Manssor Arbabsiar, a Texas man accused of conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador in a plot that U.S. authorities say was "conceived, sponsored and directed" in Iran, pleaded not guilty in a New York federal court Monday morning.
U.S. authorities say that Arbabsiar, 56, of Corpus Christi, Texas plotted with members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards to kill Saudi ambassador Adel al-Jubeir with a bomb attack at a D.C. restaurant. Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American, attempted to hire hitmen from Mexico's Zetas drug cartel, say officials, but was actually speaking to a DEA informant.
Arbabsiar pleaded not guilty to five counts, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to murder a foreign official.
Gholam Shakuri, whom U.S. officials describe as a member of the Quds force, part of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, is also charged in the alleged plot, but remains at large. He is believed to be in Iran. Arbabsiar was arrested in New York on Sept. 29.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Oct. 11 that the DEA and FBI had disrupted a plot "conceived, sponsored and... directed from Iran" to murder al-Jubeir, which potentially would have been followed up by bombings of the Saudi Arabian and Israeli embassies.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against five Iranians allegedly tied to the plot and additional sanctions against an airline company allegedly linked to the Quds force.
A lawyer for Arbabsiar did not return requests for comment, but the defendant's wife, Martha Guerrero, said he was wrongly accused.
"I may not be living with him being separated, but I cannot for the life of me think that he would be capable of doing that," she told ABC News' Austin affiliate KVUE, noting the two had been separated some time. "He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm sure of that."
Iranian officials have strongly rejected the U.S. accusations, calling them a "fabrication." The head of the Iranian mission to the United Nations penned a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressing "outrage" at the allegations.
"The U.S. allegation is, obviously, a politically-motivated move and a showcase of its long-standing animosity towards the Iranian nation," the letter says.
The case, called Operation Red Coalition, began in May when Arbabsiar unwittingly approached a DEA informant seeking the help of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, according to counter-terrorism officials.
Arbabsiar reportedly claimed he was being "directed by high-ranking members of the Iranian government," including a cousin who was "a member of the Iranian army but did not wear a uniform," according to a person briefed on the details of the case.
Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, expressed "utter disregard for collateral damage" in the planned bomb attacks in Washington, according to officials.
The complaint describes a conversation in which Arbabsiar was allegedly directing the informant to kill the Saudi ambassador and said the assassination could take place at a restaurant. When the informant feigned concern about Americans who also eat at the restaurant, Arbabsiar said he preferred if bystanders weren't killed but, "Sometimes, you know, you have no choice, is that right?"
U.S. officials said Arbabsiar met twice in July with the DEA informant in the northern Mexico city of Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, and negotiated a $1.5 million payment for the assassination of the Saudi ambassador. As a down payment, officials said Arbabsiar wired two payments of $49,960 on Aug. 1 and Aug. 9 to an FBI undercover bank account after he had returned to Iran.
Officials said Arbabsiar flew from Iran through Frankfurt, Germany, to Mexico City Sept. 29 for a final planning session, but was refused entry to Mexico and later put on a plane to New York, where he was arrested.
Officials said Arbabsiar is now cooperating with prosecutors and federal agents in New York.
"Though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would've been very real and many lives would've been lost," FBI Director Robert Mueller said of the foiled plot.