By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An Iranian-born used car salesman from Texas was sentenced to 25 years in a U.S. prison on Thursday after pleading guilty to participating in a plot with an Iranian military unit to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States.
Manssor Arbabsiar, 58, received the sentence at a hearing before U.S. District Judge John Keenan in Manhattan. He had pleaded guilty in October last year to charges related to his seeking to hire Mexican drug traffickers to kill the ambassador. The plot was vehemently denied by Tehran.
He pleaded guilty to one count of murder-for hire, one count of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, and one count of conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries.
The supposed member of the international drug trafficking cartel who Arbabsiar offered to pay $1.5 million to carry out the plot was in reality a confidential informant of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
No weapons were obtained and the scheme to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir was not fulfilled.
"I can't change what I did," Arbabsiar said in a brief statement in court.
U.S. authorities also brought charges against Gholam Shakuri, who prosecutors say was a member of the Quds Force, the covert unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Shakuri has not been arrested.
U.S. prosecutors sought the statutory maximum sentence of 25 years for Arbabsiar, saying in a court filing on May 2 that the "seriousness of this offense and importance of deterrence in this context cannot be overstated."
Lawyers for Arbabsiar had sought a lower sentence of 10 years, contending he had provided assistance to U.S. authorities after his arrest and citing purported mental health issues.
But Keenan emphasized the need to send a message to those who might consider violent acts against U.S. interests "must learn the lesson that such conduct will not be tolerated."
"In a case like this, deterrence is of supreme import," Keenan said.
In addition to his prison sentence, Arbabsiar was ordered to forfeit $125,000.
In a statement, the Saudi embassy in Washington said the sentencing was "another step along the road to justice and sends a message of determination against those who seek to disrupt order in the international community through flagrant violations of international laws, human values and ethics."
'ENEMY AMONG US'
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement called Arbabsiar "an enemy among us" and a "key conduit for, and facilitator of, a nefarious international plot" to kill the ambassador and as many innocent bystanders as needed to finish the job.
According to prosecutors, the plot had its origins in a spring 2011 trip by Arbabsiar to Iran to visit his family.
A cousin who was a high-ranking member of the Quds Force told Arbabsiar he wanted him to find someone he could hire to kidnap al-Jubeir, prosecutors said in the May 2 filing. The cousin subsequently put Arbabsiar in touch with Shakuri, his deputy, who would be in charge of the mission, the filing said.
After returning to Texas, Arbabsiar in May 2011 went to Mexico and met with the DEA source, who Arbabsiar met through someone he knew in Texas.
As part of the deal with the DEA source, Arbabsiar wired $100,000 as a down-payment for the $1.5 million offered to carry out the plot, which by then had evolved to murdering the ambassador, prosecutors said.
Arbabsiar had several further meetings with the DEA source, who recorded conversations. In a July 2011 one, Arbabsiar said it would be okay to carry out the assassination even if up to 100 bystanders were hurt in the process, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said for his role in the plot, the Quds Force gave him $25,000 in operational expenses. Arbabsiar said after his arrest that he had demanded an additional payment of at least $1 million, prosecutors said.
In September 2011, Arbabsiar met with Shakuri in Tehran to discuss the plot. Arbabsiar flew to Mexico then from Iran via Germany, but was re-routed back to Germany through John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he was arrested, prosecutors said.
Following his arrest, Arbabsiar agreed to place a call to Shakuri, which became part of the basis for charging him in the plot, the May 2 filing said.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Chris Reese and Vicki Allen)