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AP Interview: Plot to kill envoy will hurt Iran

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures during an interview with The Associated Press, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, at the State Department in Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures during an interview with The Associated Press, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
By Matthew Lee
Associated Press / October 11, 2011

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WASHINGTON—The alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington on U.S. soil "crosses a line" that may persuade even reluctant nations to line up against Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The outlandish details of the foiled scheme only strengthen the U.S. allegation that Iran will go to almost any lengths to franchise terror abroad, she said.

"The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador? Nobody could make that up, right?" Clinton said in a nearly hour-long, wide-ranging interview with AP reporters and editors.

Clinton said the alleged plot, which prosecutors say involved Iranian government agents trying to hire a Mexican drug cartel to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, "in the minds of many diplomats and government officials crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for." Clinton spoke with the AP just minutes after details of the scheme were announced by the Justice Department.

President Barack Obama called al-Jubeir to declare that the foiled assassination plot was a "flagrant" violation of U.S. and international law, the White House said. The president expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia and said he was committed to ensuring the security of diplomats in the United States. White House press secretary Jay Carney disclosed broad outlines of the call in a statement.

Clinton said the U.S. will use the case to try to "enlist more countries in working together against what is becoming a clearer and clearer threat" from Iran. "We want to reassure our friends that the complaints against Iran are well-founded."

The United States and numerous other countries accuse Iran of supporting international terrorism, but sanctions meant to punish Iran for that activity are uneven at best. The U.S. also accuses Iran of hiding a plan for nuclear weapons, which Iran denies. U.N. and other sanctions aimed at the nuclear program have gotten tougher in recent years but have not stopped Iran from developing technical prowess that could be used to produce either power or a bomb.

In the interview, Clinton also sounded a note of sympathy for Egypt's interim leaders, but expressed deep concern about 26 Egyptians killed last weekend in the worst violence since the February ouster of former dictator Hosni Mubarak. "This is all new territory," Clinton said.

She was resolute that the Palestinians will not win statehood through the United Nations, insisting that negotiations alone can achieve peace with Israel. She said the global spotlight on this issue has given the best opportunity in more than two decades to try to establish a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel.

She also predicted that Afghanistan will continue its outreach to Taliban insurgents, despite the assassination of the elder statesman leading the effort, and she said the U.S. will keep trying to help.

The Iranian plot case "creates a potential for international reaction that will further isolate Iran, that will raise questions about what they're up to, not only in the United States and Mexico," Clinton said.

She said that she, Obama and other senior U.S. officials would be calling world leaders to press the case against Iran, and to head off what she predicted would be Iranian denials and spin.

"We are actively engaged in a very concerted diplomatic outreach to many capitals, to the U.N. in New York, to not only to explain what happened so we can try to pre-empt any efforts by Iran to be successful in what would be their denial and their efforts to try to deflect responsibility," Clinton said.

For years, the United States has tried to get other nations to toughen individual and group sanctions on Iran, believing that economic and diplomatic pressure has the best chance of influencing the clerical regime. The U.S. has little economic leverage on its own since most commercial and other ties have been severed for 30 years.

Shortly after Clinton spoke, the Treasury Department slapped new sanctions on five Iranians and officials said additional measures, including potential U.N. action, were being contemplated.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called the claims a "prefabricated scenario" and a "ridiculous show."

The Saudi Embassy in Washington, meanwhile, thanked U.S. authorities for "preventing a criminal act from taking place."

"The attempted plot is a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions and is not in accord with the principles of humanity," the embassy said in a brief statement that made no mention of the details.

Two people, including a member of Iran's special operations unit known as the Quds Force, were charged in New York federal court in connection with the alleged plot.

Justice Department officials say the pair worked with a person they thought was an associate of a Mexican drug cartel to target al-Jubeir. But their contact was an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency who told U.S. authorities about all their planning.

The State Department for the past decade has identified Iran as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. As a result Iran is subject to numerous U.S. sanctions for its support of militant groups as well as its nuclear program.

Clinton said Tuesday's revelations would reinforce those concerns as well as worries about Iran's attempts to gain influence in Latin America. She and other U.S. officials have said in the past that Iran is trying to make inroads in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

She said the alleged plot also would underscore claims from Saudi Arabia and Gulf states like Bahrain that Iran is fomenting unrest on their soil. The U.S. has not always fully endorsed those allegations and Clinton said it was important for those countries not to overreach.

"It does strengthen the case that a number of nations have made, but without the solid base of evidence that we have put together on this one," she said. "There is a great deal of anxiety about Iran anyway, and we often in our discussions with other nations, particularly in the Gulf, are trying to make sure that they're not overcharging because everything that happens is not necessarily caused by Iran."

"So what we want is to make it clear that yes, they are a real threat from the way Iran is behaving, most particularly in its region and clearly now beyond."