WASHINGTON - The alleged 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, U.S. officials said Wednesday as further stranger-than-fiction details emerged of the assassination gone wrong.
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.
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 will work closely with our international partners to increase Iran's isolation and the pressure on its government and we call upon other nations to join us in condemning this threat to international peace and security," Clinton said at a Washington conference.
Her words strongly suggested that the U.S. wants some new action against Iran from the U.N. Security Council, which has already approved several rounds of mild to moderate sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
Already, the U.S. is penalizing an Iranian commercial airline that it says is helping Iran's feared special operations forces.
The Treasury Department says Mahan Air provides financial, material and technological support to the Quds Force and to Hezbollah.
A Treasury statement says the airline ferries personnel between Iran and Syria for military training and helps Iranian officers covertly travel abroad.
The Treasury Department says Mahan's crews also shipped Iranian arms, some on behalf of Hezbollah.
The White House says President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah have discussed the foiled plot allegedly masterminded by Iran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Both leaders committed to pursuing a strong, unified international response to hold the alleged plotters responsible, according to officials.
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.