A plan to use private intelligence operatives to sabotage Iran was developed by Trump confidant George Nade and Joel Zamel, an Israeli known for his “deep ties” to Israeli intelligence and security agencies.
WASHINGTON – A new report published in The New York Times has revealed that top Saudi intelligence officials with ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in meetings with figures close to the Trump administration and Israel intelligence, expressed interest in using private contractors to “sabotage the Iranian economy” and to assassinate top Iranian officials.
The plan to use private intelligence operatives to sabotage Iran’s economy had been developed by George Nader, an American-Lebanese businessman close to Trump and the United Arab Emirates and a convicted sex offender, and Joel Zamel, an Israeli known for his “deep ties” to Israeli intelligence and security agencies. The plan, at the time of the meeting, did not include the assassination component, though the Saudi officials present sought to probe whether such acts could be included in the campaign.
The Times noted that both Nader and Zamel “saw their Iran plan both as a lucrative source of income and as a way to cripple a country that they and the Saudis considered a profound threat.” The plan was said to involve operations like “revealing hidden global assets of the Quds Force; creating fake social media accounts in Farsi to foment unrest in Iran; financing Iranian opposition groups; and publicizing accusations, real or fictitious, against senior Iranian officials to turn them against one another.” The two met with Saudi officials in early January 2017 in order to secure funding for the plan, which they estimated would cost around $2 billion.
Both Nader and Zamel are now witnesses in the investigation led by Robert Mueller into Trump campaign practices and alleged collusion. It is unclear how Nader and Zamel – who are connected to the United Arab Emirates and Israel, respectively – fit into Mueller’s inquiry, which has been publicized as focusing largely on alleged collusion with the Russian government.
Nader and Zamel had enlisted Erik Prince – the former head of the private military company Blackwater (now Academi) and Trump adviser — in their efforts to secure Saudi financing for their plan. In their discussion with Prince, Nader and Zamel were informed of Prince’s “own paramilitary proposals that he planned to try to sell the Saudis,” though the details of Prince’s proposals are unknown.
However, during the meeting, Saudi intelligence officials were apparently more interested in using private companies to assassinate “Iranian enemies of the kingdom [Saudi Arabia]” than in sabotaging Iran’s economy.
During the discussion with Nader and Zamel, Saudi Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri inquired specifically whether the plan could include the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and other senior Iranian officials. Notably, al-Assiri has been named the man allegedly responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in early October. Al-Assiri is also known for being a close confidant of MBS, who was deputy crown prince and defense minister at the time of the meeting.
Al-Assiri’s interest in a privatized assassination scheme was met tepidly by Nader and Zamel, who offered to consult their lawyer on the matter. Although their lawyer promptly rejected the idea, Nader, eager to please the Saudi officials whom they were seeking to win over, nevertheless told al-Assiri and the other Saudi officials present that a London-based company run by former British Special Operations troops might consider the contract for such high-profile assassinations. The Times stated that it was unclear which company Nader had suggested.
Though their ambitions to use private contractors to assassinate top Iranian officials did not receive the response they had hoped, Saudi officials reportedly told Nader and Zamel that – while they were interested in the plan – it was so “provocative and potentially destabilizing” that they wanted the approval of the incoming Trump administration before financing the campaign.
Was part of the plan enacted?
Though it is unclear whether the plan drafted by Nader and Zamel was ever enacted, there is some evidence suggesting that aspects of their plan as well as al-Assiri’s separate, privatized assassination plan were ultimately enacted in some form.
For instance, in early June of last year, the CIA created a “new mission center” in Iran that focused on fomenting domestic dissent and gathering intelligence, as well as on “covert action.” That mission center has been headed by CIA officer Michael D’Andrea, a close associate of former CIA Director John Brennan and a convert to Wahhabi Islam. After D’Andrea was appointed to head the center, former CIA case officer Robert Baer told Al Jazeera that “All I can say is that war with Iran is in the cards,” given that D’Andrea’s aggressive anti-Iran approach was well known within the CIA. Notably, the center’s activities fit with aspects of the Nader/Zamel plan aimed at revealing key Iranian government assets through intelligence gathering and covert ops.
Furthermore, the aspect of the Nader/Zamel plan that sought to create fake social media accounts to foment unrest in Iran was ultimately enacted through the creation of an Albania-based “troll farm” of fake anti-Iranian government accounts that was managed by the Iranian terror group MEK. That “troll farm,” according to an Al Jazeera report, had been used by the MEK to orchestrate what appeared to be a wave of support for the group and its anti-regime message toward the end of last year, when Iranians took to the streets to protest adverse economic conditions largely caused by a mixture of domestic legislation and intense pressure by Washington.
As MintPress reported at the time, many of those social media trends had been fueled by fake accounts, or bots, that behaved in an automated fashion and amplified messages through swarm-like behavior such as retweeting, liking, and republishing videos and articles posted alongside hashtags such as #FreeIran and #IranRegimeChange. Many top officials in the Trump administration, including John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, are close to the MEK and its leader Maryam Rajavi. The MEK has also been supported in the past by Saudi Arabia, Israeli intelligence, and the U.S. military.
In addition to the aspects of the Nader/Zamel plan that appeared to have been implemented, Iran has recently accused “foreign regimes” and U.S. allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, of plotting terror attacks within Iran. For instance, in June of last year, a pair of terror attacks in the Iranian capital of Tehran were blamed on Saudi Arabia by the Iranian government.
In a statement at the time, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps noted:
This terrorist action, coming one week after the meeting of the president of the United States with the leader of one of the region’s reactionary governments (Saudi Arabia) … shows they are involved in this savage action.”
Daesh (ISIS), which Saudi Arabia is known to fund, officially claimed responsibility for the attacks.
More recently, a terror attack in late September targeted an Iranian Veteran’s Day parade in the city of Ahvaz, killing 25 – more than half of whom were civilians. After the attack, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that “those who give intelligence and propaganda support to these terrorists must answer for it.” Rouhani’s comments were followed by a tweet from Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who asserted that the attackers were “terrorists recruited, trained, armed and paid by a foreign regime,” but did not elaborate. He blamed regional countries and their “U.S. masters” for the attack, adding that Iran would respond “swiftly and decisively.”
Furthermore, it seems that some Gulf countries have used private military contractors for assassinations since al-Assiri first suggested the idea in the January 2017 meeting with Nader and Zamel. However, instead of targeting Iranian officials, the tactic has been used in Yemen.
A report published last month by Buzzfeed detailed how Green Beret, Navy SEAL, and CIA paramilitary veterans had been hired by the U.S.-based security company Spear Operations Group to serve as the “private murder squad” for Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), assassinating prominent Yemeni clerics and political figures who had run afoul of the crown prince. At the time MBZ’s “private murder squad” was active, Saudi Arabia’s al-Assiri was overseeing intelligence operations in Yemen in coordination with the UAE.
Whether these tactics were influenced by the January 2017 meeting of al-Assiri, Nader and Zamel is unclear. However, the details of the meeting and the recent efforts by the U.S. government and its Middle Eastern allies to foment regime change in Iran clearly show that these governments are willing to use the dirtiest of tactics in order to topple Iran’s government and clear the way for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and beyond.