President Obama pledged Thursday to hold Iran accountable for “dangerous and reckless behavior” in pursuing an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
In his first comments on the purported murder-for-hire scheme unveiled Wednesday by the Justice Department, Obama described the U.S. allegations as well supported by evidence and said they would contribute to stronger enforcement of existing sanctions against Iran.
Speaking to reporters at the White House after meeting with visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama said the Iranian American businessman arrested and charged in connection with the alleged plot “had direct links, was paid by, and directed by individuals in the Iranian government.”
U.S. authorities have identified two officials in Iran’s elite special operations Quds Force as being behind the plot, and one of them was formally charged. But neither the Justice Department nor Obama would say how high in the Iranian leadership the alleged plot is believed to reach.
Asked whether he believes that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knew about the plot, Obama said: “What we can say is that there are individuals in the Iranian government who are aware of this plot. . . . We believe that even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity.”
He said the United States has contacted its allies and members of the international community and “laid the facts before them.” After they have analyzed those details, he added, “there will not be a dispute that this is in fact what happened.”
The alleged assassination plot “is not just a dangerous escalation,” Obama said. “This is part of a pattern of dangerous and reckless behavior by the Iranian government. . . . And for Iran to have been involved in a plot like this indicates the degree to which it has been outside of accepted norms of international behavior for far too long.”
In an interview with Reuters news agency, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that the alleged plot is triggering additional Treasury Department sanctions against Iranian individuals and would spur other countries to take similar action.
“We think the facts of this case, which include the outreach by the Iranian authorities to a Mexican drug cartel seeking a murder-for-hire assassin, will be quite disturbing to officials in countries that have even in the past given Iran a pass,” Clinton said, according to a transcript released by the State Department. “So I think . . . that this will be an opportunity to further isolate Iran. . . . It will give us extra leverage in dealing with Iran. And I think that . . . you’ll see a more reluctant stance by many countries toward dealing with Iran, toward doing Iran’s bidding.”
Separately, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the United States has had at least one “direct contact” with Iran about the U.S. allegations. She did not provide details, but a U.S. official said the contact was made through Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York, the Associated Press reported. The United States and Iran have no diplomatic relations with each other for more than 31 years.
Obama said the United States would respond first by prosecuting “those individuals who have been named in the indictment.” In addition to the arrested businessman, Mansour Arbabsiar, 56, the Justice Department charged Gholam Shakuri, who was described a member of the Quds Force, the foreign operations wing of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Shakuri, who is based in Iran, remains at large. Another Quds Force official has been named by U.S. authorities but not yet charged.
Obama said the United States would also “apply the toughest sanctions and continue to mobilize the international community to make sure that Iran is further and further isolated and pays a price for this kind of behavior.” He said he expects the international community to become more unified against Iran.
“Now, we don’t take any options off the table in terms of how we operate with Iran, but what you can expect is that we will continue to apply the sorts of pressure that will have a direct impact on the Iranian government until it makes a better choice in terms of how it is going to interact with the rest of the international community,” Obama said. “I think that what you’re going to see is folks throughout the Middle East region question their ability to work effectively with Iran.”
He said countries in the region already recognize that “Iran in fact has been hypocritical when it comes to dealing with the Arab Spring, given their own repressive activities” and their support for a brutal Syrian government.
“This is a pattern of behavior that I think increasingly the international community is going to consider out of bounds and is going to continue to punish Iran for,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, the Iranian people are the ones that probably suffer the most from this regime’s behavior.”