Iranian agents once plotted to kill Saudi ambassador in DC in a case that reads like a spy thriller
By REIS THEBAULT | The Washington Post | Published: January 4, 2020
WASHINGTON — Since the dawn of the Clinton administration, a silky Italian restaurant in Georgetown has been more famous for its patrons than its provisions. At Cafe Milano, D.C.'s political dons and doyennes see and are seen, executing handshake deals over plates of lobster linguine.
But in 2011, something far more sinister was nearly served up.
The restaurant found itself in the middle of an international cloak-and-dagger operation that reads like the plot of a Bond novel: There was the high-flying Saudi ambassador, a DEA informant, surreptitious FBI surveillance and Mexican drug cartels.
And then, the powerful Iranian military man who supposedly oversaw the circuitous scheme: Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force and the impresario of the republic's clandestine operations around the world.
Soleimani, who was killed Thursday in a "defensive" U.S. airstrike near the Baghdad airport, was responsible for hundreds of American deaths, military officials say, but his most notorious conspiracy may be one that was never carried out.
The planned strike - a bombing at Cafe Milano - originated with the Quds Force, federal prosecutors said, and would have targeted Saudi Arabia's then-ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, a regular at the tony restaurant. Since Soleimani's killing, supporters of the strike have pointed to the assassination attempt, which could have claimed many other lives, as one example of the powerful general's willingness to attack Americans.
Plots foiled don't typically grab headlines, but this case's dramatic details garnered national interest for a year and a half at the decade's outset.
"Washington," former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., author of the spy thriller "Keys to the Kingdom," told The Washington Post at the time, "is a city of espionage."
The man at the center of the story was an Iranian American used-car salesman and Texas resident, Manssor Arbabsiar, who had a cousin high up in the Quds Force, according to court records and contemporaneous Post coverage.
A disorganized businessman whose various ventures flopped, Arbabsiar was an unlikely candidate to partake in an international, diplomatically explosive assault. But he had key connections - namely, his cousin, the senior Quds Force official Abdul Reza Shahlai, who recruited Arbabsiar and asked him to find some accomplices who could carry out the high-profile hit.
Because he lived in Corpus Christi, near the southern border, and had frequent business in Mexico, Arbabsiar thought he knew someone who would be perfect.
In May 2011, Arbabsiar approached a man he believed to be a member of a drug trafficking cartel and asked him if he was good with explosives, according to court filings. Arbabsiar wanted to know, he explained, because he was interested in bombing the Saudi Arabian embassy.
A criminal complaint lays out where, prosecutors say, things went from there: The pair continued to meet, talking strategy and compensation. They would kill Jubeir in a restaurant - which was later revealed to be Cafe Milano - where Arbabsiar said the ambassador dines "like two times a week." And the price tag would be $1.5 million.
More than once, Arbabsiar's new associate asked him if they should really go through with it if Jubeir was surrounded by American bystanders. But Arbabsiar "made it clear that the assassination needed to go forward, even if doing so would cause mass casualties."
And if there were 100, 150 people inside, including U.S. senators and other power players? "No problem" and "no big deal," Arbabsiar said.
"They want that guy done," he added, referring to his Iranian gaffers' wish that Jubeir be killed. "If the hundred go with him, f - k 'em."
As the summer ended and their plan solidified, Arbabsiar wired the man a $100,000 down payment in two installments over the first 10 days of August.
The next month, the two spoke by phone several times, assuring one another the job was still on. Arbabsiar even agreed to travel to Mexico while the assassination took place to personally assure the would-be cartel member that he'd be paid.
"Don't wait for me. Get ready, but I'll be over there," Arbabsiar allegedly told him. Prosecutors would later explain that the message was clear: Arbabsiar would travel to Mexico, and his hired gun would travel to Cafe Milano.
But neither completed the trip.
On Sept. 29, 2011, Arbabsiar was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Among the items law enforcement recovered was a travel itinerary showing a planned flight from Mexico to Tehran.
Agents were able to track Arbabsiar so closely because they had some help: the man he assumed to be a Mexican drug trafficker was in fact an undercover informant working with the Drug Enforcement Administration who recorded their conversation and reported back to his federal handlers.
After Arbabsiar was charged, U.S. Treasury officials designated Soleimani and other Iranian officials terrorists for their alleged role in the plot. The Iranian government denied the accusations, calling them "American propaganda," and used the case's sensational details as evidence.
"The U.S. government and the CIA have very good experience in making up film scripts," a spokesman for then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at the time.
Arbabsiar pleaded guilty to a charge of murder-for-hire and two counts of conspiracy in 2012 and the next year was sentenced to the maximum 25 years in prison.
Preet Bharara, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, linked Arbabsiar to Iran after the prison term was announced.
"Arbabsiar was an enemy among us - the key conduit for, and facilitator of, a nefarious international plot concocted by members of the Iranian military," he said.
But even after the close call and the dangerous intrigue, the proud proprietor of Cafe Milano could not be intimidated.
"We cannot live in fear," owner Franco Nuschese told The Post after details of the scheme first emerged. "People come here because of who were are. We protect their privacy. They're comfortable here because we have a certain feel. But we are always alert."