WASHINGTON — The straight-out-of-pulp-fiction plot by alleged Iranian operatives to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington was so badly bungled that investigators initially were skeptical that the Iranian government was behind it, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Officials laying out the details of the case admitted their own early doubts about an Iranian role as they sought to counter wider skepticism and confusion about the unusual scheme, one that carries far-reaching consequences.
Less than 24 hours after disclosing the plot's disruption, the Obama administration spent much of the day outlining the evidence, not only to journalists but to international allies and to members of Congress. In briefings and phone calls, U.S. officials sought to explain how Iran's Quds Force ended up enlisting a used-car salesman and a Mexican drug gang in a plan to kill Saudi Arabia's U.S. ambassador and blow up embassies in Washington and Buenos Aires.
Western diplomats who were privately briefed by U.S. officials at U.N. headquarters in New York said the Americans expressed concern that the plot's cartoonish quality would invite suspicions and conspiracy theories.
Although Justice Department officials say they convincingly linked the assassination plan to "elements of the Iranian government," specifically the paramilitary Quds Force, U.S. officials acknowledged that the case bore few of the hallmarks of a unit that has trained and equipped militants and assassins.
After months of undercover work, the official said, investigators began to see convincing evidence, including money transfers from Iran, that linked the plot to the Quds Force. While acknowledging they did not have conclusive proof, the U.S. officials said they were convinced that Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were aware at minimum of the plot's general outlines.
The officials said American investigators theorized that the operatives' sloppiness reflected Iran's inexperience in working in North America. But they said the oddly brazen nature of the plot may also may reflect the naivete of the clique of hard-line clerics that has come to dominate Iran's leadership in recent years.
The clerics have no Western experience, and they greatly misunderstand the United States, an official, who requested anonymity, told the Washington Post.
The administration also began the work of marshalling international support for harsher measures against Iran, although it was not yet clear what those would be.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton blasted Iran for what she called a "dangerous escalation" of the country's decades-long tradition of supporting assassination and terrorism overseas, and she called on allies to help increase Iran's diplomatic and economic isolation.
"We will work closely with our international partners to increase Iran's isolation and the pressure on its government and we call upon other nations to join us in condemning this threat to international peace and security," Clinton said.
Her words strongly suggested that the United States wants some new action against Iran from the U.N. Security Council.
The administration is under pressure from Congress to take firm action against Iran, beyond new economic sanctions announced Tuesday. Suggestions ranged from sanctions targeting Iran's central bank to military exercises off its coast.
Justice Department officials disrupted the plot in September with the arrest of an Iranian-American, Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, who is accused of working with Quds Force members in Iran to carry out the hit against Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
According to court documents, Arbabsiar was tasked by a Quds Force operative with recruiting Mexican hit men for a $1.5 million plan to kill Al-Jubeir as he dined in a Washington restaurant. The plan was foiled when Arbabsiar made contact with a man he mistakenly believed was a drug cartel member. Instead, he was a paid undercover informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In Tehran, the U.S. accusations have been dismissed by government spokesmen as fabrications intended to isolate Iran and distract public attention from U.S. economic worries. But Iranian analysts agreed that even if U.S. charges of official Iranian involvement were true, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government probably had nothing to do with the scheme.
The security organizations that the United States says were behind the alleged plot, the Quds Force and its parent, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, are well beyond Ahmadinejad's influence.
And leaders associated with them have played key roles in attacking Ahmadinejad during his recent rift with powerful Shiite Muslim clerics and commanders who helped bring him to power.