The former chief of Saudi Intelligence services promises revenge while US says a line has been crossed with Iran's alleged assassination plan.
Saudi prince vows: Iran will pay for bomb plot
The influential former chief of Saudi intelligence services yesterday promised revenge against Iran for its alleged plot to assassinate the kingdom's ambassador to Washington.
Prince Turki Al Faisal said the evidence, disclosed by the United States late on Tuesday, was "overwhelming" and "clearly shows official Iranian responsibility".
"Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price," said Prince Turki, who also served as his country's envoy to Britain and the US.
US court documents unsealed on Tuesday allege that Iranian agents from the Quds Force, an elite wing of the Revolutionary Guard, tried to hire hitmen from a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Saudi's top diplomat in Washington, Adel Al Jubeir.
The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said there was a "clearer and clearer threat" from Iran, which had "crossed a line" and "needs to be held to account".
Ms Clinton said Washington was preparing new penalties against the Islamic Republic, which is already subject to a variety of international sanctions.
US officials said military action was not being considered, although Joe Biden, the US vice president, said "nothing has been taken off the table".
Iran would be held accountable for its "outrageous act", Mr Biden said.
Tehran furiously denied the American assassination charges, claiming they were a "new American-Zionist plot" cooked up by Washington to distract attention from the US's economic problems.
"Americans are seeking to derail the public opinion from the Wall Street uprising," the chairman of Iran's National Security and Foreign Policy committee in parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said. Without directly addressing the allegations, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, echoed those suspicions yesterday.
"The people of America are excited, they are out on the street, that is important," he told a large rally in the western Iranian city of Kermanshah.
Mr Boroujerdi said Iran "has never pursued or adopted the policy of assassination … therefore the US officials' allegation is nothing but a big lie".
Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, warned the US against "confrontation" over the accusations.
"We are not seeking confrontation; our policy is cooperation and interaction. If they want to impose a confrontation upon the Iranian nation, the consequences of the issue will be more severe for them," he said after a cabinet meeting in Tehran.
Mark Perry, a Washington-based military and political analyst, said a new round of sanctions was likely, but doubts remained over the extent of official Iranian involvement.
"This isn't a good enough reason to have a whole new round of sanctions to punish an entire country for something that hasn't yet been definitively shown as an act on the part of the Iranian government."
The exchange of threats and barbs by the Gulf's two major powers, which have been locked in a cold war for decades, signalled a period of unease in a region critical to global oil supplies and with a number of US military bases.
The atmosphere of tense uncertainty was compounded by the Saudi government's announcement overnight that King Abdullah would undergo surgery in "the coming days". The octogenarian Saudi monarch was absent from Riyadh for three months late last year while he underwent surgery in the US for back-related problems and convalesced in Morocco.
Washington issued a worldwide travel alert warning of more threats to US interests.
"The US government assesses that this Iranian-backed plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador may indicate a more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries, to include possible attacks in the United States," the alert said.
The motive for an Iranian plot was not clear. Iran has in the past assassinated its own dissidents abroad, but an attempt to kill an ambassador would be a highly unusual departure.
The Gulf Cooperation Council yesterday condemned the plot, saying it harmed Gulf-Iranian relations. The GCC secretary general Abdullatif Al Zayani said the attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was a "flagrant violation of all laws and agreements" and "severely harmful to the relations between GCC member states and Iran". Despite being bitter regional and to some extent sectarian rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia have maintained diplomatic ties and even signed a security agreement in 2001. The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Riyadh in 2007.
The US has led a global effort to isolate Iran and pile on UN sanctions in recent years over Tehran's nuclear energy programme which Washington and its regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, fear is a front for developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies nuclear arms ambitions.
Those allies fear Washington could take its eye off the ball on Iran. US diplomatic cables from Riyadh leaked by Wikileaks over the past year - in which Mr Jubeir features prominently - show Riyadh repeatedly pushing the US to take a tougher stand, including the possible use of military force.
Tensions rose between Riyadh and Tehran this year when Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain put down pro-democracy protests led by the island state's Shiite majority. Manama and Riyadh accused Iran, a non-Arab Shiite state, of fomenting the unrest, a charge Tehran denied.
This month Riyadh accused some among its Shiite Muslim minority of conspiring with a foreign power - a reference to Iran - to cause instability, after street clashes in the Eastern Province.
But Iranian analyst Saaed Leylaz said it was hard to see why Iran would risk involving itself in such a plot.
"Killing the Saudi envoy in America has no benefit for Iran," he said. "The consequences of this plot are dangerous. It could cause military confrontation in 2012 between Iran and America."
* With additional reporting by Michael Hernandez in Washington