The Saudi Arabian government has issued a menancing warning to Iranthat it will have to “pay the price” for the alleged plot to hire a Mexican drugs cartel to assassinate its ambassador in Washington.
The threat from the Saudis came as the Obama administration resisted calls from within the US, mainly from the conservative right, to retaliate against Iran with military action.
But Iran denied it was behind the alleged plot, with officials claiming Washington had fabricated the story to divide Sunni Muslims – the dominant group in Saudi – and Shias, the dominant group in Iran. Tehran’s leadership claimed Barack Obama was using the story to divert attention from the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The foreign ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador, who handles US interests in the country, to condemn what it called “baseless claims” and warn “against the repetition of such politically motivated allegations.”
A Saudi prince, Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington and a former head of the Saudi intelligence service, told a conference in London: “The burden of proof and the amount of evidence in the case is overwhelming, and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this. This is unacceptable. Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price.”
The US justice department announced on Tuesday that two men had been charged over the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, in a bomb explosion at one of his favourite restaurants.
One of the men, Manssor Arbabsiar, an American-Iranian, is alleged to have sought the help of a Mexican drugs cartel, Zetas, to provide explosives and carry out the attack. The other man, Gholam Shakuri, is in Iran, according to the US.
Relations between Saudi Arabiaand Iran have long been strained, exacerbated this year by the Saudis sending forces into neighbouring Bahrain to help put down protesters, many of them Shia Muslims.
In spite of increased tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a result of the episode, the alleged plot is being met with scepticism within the diplomatic community, as well as from foreign affairs analysts specialising in Iran, who said the plot was amateurish and did not fit in the usual Iranian modus operandi, and questioned what Iran would gain from such an episode.
A former western diplomat with an intimate knowledge of Iranian affairs said: “I don’t believe Iran’s regime was behind the plot. If we assume it was Iran’s plot, it would seem like a group of professional gangsters hiring a careless agent for their most important project. It’s impossible.”
Fresh details emerged on Wednesday about Arbabsiar, the man at the centre of the supposed plot, who appeared in court in New York on Tuesday charged with conspiracy, and who is allegedly linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
He was a car salesman in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he ran a number of businesses, largely unsuccessful. He does not fit the usual profile of an Iranian agent, who tend to be professional.
The US is taking the issue to the UN security council to seek action against Iran – but it will need to offer evidence to back its claim. One of the main pieces of evidence is a $100,000 sum transferred to the US, allegedly from Iran, as a downpayment for the assassination attempt.
Susan Rice, the UN ambassador to the UN, and a team of experts from the justice department, were briefing individual members of the security council about the plot on Wednesday.
“It is a dangerous esclation of Iran’s long-scale use of violence,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, told reporters at a briefing. On a possible military response, he said no options had been taken off the table, but emphasised that the US was focusing on diplomatic and economic measures against Iran, including new sanctions against an airline accused of transporting revolutionary guard personnel.
The vice-president Joe Biden, in an ABC television interview, said the administration was focused on mounting a major diplomatic effort to persuade its allies in Europe and elsewhere to impose tougher economic sanctions on Iran.
As the State Department issued a three-month worldwide travel alert for American citizens, secretary of state Hillary Clinton described the alleged plot as a “reckless act”.
“Such worn-out approaches are … part of the special scenarios staged and pursued by the enemies of Islam and the region to sow discord among Muslims,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying.
Fars also quoted Alaoddin Boroujerdi, the head of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, who said: “No doubt this is a new American-Zionist plot to divert the public opinion from the crisis Obama is grappling with.
Today, the United States is witnessing a popular uprising called Wall Street protests which have targeted the hostile policies of that country’s statesmen.
“Thus, Americans are seeking to derail the public opinion from the Wall Street uprising.”