By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An Iranian-born used car salesman from Texas admitted on Wednesday that he had participated in a plan hatched by Iranian spies to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Manssor Arbabsiar, 57, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Manhattan to a three-count indictment. He said the plan had been to assassinate the ambassador at a restaurant in Washington last year, and that his co-conspirators had included Iranian military officials.
The plot claim, which involved attempts to hire Mexican drug traffickers to commit the murder, was fiercely denied by Tehran and caused confusion among security experts who questioned why the Islamic republic would back such a bizarre scheme.
The purported drug cartel representative whom Arbabsiar hired turned out to be a U.S. confidential informant. Authorities said no weapons were ever acquired for the plot and the Saudi ambassador was never harmed.
Arbabsiar was charged along with Gholam Shakuri, who the United States says is a member of the Quds Force, the covert arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, in a plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. Shakuri remains at large.
Arbabsiar was arrested on September 29, 2011, when he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport from Mexico. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen and holds an Iranian passport.
At Wednesday's plea hearing before U.S. District Judge John Keenan in Manhattan, Arbabsiar first appeared smiling and relaxed, but soon seemed to become nervous.
Asked by the judge if he could follow along in English, Arbabsiar said yes, but admitted he had some difficulties with the language: "I'm not too educated, you know," Arbabsiar said.
Dressed in blue prison garb with a scar running down his left cheek, Arbabsiar told the court he sold cars in Austin, Texas, before his arrest.
Arbabsiar said he traveled to Mexico twice in 2011, once from Iran. In Mexico, he and others hired a man named "Junior" to help "kidnap a person who was the ambassador to the United States."
"Were you gonna kill him too as well as kidnap?" the judge asked.
"Yes, yes," Arbabsiar replied, but insisted the idea to murder the ambassador had been the Mexican operative's.
Arbabsiar had faced up to a life term in prison on the original charges. But by pleading guilty to three counts, Arbabsiar now faces a likely maximum of 25 years in prison.
Arbabsiar pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism transcending national boundaries, conspiracy to engage in foreign travel for murder-for-hire and one substantive count of foreign travel for murder-for-hire. He will be sentenced on January 23, the judge said.
According to the court documents, the plot began to unfold in May 2011 when Arbabsiar approached an individual in Mexico, who was posing as an associate of an unidentified drug cartel.
The unidentified individual immediately tipped law enforcement agents about the plot, according to the criminal complaint. Arbabsiar paid $100,000 to the informant in July and August, he admitted Wednesday, a down payment on the $1.5 million requested by the source to carry out the plot.
(Reporting By Basil Katz; Editing by Doina Chiacu)