WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday that officials at the "highest levels" of the Iranian government must be held accountable for a brazen and bizarre plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States on American soil, insisting leaders of the world will believe the U.S. case without dispute once they absorb the details.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, confirmed the Obama administration has had direct contact with Iran over the allegations. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, met with Iranian officials at Iran's mission to the U.N. on Wednesday — a highly unusual contact for two countries that do not have diplomatic relations. Rice also briefed top envoys from the 14 other Security Council nations.
Obama would not say whether Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, knew of the alleged plan. Yet he called it part of a pattern of "dangerous and reckless behavior" by the Iranian government and said people within that government were aware of a murder-for-hire plot.
The United States considers it an attempted act of terrorism.
"We believe that even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity," Obama said in a news conference tied to the state visit of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak.
Iran has vehemently denied anything to do with the alleged plot to kill the Saudi envoy to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, at a Washington restaurant.
U.S. officials have described it as a remarkably clumsy but deadly serious operation by Iran's elite foreign action unit, the Quds Force. The U.S. criminal complaint says the Iranian plotters hired a would-be assassin in Mexico who was a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and told U.S. authorities all about their plot. Two men were charged in New York federal court Tuesday.
Obama is seeking a vigorous response from around the world, on top of increased sanctions and pressure against Iran from the United States itself. "We've laid the facts before them," Obama said of world leaders.
The State Department conceded Thursday that the response from foreign governments was initially skeptical.
"When you look at these details, it seems like something out of a movie," said department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
"And that's always the first reaction. That was the first reaction when this effort was briefed to some senior folks in this government," she said. "But as you begin to give more detail on what we knew and when we knew it and how we knew it, it has credibility."