The New York Times – By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials on Wednesday denied Iranian news reports that a man charged in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States is actually an agent of an exiled Iranian opposition group.
“We note that these reports originate solely with Iranian state media sources, which have a documented history of fabricating news stories,” said Rhonda H. Shore, a State Department spokeswoman.
American officials said they are sure that the man, Gholam Shakuri, is an officer of the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, as asserted in the criminal complaint unveiled last week by the Justice Department.
Mr. Shakuri is charged, along with an Iranian-American former used-car dealer, Mansour J. Arbabsiar, with plotting to hire a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador for $1.5 million. American officials say $100,000 for the plot was transferred from a bank account associated with the Quds Force. Mr. Arbabsiar is in American custody, but Mr. Shakuri’s whereabouts are not known.
The Iranian news reports said that Interpol, the international law enforcement agency, had discovered that Mr. Shakuri was “a key member” of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq. Also known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the group is regarded by Iran as a terrorist organization and has a history of sabotage and assassination aimed at overthrowing the Islamic government of Iran.
The group claims to have renounced violence. It is classified by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization, but it is lobbying to be removed from that list, as Britain and the European Union have already done with their similar lists.
An Interpol spokeswoman declined to comment. But an American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Interpol had discovered no link to the opposition group, calling the Iranian news report “pure fiction.”
The first report of the supposed Mujahedeen Khalq connection of Mr. Shakuri, by Iran’s Mehr News Agency on Tuesday, included what was supposedly his passport number, saying that the passport was issued in Washington.
American officials said that Mr. Shakuri is not a United States citizen and does not have an American passport.
They said the reference might be to an Iranian passport issued by the Iranian Interest Section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.
A breakaway faction from the Mujahedeen Khalq was incorporated into Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps when it was established in 1980, so it is conceivable that some current members of the guard were affiliated with the opposition group more than three decades ago.
Experts on Iran have said that the alleged assassination plot seemed uncharacteristically sloppy for the Quds Force, and American officials suggested that Iran is now putting out disinformation to exploit skepticism about the plot. But they say that intercepted phone calls, bank transfers and other evidence tie the plot directly to Quds Force officials.
In what appeared to be a new line of counterattack on Wednesday, Iran’s top judicial official, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, authorized an investigation into what he called “crimes perpetrated by the U.S. administraition against Iranian and Muslim nations,” the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported. It also quoted him as saying that the assassination-plot accusations “are based on the old hostile American-Zionist attempt to sow discord among Muslims.”
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.