Force officer -- unwittingly were dealing with an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, officials said.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced the murder plot, said it was "directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds Force."
He added that "high-up officials in those agencies, which is an integral part of the Iranian government, were responsible for this plot."
The charges heightened tensions between Iran and the United States.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, denied the claims and said they were "nothing but an American conspiracy" to distract from U.S. failures at home and abroad, Iranian news agencies reported.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a bitter regional rivalry, one that has intensified as they jockey for influence since the political upheavals of the Arab spring.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington denounced the plot against Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir as "a despicable violation of international norms, standards, and conventions."
Mr. Holder's assertion and the FBI's account of official Iranian involvement in the plot, reportedly code-named "Chevrolet," provoked puzzlement from specialists on Iran, who said it seemed unlikely that the Iranian government would back a brazen murder and bombing plan on U.S. soil.
Investigators were initially skeptical about ties to Iran, officials said. They said, though, that the FBI monitored calls to Iran about the plot and found money had been wired from a Quds Force bank account.
In addition, the Iranian-American accused in the scheme, Mansour Arbabsiar, identified a known Quds Force officer from a photo array, and his cousin -- who he said recruited him for the plot -- is another Quds official.
It remained unclear, though, whether the plot was conceived by a rogue element or had approval from top officials of the Revolutionary Guard or Iran's government.
"It's so outside their normal track of activity," said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's a rogue plan or they're using very different tactics. We just don't know."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed incredulity in an interview with the Associated Press.
"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?" she asked, also saying that the plot "crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for."
Mr. Arbabsiar, 56, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, was named in a federal criminal complaint in New York along with Gholam Shakuri, whom the Justice Department identified as a member of the Quds Force.
Mr. Arbabsiar, who one official said sold used cars for a living, was arrested Sept. 29 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York; Mr. Shakuri is believed to be in Iran.
Minutes after the Justice Department laid out the charges, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against five people -- including four "senior" members of the Quds Force, which the United States designated as a terrorist group in 2007.
White House officials said President Obama called the Saudi ambassador yesterday to express solidarity, saying the President "underscored that the United States believes this plot to be a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, and reiterated our commitment to meet our responsibilities to ensure the security of diplomats serving in our country."
Mr. Arbabsiar made a brief appearance in federal court in Manhattan yesterday.
He did not enter a plea, but his lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, said after the hearing that "if he is indicted, he will plead not guilty."
The case began in May, when a DEA informant with ties to high-level leaders of Los Zetas told agents of a bizarre conversation. He had been approached, he said, by an Iranian friend of his aunt's in Corpus Christi -- Mr. Arbabsiar -- with a proposition to hire the cartel to carry out terrorist attacks inside the United States. Mr. Arbabsiar believed the informant was a member of Los Zetas.
Over the next two months, Mr. Arbabsiar and the informant worked out a deal under which Mr. Arbabsiar would pay $1.5 million to Los Zetas to kill the Saudi ambassador at a restaurant in Washington, officials said.
The complaint quotes Mr. Arbabsiar as making conflicting statements about the possibility of bystander deaths; at one point he is said to say that killing the ambassador alone would be preferable, but on another occasion he said it would be "no big deal" if many others at the restaurant -- possibly including U.S. senators -- died in any bombing.
There was never any risk, officials said, because the informant was working for the drug agency, and their meetings in Mexico and phone conversations were recorded by authorities.
In early August, on a visit to Iran, Mr. Arbabsiar wired nearly $100,000 to the informant's bank account as a down payment, according to court documents. Last month he flew to Mexico City from Iran, intending to serve as human "collateral" to ensure that Los Zetas would be paid the rest of their money after killing the ambassador.
But the government of Mexico, at the request of the United States, denied entry to Mr. Arbabsiar and put him on a commercial flight with a stopover in New York, where he was arrested.
The Justice Department released a letter to the court saying Mr. Arbabsiar had confessed to his role in the plot and provided "extremely valuable intelligence."