Saudi ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir at a news conference at the Saudi Arabian… (Shaun Heasley / Reuters )
The U.S. government believes it is highly likely that Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
signed off on a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies here, senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.
"This is the kind of operation -- the assassination of a diplomat on foreign soil -- that would have been vetted at the highest levels of the Iranian government," said a senior official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the sensitive analysis. "We can't prove that, but we do not think it was a rogue operation in any way."
At the same time, the officials said they believe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's intelligence service probably weren't briefed on the operation, which they allege would have been carried out by the Quds Force, a secretive unit of Iran's military that has been blamed for sponsoring previous terrorist attacks.
The Quds Force, which the U.S. says supplies arms and training to insurgents who have killed American forces in Iran, reports directly to Khamenei, the officials said.
Iran has called the allegations "a fabrication."
Outside experts have expressed skepticism about whether the Iranian regime approved the operation. They pointed out that the alleged plot, detailed in an FBI criminal complaint Tuesday, seemed surprisingly sloppy and risky for the Quds Force, which has a reputation for deadly competence.
They also noted that an attack on U.S. soil would mark a dramatic escalation in Iranian behavior. And analysts questioned why the Iranians would seek to hire a reputed Mexican drug cartel figure they didn't know well -- who turned out to be a U.S. informant -- and why they would risk wiring money from Iran to pay him.
Several U.S. officials who closely examined the matter said they, too, have grappled with these questions since learning of the plot several months ago, and were at first deeply skeptical.
"Initially, our reaction was, 'This doesn't make sense. Prove to me this is really possible,' " one official said. But when they were able to document the transfer of $100,000 from Quds Force officials to the informant, they concluded the plot was real, they said.
And, based on their understanding of how the Quds Force operates, it's highly likely that its commander, Qasem Soleimani, discussed the operation with Khamenei.
They acknowledged, however, that they possessed no "smoking gun" documenting that.
The American officials theorize that Iran saw the operation as targeting their enemy Saudi Arabia, not understanding that a bombing on U.S. soil would be seen as an attack against the United States. And they noted that the Quds Force would find it more difficult to operate in North America than in the Middle East, which may explain the plot's strange shortcomings.
Shiite Iran is angry over the use of Saudi troops to put down a Shiite protest movement in Bahrain, a majority Shiite gulf state ruled by a Sunni minority, the officials said.
The criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday said that Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian American living in Texas, flew to Mexico and, at the behest of the Quds Force, agreed to pay a man he believed to be a cartel operative $1.5 million to kill the ambassador. Over time, the plot focused on bombing an unspecified restaurant the ambassador frequented, the complaint said.
The "cartel member" turned out to be a confidential informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He reported the solicitation to U.S. law enforcement and recorded his conversations with Arbabsiar, officials said.
Arbabsiar gave the man a down payment of about $100,000 and told him the plot should go ahead even if 100 or more bystanders would die in the explosion, the complaint said. "They want that guy done, if the 100 go with him," he allegedly said.
The case "reads like the pages of a Hollywood script," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told reporters in announcing the arrest Tuesday along with Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., but "the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost."
U.S. officials said the Quds Force also wanted Arbabsiar to bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, and that while those plots were less well-developed than the planned killing of envoy Adel Al-Jubeir, they believe Iran intended for them to be carried out.
The officials also said that the U.S. picked up other intelligence, separate from the DEA informant, that indicated the existence of the plot, but they said it was unclear whether the alleged conspiracy would have been unraveled without the informant.
A U.S. law enforcement official on Tuesday called it "a lucky break" that the Iranians chose a man who turned out to be an American informant.