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Iranian-American pleads guilty in plot to kill Saudi ambassador

Manssor Arbabsiar, 57, is pictured in this courtroom sketch in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York October 17, 2012. (REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg)

NEW YORK: Iranian-American citizen Manssor Arbabsiar pleaded guilty Wednesday to plotting with the Iranian military to kill the Saudi ambassador to United States.

Appearing at the New York federal court where he had been due to stand trial in January, Arbabsiar entered a surprise guilty plea. He faces up to 25 years in prison at his sentencing, which was set for Jan. 23.

Judge John Keenan asked Arbabsiar: “Is it true that about the spring of 2011 up until the fall of 2011 that you and your co-conspirators ... who were officials in the Iranian military, that you agreed to cause the assassination of the Saudi Arabian ambassador?”

“Yes,” he replied, pleading guilty to three counts. A frail looking man with a gray beard, Arbabsiar was brought in and out of the courtroom in handcuffs and kept under tight guard. The nervous suspect had trouble recalling his age, saying: “58, I think.”

He alternated between casting worried looks around the courtroom and smiling, including at the agents seated alongside the prosecutors.

Arbabsiar was arrested in September last year at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, leading to a major legal and diplomatic drama between Washington and Tehran.

He has been charged along with co-defendant Gholam Shakuri, a senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who is at large.

Iran has strongly denied any involvement in what the U.S. says was a plot by the Quds Force, Iran’s covert external action unit, to kill the ambassador by hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million.

But Arbabsiar, who lived in Texas for more than a decade, said he went to Mexico last year to meet a man 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.

Authorities have said they recorded conversations between Arbabsiar and an informant with the Drug Enforcement Administration after Arbabsiar approached the informant and asked about explosives for a plot to blow up the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Arbabsiar later settled on killing the ambassador for $1.5 million. Arbabsiar said Wednesday that he made a $100,000 down payment.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 18, 2012, on page 9.

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