Vice President Joe Biden called an Iranian plot to assassinate kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington "really over the top" and said the administration was taking nothing "off the table" in calibrating a response.
"It is an outrageous act that the Iranians are going to have to be held accountable," Biden told ABC News Wednesday morning.
While American legislators and other officials called upon President Barack Obama to respond "forcefully" to the alleged Iranian plot that involved setting off a bomb at a popular Washington restaurant, some American and foreign experts on Iranian terrorism said they were cautious or skeptical about the alleged conspiracy.
Michael V. Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency under President Bush, called the alleged plot as outlined Tuesday by Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller "a puzzlement."
Urging caution about jumping to conclusions, Hayden said it raised questions about which senior Iranian officials would have authorized such a risky mission and Iran's motive. "There appears a lot more to be learned here," Hayden said in an email exchange.
Robert Baer, a CIA agent who has written several books about terrorism and intelligence, including Iran's intelligence services, went further. He said the plot was unlike any of the sophisticated bombings and assassinations that Iran's intelligence services have previously conducted, adding that the plot as described so far "does not fit any of the parameters."
Usually such Iranian plots, he said, such as the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires; the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen and a Saudi; and the murder of five American soldiers in Karbala, Iraq in 2007 "were very professional operations that used cutouts and had few Iranian fingerprints," he said. And the murders were never on American soil, he added. The mission described in the complaint, he added, would have been tantamount to an "act of war." "It just doesn't fit the pattern."
Several diplomats, who asked not to be identified by name, also expressed surprise that senior Iranian officials would have authorized such an ambitious, but amateurish plot at this time. "Very little about this makes sense," one of the foreign officials said. "What is the motive? Why now?"
An Iranian diplomat at the United Nations denied the U.S. charges.
At their news conference Tuesday, Holder, Mueller, and Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, asserted that unnamed senior officials in the Iranian government had directed the Iranian agents to murder Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, and that the Iranian officials said it was all right if large numbers of Americans died in the assassination mission.
Specifically, the criminal complaint alleged that Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalized American citizen who also has an Iranian passport, and Gholam Shakuri, an Iran-based alleged member of Iran's Quds Force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guards known for sponsoring terrorism abroad, plotted to kill Ambassador Jubeir with explosives in an unnamed Washington restaurant.
While Arbabsiar was arrested on Sept. 29 at New York's JFK International Airport and has supposedly confessed to all charges against him, Shakuri is still at large.
Holder said that complaint exposed a "deadly plot" that was foiled after Arbabsiar allegedly offered a Drug Enforcement Agency confidential source in Mexico who was posing as an associate of a "violent international drug trafficking cartel" some $1.5 million to kill Jubeir.
The plot had Shakuri's approval, the complaint says, and hence, the consent of elements within the Quds Force, which conducts terrorist attacks, assassinations, and kidnappings, as well as attacks on American and coalition forces in Iraq.
The complaint asserts that Arbabsiar made it clear to the DEA informant that it didn't matter if large numbers of bystanders died in the assassination attempt in the unnamed Washington restaurant.
"They want that guy [the ambassador] done [killed], if the hundred go with him, f**k 'em," the complaint alleges Arbabsiar said. His Iranian backers considered even the death of U.S. senators who might be dining in the restaurant, "no big deal," he allegedly told the informant.
To finance the attack, the backers sent wire transfers from Iran totaling about $100,000, a down payment on the $1.5 million that the informant whom Arbabsiar was hiring would receive after the assassination. After he was arrested, Arbabsiar was said to have waived his Miranda rights to an attorney and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement agents.
The complaint says that Arbabsiar also admitted that he was recruited, funded, and directed by what he believed to be senior officials in Iran's Quds Force. After his arrest in October, the complaint says, Arbabsiar made calls to Shakuri in Iran that were monitored by U.S. law enforcement in which Shakuri allegedly ordered Arbabsiar to proceed with the murder of Jubeir as quickly as possible.
In statements today, several senior Obama administration officials said that in sanctioning such an assassination plot on American soil, Iran had crossed the line, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called upon the Obama administration to act forcefully, expelling Iranian diplomats from the U.N. at very least.
"All options should be on the table for President Obama to respond forcefully to this grave provocation by Iran, and the president has my full support to act. Iran's assassination of a foreign diplomat in our country would have violated both U.S. and international law, and represented an act of war against the United States, not to mention against Saudi Arabia," he said in a statement issued tonight from his office.
Other legislators, too, issued statements of outrage, calling for a strong response, even the use of force, which the administration seems to have ruled out for the moment, in response to the foiled plot.
But veteran students of the Iranian regime, such as Hayden and Robert Baer, urged caution until more is known about the details in this case. They were joined in this by Stratford Global Intelligence, which monitors terrorism trends and other national security issues.
A Stratford analyst told Fox News that skepticism about claims of high-up Iranian involvement were in order. The initial analysis said the plot as described "seems far-fetched" considering "its ramifications would involve substantial political risk."
"I can't wait to read chapter two of this story," Baer said.
The botched attempt seems likely to increase congressional pressure for stronger sanctions on Iran. While the administration is unlikely to pursue military action in response to the plot, senior Obama officials are said to be preparing stronger measures.
Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois urged President Obama to hold the Iranian government as a whole responsible. In an interview with "The Cable," Kirk urged Obama to cripple Iran's currency by imposing sanctions against Bank Markazi, Iran's Central Bank.
"Their currency would become like North Korea's currency," Kirk said, calling the measure "a proportional and appropriate response to the Iranian government's involvement in the plot."
Last August, 90 senators signed a letter co-sponsored by Sen. Kirk and Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, calling for such crippling sanctions targeting Iran's currency.