Saudis, U.S. trade charges with Iran over plot

Wed Oct 12, 2011 7:21pm EDT
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By Mark Hosenball and Parisa Hafezi

WASHINGTON/TEHRAN (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia and the United States traded charges with Iran Wednesday over an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, deepening divisions and sharpening a contest for power in the oil-rich Gulf.

The Saudis, long at odds with Tehran, said Iran would "pay the price" for an exotic plot described by U.S. officials to assassinate their ambassador. The United States threatened further sanctions on Iran, while Tehran called the accusation a fabrication designed to sow discord in the region.

In Washington, U.S. officials said it was "more than likely" that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and the head of its elite Quds force knew of the alleged plot. But the officials acknowledged that they had no hard evidence for the claim.

The American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said it was possible that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not know.

Those comments raised the prospect that the affair -- handled, analysts said, with little of the professionalism that usually marks Iranian covert activities -- was the work of a faction within Iran's divided political system.

U.S. officials said the elaborate plot -- which they compared to a film script -- would justify pushing for a new round of U.N. sanctions against Iran. The U.S. Treasury slapped sanctions on Mahan Air, a commercial Iranian airline which it said provided funds and transport for Iran's elite forces.

"We're responding very concretely with actions we know will have an impact on Iran and will make clear this kind of behavior is unacceptable and will further isolate Iran," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Speaking in London, Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, himself a former ambassador to Washington, said: "The burden of proof is overwhelming ... and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this. Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price."   Continued...

<p>Manssor Arbabsiar is shown in this courtroom sketch during an appearance in a Manhattan courtroom in New York, New York on October 11, 2011. Arbabsiar, 56, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen and holds an Iranian passport, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Sept. 29. U.S. authorities broke up a plot by two men linked to the Iranian government to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington. Arbabsiar was ordered detained and assigned a public defender. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg</p>