NEW YORK — A Texas man pleaded guilty Wednesday to plotting to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, agreeing to hire what he thought was a drug dealer in Mexico last year for $1.5 million to carry out the attack with explosives at a Washington restaurant.
Manssor Arbabsiar, 57, entered the plea to two conspiracy charges and a murder-for-hire count in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where Judge John F. Keenan repeatedly asked Arbabsiar whether he intended to kill the ambassador. Arbabsiar, a U.S. citizen who holds an Iranian passport, said he did.
Sentencing was set for Jan. 23, when defense lawyers are likely to cite their claims that Arbabsiar is bipolar in asking for leniency. He faces up to 25 years in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Kim asked Arbabsiar if Iranian military officials based in Iran were involved in the plot. Arbabsiar said they were.
In a news release issued after the plea, Attorney General Eric Holder cited the efforts of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in disrupting "a deadly plot approved by members of the Iranian military to assassinate a sitting foreign ambassador on U.S. soil."
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara noted that the harm likely would have extended beyond the ambassador, calling Arbabsiar "the extended murderous hand of his co-conspirators, officials of the Iranian military based in Iran, who plotted to kill the Saudi Ambassador in the United States and were willing to kill as many bystanders as necessary to do so."
He said Arbabsiar "was in telephone contact with his Iranian confederates while he brokered an audacious plot."
Arbabsiar admitted that he was directed by Iranian military officials to go to Mexico on multiple occasions from the spring to the fall last year to arrange the assassination.
Arbabsiar, who lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, for more than a decade, said he met a man in Mexico named Junior, "who turned out to be an FBI agent." He said that he and others had agreed to arrange the kidnapping of the ambassador, Adel Al-Jubeir, but Junior said it would be easier to kill the ambassador. The agent was actually a Drug Enforcement Administration confidential source posing as a representative of a drug cartel.
The government said in a news release that Arbabsiar had described to the DEA source how his cousin in Iran, a "big general" in the Iranian military, had requested that Arbabsiar find someone to carry out the ambassador's assassination. It said Arbabsiar rejected as "no big deal" the DEA's worries about bystanders in a restaurant bombing, including the possibility that U.S. senators who dine there could be killed.
Arbabsiar has been held without bail since he was arrested Sept. 29, 2011 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. He was brought into court Wednesday in handcuffs. He spoke English and did not use a translator, despite saying he understood only about half of what he read in English. Bearded and bespectacled, he smiled several times during the proceeding, including in the direction of courtroom artists who were seated in the jury box when he entered court.
Kim said that if the government had proceeded to trial, it would have presented a jury with secretly recorded conversations between Arbabsiar and the confidential source, along with Arbabsiar's extensive post-arrest statement to authorities and emails and financial records.
Authorities have said they secretly recorded conversations between Arbabsiar and the DEA informant after Arbabsiar approached the informant in Mexico and asked his knowledge of explosives for a plot to blow up the Saudi embassy in Washington. They said Arbabsiar later offered $1.5 million for the death of the ambassador.
Arbabsiar admitted Wednesday that he made a $100,000 down payment wired from an overseas account through a Manhattan bank in two wire transfers on Aug. 1, 2011, and Aug. 9, 2011.
After his arrest, Arbabsiar confessed that he was recruited, funded and directed by men he believed were senior officials in Iran's Qods Force, a branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that in 2007 was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a supporter of the Taliban and terrorist organizations, the government said.
It said he claimed that he met several times in Iran with Gholam Shakuri, a co-conspirator and Iran-based member of the Qods Force, and another senior Qods Force official. After his arrest, Arbabsiar made phone calls at the direction of law enforcement to Shakuri in Iran and Shakuri confirmed that Arbabsiar should move forward with the ambassador plot, the government said.
Shakuri, also charged in the plot, remains a fugitive.