U.S. officials have linked a plot to kill Americans – including U.S. embassy officials – to Iran, The Washington Post reports.
The assassination plot was originally uncovered in November when officials at the U.S. embassy in the Central Asian country of Azerbaijan were made aware of the threat. However, many of the details were not made public.
Investigators from four different countries have been probing the plot for months. Now, new evidence has surfaced in recent weeks that ties the assassination attempts to either Hezbollah militants backed by Iran or operatives based in Iran, U.S. and Middle Eastern Security officials explained to WaPo.
An official report in March revealed that evidence compiled by investigators included phone records, forensic tests, coordinated travel arrangements and cellphone SIM cards bought by many of the would-be assassins, two officials who have seen the report said.
From the Washington Post report:
The plot had two strands, U.S. officials learned, one involving snipers with silencer-equipped rifles and the other a car bomb, apparently intended to kill embassy employees or members of their families.
Both strands could be traced back to the same place, the officials were told: Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran.
Precisely who ordered the hits, and why, was never conclusively determined. But U.S. and Middle Eastern officials now see the attempts as part of a broader campaign by Iran-linked operatives to kill foreign diplomats in at least seven countries over a span of 13 months. The targets have included two Saudi officials, a half-dozen Israelis and — in the Azerbaijan case — several Americans, the officials say.
Iran has certainly made no efforts to disguise its deep-seated hatred for the United States, however, should it be determined the country's government was involved in the assassination plots, it could cause further damage to already strained relations between the U.S. and Iran.
“The idea that Iran and Hezbollah might have worked together on these attempts is possible,” a senior U.S. official who has studied the evidence explained to The Washington Post. “But this conclusion is not definitive.”
The report claims a foreign spy agency was able to intercept electronic messages seemingly describing plans to smuggle weapons and explosives from Iran into Azerbaijan. Messages were linked to an Azerbaijani national, Balagardash Dashdev, who has a long criminal history and ties to intelligence networks and militant groups in Iran.
WaPo explains that some experts argue that a covert war is actually being waged between the United States and Iran.
So far, four scientists involved in Iran's nuclear program have been killed by unidentified assassins in the past three years. Further, the county's websites have been hit by a barrage of cyberattacks. Iran has accused the U.S. of taking out their nuclear scientists but continue to deny any involvement in assassination plots involving foreign diplomats.
But officials said the Iran-linked attempts stopped abruptly in the spring after the nation agreed to resume negotiations regarding its nuclear program with six world powers, including America, according to the report.
“There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to calm things down ahead of the talks,” a Western diplomat briefed on the plots told The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intelligence. “What happens if the talks fail — that’s anyone’s guess.”
President Obama has not directly accused Iran's government of being involved in the Azerbaijan plot.
While the evidence doesn't prove with certainty that the Iranian government was involved in the attempt, some say the regime's consistent pattern of reckless behavior should not be ignored.
“There is not yet a smoking gun,” a Western diplomat briefed on the evidence told The Washington Post. “But the pattern is clear, and each day the volume of evidence grows.”
Iran in a statement denied any involvement in the Azerbaijan plot and suggested the plot was made up by the "Zionists."
“We believe that the glorious people of Azerbaijan understand that this part of the script of Iranophobia and Islamophobia is organized by the Zionists and the United States,” the statement said.
Read all of WaPo's analysis here.