(CNSNews.com) – Defense Secretary James Mattis’ charge that Iran’s top leadership approved a foiled 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington drew a sharp response from Tehran on Tuesday.
During an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that aired on Sunday, Mattis -- in the context of talking about Iran’s provocative behavior -- recalled the plot to kill then-Saudi ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, now the kingdom’s foreign minister.
He accused the regime of “creating mischief” beyond its backyard – “to include trying to murder an Arab ambassador fewer than two miles away from the White House a couple of years ago.”
“And I’ve seen the intelligence,” Mattis continued. “This was not a rogue agent; this was an operation approved at the highest levels.”
On Tuesday, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi called Mattis’ claim “baseless,” and suggested that the defense secretary brought it up because he felt the need to respond to the “extravagant” hospitality lavished on President Trump during his recent visit to Riyadh.
Iran accused the U.S. of trying to stoke divisions among Islamic countries.
The U.S. has a longstanding record of such accusations against independent-minded countries, the IRNA state news agency cited Ghasemi as saying. Stoking division among Islamic countries was among U.S. strategic goals, he said.
The plot referred to by Mattis involved an Iranian-American dual national from Texas, Mansour Arbabsiar, who was sentenced in May 2013 to 25 years’ imprisonment for his key role in a plan by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force to kill al-Jubeir, by bombing a restaurant in Washington frequented by the ambassador.
A second man who was indicted but never caught was Gholam Shakuri, a cousin believed to be a senior member of the Qods Force.
If carried out, the bombing would almost certainly have harmed others besides the targeted Saudi.
Arbabsiar, who pleaded guilty of conspiracy and murder for hire, was alleged to have said that if a hundred other people die in the process, “f**k ’em.”
“Mansour Arbabsiar was an enemy among us – the key conduit for, and facilitator of, a nefarious international plot concocted by members of the Iranian military to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and as many innocent bystanders as necessary to get the job done,” Preet Bharara, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said after the man was sentenced in 2013.
According to Department of Justice documents filed with Manhattan federal court, the planned assassination was seen as a test run, with future assignments to follow.
The plan went awry, because Arbabsiar approached a man associated with a violent drug-trafficking cartel that had “access to military-grade weaponry and explosives” to help carry out the attack, unaware of the fact the man was a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
By the time he was arrested Arbabsiar had allegedly facilitated the transfer of $100,000 as a down payment for the job, for which a total of $1.5 million was to have been paid.
In the CBS interview, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and former head of U.S. Central Command, spoke about Iran’s malign influence in its region and beyond.
“In the U.S. Central [Command] region, what we find is wherever there are challenges, wherever there is chaos, wherever there is violence, whether it be in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, the attempts to unsettle Bahrain – we always find Iran and the IRGC at it,” he said.
“It’s not the Iranian people,” he said. “We are convinced it’s a regime that is conducting itself in order to stay in power in Tehran as a revolutionary regime, not as a proper nation-state. They are not looking out for the best interests of their own people.”
Mattis’ statement about Iran’s “highest levels” approval of the 2011 D.C. bomb plot comes at a time of particular antagonism between near-neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran was a major focus of Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia for a summit with Arab and Sunni Muslim leaders.
“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism,” Trump said in a speech to the gathering.
Iranian politicians slammed the U.S. for concluding significant arms deals with Saudi Arabia, for withholding public criticism of the kingdom’s poor human rights record, and in general for the chorus of criticism directed at their country during the meetings in Riyadh.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, the region’s leading Shi’ite and Sunni powers respectively, are backing rival groups in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
Iran and the IRGC were implicated in the gunning down of a diplomatic staffer at the Saudi Consulate in Karachi in 2011.
Killing Iranian dissidents abroad is another IRGC Qods Force specialty, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
In a 2008 report the organization recorded that at least 162 Iranians had been assassinated in 17 countries by Qods Force and other regime agents since the 1979 revolution.