Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty in federal court in New York on Wednesday in a scheme by members of the Iranian government to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States by bombing a Washington, D.C., restaurant.
Arbabsiar, 58, a former used car salesman from Corpus Christi, Texas, admitted arranging a $1.5 million payment from Iran to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir by bombing the restaurant, describing as “no big deal” the fact that others, including U.S. senators, could die in the attack.
The supposed bombing site was the Monocle Restaurant, the closest to Capitol Hill and a frequent dining spot for lawmakers.
Arbabsiar, who holds Iranian and U.S. passports, and Gholam Shakuri, a Tehran-based senior official in Iran’s Quds force, had been charged by federal authorities with conspiracy to murder a foreign official, conspiracy to use interstate and foreign commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire, and conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism.
Mr. Shakuri remains at large and is thought to be in Iran.
Arbabsiar pleaded guilty to charges of traveling in foreign commerce and using interstate and foreign commerce facilities in planning commission of murder for hire; conspiring to do so; and conspiring to commit an offense against the United States — an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries.
In connection with his guilty plea, Arbabsiar admitted that in 2011 he conspired with officials in the Iranian military based in Iran to cause the assassination of the Saudi ambassador while in the United States. He also acknowledged that at the direction of his co-conspirators, he traveled to Mexico on several occasions during 2011 to arrange the assassination.
Facing a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison, he is scheduled for a sentencing hearing on Jan. 23 before U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan. Arbabsiar was arrested on Sept. 29, 2011, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The Treasury Department designated as terrorists Arbabsiar, Mr. Shakuri and three other Iranians thought involved in the plot — Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani and Quds force officials Hamed Abdollahi and Abdul Reza Shahlai. The Quds force is part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and has been designated by U.S. officials as a terrorist organization because of its role in aiding attacks on allied forces in Iraq.
According to an indictment in the case, the conspiracy began last spring when Arbabsiar was approached in Tehran by his cousin, a high-ranking official in the Quds force, and asked to recruit a Mexican drug-trafficking organization to help kidnap Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Federal prosecutors said Arbabsiar was in touch with someone he thought to be a representative of a Mexican drug cartel but in fact was a drug trafficker and a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), referred to in the indictment only as CS-1. Prosecutors said that in a recorded meeting and telephone conversations, Arbabsiar agreed to facilitate a $1.5 million payment from Iran to kill Mr. al-Jubeir by bombing the restaurant.
The indictment said a down payment of $100,000 was transferred to a special undercover FBI account. Warned by the trafficker that as many as 100 people, including U.S. senators, would be in the restaurant and might be killed, Arbabsiar replied it was “no big deal.”
“The dangerous connection between drug trafficking and terrorism cannot be overstated, and this case is yet another example of DEA’s unique role in identifying potentially deadly networks that wish to harm innocent Americans and our allies worldwide,” said DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.
“Using DEA’s elaborate and sophisticated investigative expertise to infiltrate violent drug and terror organizations globally, we successfully identified this threat and worked closely with the FBI to prevent a potentially deadly outcome,” she said.
Since Arbabsiar’s arrest in late September, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Arbabsiar has confessed to his participation in the plot and provided other information about elements of the Iranian government’s role in it.
According to court documents, Arbabsiar has identified several of the Iranian conspirators, discussed their motivation and their roles in the plot, and picked one of them out of a photo lineup.
“A little more than a year after his arrest, Manssor Arbabsiar has admitted to his role in a deadly plot approved by members of the Iranian military to assassinate a sitting foreign Ambassador on U.S. soil,” Mr. Holder said.
“Today’s plea and the disruption of this plot should serve as a reminder of the exceptional efforts of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies in protecting America against terrorist attacks and in holding accountable those who plan such actions.”
The prosecution is being handled by the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit of the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, led by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Glen Kopp, Edward Kim and Stephen Ritchin.