The Iranian-American accused of being the central figure in a plot involving senior Iranian officials to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington pleaded not guilty Monday in a New York court.
Manssor Arbabsiar, who lived for years in Texas where he worked as a used car salesman and is accused by U.S. authorities of plotting to get Mexican gangsters to carry out the attack, entered his plea during a five-minute hearing in federal court.
Dressed in a dark brown and blue prison smock and looking tired, Arbabsiar spoke in accented English, responding “not guilty” when the court asked how he was to plead.
He said nothing more during the hearing, after which he was led, without handcuffs, back to his cell.
Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen aged 56, was formally indicted on October 20 along with co-defendant Gholam Shakuri, whom U.S. authorities said is an Iran-based operative of the Quds force, an elite arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Shakuri remains at large.
Tehran has strongly denied any involvement in what the U.S. says was a plot by the Quds force to kill the Saudi envoy Adel al-Jubeir by hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million, possibly through the bombing of a Washington restaurant.
The case has ratcheted up tensions between Iran and the United States, with U.S. President Barack Obama demanding answers and “accountability” from Tehran if it was involved in the alleged plot.
According to the indictment, Arbabsiar and Shakuri conspired to “kill the ambassador to the United States of Saudi Arabia, while the ambassador was in the United States.”
To set up the alleged hit, Arbabsiar arranged for the wiring of $100,000 to the United States as a down payment, the indictment says.
The two co-defendants are also accused of planning for a “weapon of mass destruction” to be used against the ambassador, creating “substantial risk of serious bodily injury to others by destroying and damaging structures.”
The charges have caused another flare up in tensions between the United States and Iran, already at loggerheads over Washington’s belief that Tehran is using a civilian nuclear program to mask a bomb-making project.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ridiculed the allegations, saying Tehran will not investigate the U.S. claims.
Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, who heads up Iran’s espionage organizations, said the U.S. allegations were “too cheap to believe.”
He allegedly said he organized the hit on behalf of his cousin, whom he described as a high-ranking officer in the Quds Force.
U.S. officials said they became aware of the plot because Arbabsiar’s contact in the cartel was in fact a paid FBI informant.
According to Texas property records, Arbabsiar owned several properties across the beach town of Corpus Christi, including multiple businesses.
He was involved in, or partially owned, several used car lots. Arbabsiar also owned a fast-food outlet at a local mall, according to records.
The European Union has slapped sanctions on five Iranians in connection with the plot including Arbabsiar and Shakuri, diplomats said. The measures included a freezing of their assets.
But details such as Arbabsiar’s bumbling nature and his trust of a U.S. federal informant impersonating a Mexican drug cartel figure, have raised eyebrows among Iran specialists as to the seriousness of the plot.
The consensus view in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, probably knew of the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, while President Ahmadinejad did not.
Ahmadinejad has said Washington had fabricated the plot to cause a rift between Tehran and Saudi Arabia and dominate the oil-rich Gulf.