WASHINGTON - The alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States was comically amateurish, but the U.S. government believes not only that it was approved at high levels in Tehran but also that it was not the only plot, CBS News correspondent Bill Plante reports.
"There may be a chain of these things," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday.
Feinstein said there's information that the Iranians may have other targets.
"I think we need to explore whether there are other plots going on into other countries," Feinstein said.
The Obama administration has also rushed to take advantage of the plot to turn up the pressure on Iran.
U.S. officials say the so-called soft pressure of sanctions against Iran, for its refusal to give up its nuclear ambitions, has increased tensions there. They hope that increases the chance that the Iranian middle class will force change from within.
In public remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Wednesday of a "dangerous escalation" of what the U.S. claims is an Iranian pattern of franchising terror abroad.
"We call upon other nations to join us in condemning this threat to international peace and security," Clinton said.
The next step is pressure on the United Nations Security Council for an international condemnation of Iran and pressure on China and Russia to stop doing business there.
In addition, the United States could take such other steps as sanctions on Iran's central bank and targeting the nation's oil shipments, but those would only escalate the situation when nobody here is quite sure just how high the level of approval went in Iran.
On Wednesday, further stranger-than-fiction details emerged of the alleged assassination gone wrong. U.S. officials said the foiled Iranian plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington was "amateur hour," an unusually clumsy operation for Iran's elite foreign action unit, the Quds Force.
The Iranians' would-be covert operative turned to a woman he met while working as a used car dealer, hoping to find a Mexican drug dealer-assassin, and wound up with an American informant instead, according to two U.S. law enforcement officials.
Other U.S. officials said Manssor Arbabsiar made further mistakes, including arranging a pay-off for the attack in an easily traceable way.
They attributed the missteps to Iran's relative inexperience carrying out covert operations in the United States and Mexico.
They said the U.S. believes the planned attack on the Saudi ambassador was conceived in part as proof that such an operation could be carried off. Then, perhaps, Iran would have followed up with a series of attacks against other embassies in the U.S. and in Argentina, officials said.
All of the officials requested anonymity in order to provide details from classified analyses and an active criminal case.
Two men, including a member of Iran's Quds Force special foreign actions unit, were charged in New York federal court Tuesday with conspiring to kill the Saudi diplomat, Adel Al-Jubeir. Justice Department officials say the men tried to hire a purported member of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the assassination with a bomb attack while Al-Jubeir dined at his favorite restaurant.
U.S. officials believe Iran hoped that an attack of that design would be blamed on al Qaeda. That, in turn, would strike at two of Iran's chief enemies: the U.S., constantly at odds with Iran over its nuclear aspirations, and Saudi Arabia, battling Iran in a diplomatic Cold War for influence across the Persian Gulf and Middle East.
Saudi Arabia most recently helped thwart Shiite-majority demonstrators in Bahrain, whom Iran backed, and clashed again with Iran in Syria. Iran advised Syrian leaders on how to crack down on demonstrators, while Saudi Arabia has encouraged further protests and called for the Syrian government's ouster.
The Quds Force is tasked with extending Iranian influence through fear and violence, intimidating other countries with assassinations, terror attacks and kidnapping, the officials said.
Such plots are managed by the Quds Force's Special External Operations Unit, and carried out by sometimes unexpected proxies, like anti-Shiite Sunni extremists, the officials said.
The unit answers directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who U.S. officials believe is briefed on high-profile operations. While the U.S. has no direct proof, and did not charge in court, that the top Iranian leaders approved this attack, any such operation would be vetted at the highest levels, one of the officials said.
U.S. law enforcement officials said the criminal charges were limited to those actions they could prove in court, and did not cover all the information they had gathered about possible Quds Force goals or intentions. Even the roles of three of four Quds officers connected to this plot were not detailed in the criminal case but instead were laid out in economic sanctions imposed on them administratively by the Treasury.
During an interview with The Associated Press, Clinton said the Obama administration is stepping cautiously and won't overstate its case.