The Iranian-American accused of plotting with senior Iranian officials to hire Mexican gangsters to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington pleaded not guilty Monday in a New York court.
Manssor Arbabsiar, a used car salesman from Texas with dual US-Iranian citizenship, entered the plea in a five-minute hearing.
Dressed in a dark-brown and blue prison smock and looking tired, Arbabsiar spoke in accented English, responding "not guilty" when the court asked how he was to plead.
He said nothing more during the hearing, after which he was led, uncuffed, back to his cell. Judge John Keenan set a new hearing for December 21, and said a trial could begin in January and last three or four weeks.
Arbabsiar, 56, was arrested late last month at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, setting the stage for a major legal and diplomatic drama between Washington and Tehran.
He and co-defendant Gholam Shakuri, a senior member of Iran's Quds Force who is at large, allegedly conspired to "kill the Ambassador to the United States of Saudi Arabia, while the Ambassador was in the United States," according to court documents.
Iran has strongly denied any involvement in what the United States says was a plot by the Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force to kill the ambassador by hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for $1.5 million.
To set up the alleged hit, Arbabsiar allegedly arranged for the wiring of $100,000 to the United States as a down payment, the indictment says.
The two co-defendants are also accused of planning for a "weapon of mass destruction" to be used against the ambassador, creating "substantial risk of serious bodily injury to others by destroying and damaging structures."
The charges have caused another flare up in tensions between the United States and Iran, already at loggerheads over Washington's belief that Tehran is using a civilian nuclear program to mask a bomb-making project.
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President Barack Obama stopped short of directly accusing Iran's leadership of ordering the assassination, but has demanded that it explain "why anybody in their government is engaging in these kinds of activities?"
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ridiculed the allegations, saying Tehran will not investigate the US claims.
Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, who heads up Iran's espionage organizations, said the US allegations were "too cheap to believe."
According to the US Justice Department and the FBI, Arbabsiar confessed after his arrest to trying to contract a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi envoy, Adel al-Jubeir, possibly through the bombing of a Washington restaurant.
He allegedly said he organized the hit on behalf of his cousin, whom he described as a high-ranking officer in the Quds Force, a shadowy special operations unit of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards.
US officials said they became aware of the plot because Arbabsiar's contact in the cartel was in fact a paid informant of the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
According to Texas property records, Arbabsiar owned several properties across the beach town of Corpus Christi, including multiple businesses.
He was involved in, or partially owned, several used car lots. Arbabsiar also owned a fast-food outlet at a local mall, according to records.
The United States has slapped sanctions on five Iranians in connection with the plot, including Arbabsiar, Shakuri and the head of the Quds Forces, Qasem Soleimani. The measures included a freezing of their assets. The EU took similar action.
Shakuri is believed to be in Iran, and the United States has demanded he be extradited to face US charges, or be put on trial in Iran.