Political pressure mounted on the Obama administration Wednesday to take a tougher stance on Iran after the disclosure of a Tehran-linked plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in a Washington restaurant.
Members of Congress from both parties are calling for the expulsion of Iranian diplomats and tighter economic sanctions against the regime, which engaged Wednesday in a public counteroffensive against the charges, calling them “an American-Zionist plot” to distract the U.S. populace from its economic woes.
Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, said the administration’s response was “timid,” and he called on the administration to fully enforce U.S. sanctions imposed by Congress.
Mr. Sherman, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, said administration officials had failed to fully implement the sanctions for fear of damaging business interests and offending allies.
“The problem is that the State Department won’t do anything that is opposed by any European government or multinational company,” he said in an interview.
The Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter T. King of New York, said the Obama administration should expel Iranian diplomats.
“While I intend to support the president’s ultimate decision, I believe that he should consider expelling Iranian officials, especially known intelligence officers, from the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York, and the Iranian Interests Section in Washington,” Mr. King said in a statement.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill that the plot “may be” an act of war, although he stopped short of saying so definitively.
Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen who also holds an Iranian passport, and Gholam Shakuri, a Tehran-based senior official in Iran’s Qods Force religious militia, were charged Tuesday with trying to hire a supposed member of the deadly Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas to bomb an unspecified D.C. restaurant the ambassador was known to frequent.
Mr. King said that if the plot to kill Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir — uncovered using a sting operation with a paid Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant — had succeeded, it would have been “an act of war” by Iran against the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Sherman said that “if there are any [diplomats] that we have evidence are intelligence officers,” they should be expelled.
But he added: “That is exactly the kind of token and meaningless response that I expect will be oversold to the American people” as a tough response.
State Department and other officials said Wednesday that U.S. diplomats were reaching out to allies to orchestrate a response that would further isolate Iran. At the United Nations, officials briefed Security Council members. In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with the diplomatic corps to outline evidence about the plot.
The Iranian government, through official and unofficial channels, issued a broad attack Wednesday on the U.S. and denounced the terrorism charges as an attempt to distract the public.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech on state TV that “the capitalist system and the West” were doomed, as shown by the “Occupy Wall Street” protests and “the heavy-handed treatment of the demonstrators by U.S. officials.”
The Fars News Agency quoted parliament member Alaeddin Boroujerdi as saying there was “no doubt this is a new American-Zionist plot to divert the public opinion from the crisis Obama is grappling with.”
According to reporters in Tehran, Iran’s Foreign Ministry also complained to the Swiss Embassy and called in the ambassador personally to inveigh “against the repetition of such politically motivated allegations.” Iran and the U.S. have no diplomatic relations and Switzerland handles each country’s diplomatic affairs in the other’s capital.
Mohammad Khazaee, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., also denied the charges, sending a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that also called “the current U.S. warmongering and propaganda machine against Iran” a threat to the whole region.
In Washington, the Treasury Department moved Wednesday to sanction an Iranian commercial airline linked to the Qods Force, the Iranian subunit that is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Islamic shock troops, that U.S. officials say was behind the plot.
Mahan Air worked with the Qods Force “secretly ferrying operatives, weapons and funds on its flights,” said Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen.
Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank that advocates tougher sanctions against Tehran, predicted harsher penalties.
“There will be a lot of sanctions activity” from both the executive and legislative branches, he said.
Legislation that had been dormant in the House and Senate would now likely pass, Mr. Dubowitz said, but he added that more sanctions would not be enough.
“We have been in a sanctions sleepwalk with Iran,” he said. “We have to move beyond that to a more forceful response. How about using drones to take out some of those” linked to the plot, or to Iran’s activities aiding insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan? he asked.
“The Iranians are clearly at the point where they feel they can act with impunity,” he said.
On Wednesday, the plot’s purported target issued its first public words, though the traditionally cautious Saudis did not announce any immediate retaliation or make specific threats. The Saudi Press Agency called the “outrageous and heinous” plot a violation of international law and asked “the international community” to “assume their responsibilities relating to these terrorist acts.”
Iran also verbally fired at Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, saying the kingdom was being used by the U.S. “This is in line with policy of divide and rule,” Farhad Bashiri told an open session of Iran’s parliament. “Saudi Arabia should be careful not to fall in the U.S. trap.”
In an indictment unsealed Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged the two men with multiple counts of conspiracy. Officials and court documents revealed that Mr. Arbabsiar approached a man he suspected was working for Mexico’s Los Zetas drug cartel, but who was actually a paid DEA informant.
In recorded meetings and telephone conversations, Mr. Arbabsiar agreed to facilitate a $1.5 million payment from Iran to the informant for the killing. A down payment of $100,000 was transferred from Iran to a special undercover FBI account.
Michael Braun, a veteran DEA official who retired as the agency’s chief of operations in 2008 told a hearing of Mr. Sherman’s subcommittee on Wednesday there was a dangerous convergence between drug smugglers and terrorists, not just in the Western Hemisphere but globally.
“In some permissive environments, drug cartels and terror groups are coming together,” he said. They include the Tri-Border region of South America where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet; West Africa, increasingly a transit point for Latin American drug suppliers; and parts of Mexico.
“They are sharing lessons learned. They are talking business,” Mr. Braun said. “That’s been playing out for a long time.
“I believe it was that kind of a scenario that enabled the informant to be in exactly the right place at the right time” to be approached by the Iranians, said Mr. Braun, currently a managing partner at the Spectre Group International security group.
He said: “There’s growing and very clear evidence of this very, very close relationship between [the Lebanese Shiite terror group] Hezbollah and the Qods Force when it comes to global organized criminal activity.”
Mr. Braun said the Qods Force could be a command and control directorate for Hezbollah’s growing involvement in the global cocaine trade.
Another witness at the hearing, Doug Farar, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a research group in Washington, testified that while “elements of the mullah leadership [in Iran] would have to have known about the plot,” it was unclear who might ultimately be behind it.
“I think there’s a lot of concern that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad does not necessarily control the Qods Force,” which is instead under the command of elements of the Islamic state’s revolutionary religious leadership, Mr. Farar said.