Posted tagged ‘Obama and Iran’

Former Official: Obama Admin ‘Systematically Disbanded’ Units Investigating Iran’s Terrorism Financing Networks

June 9, 2017

Former Official: Obama Admin ‘Systematically Disbanded’ Units Investigating Iran’s Terrorism Financing Networks, Washinton Free Beacon, , June 8, 2017

US President Barack Obama meets with veterans and Gold Star Mothers to discuss the Iran nuclear deal on September 10, 2015 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

“We had operations that were denied overseas. We had funding that was cut,” he said. “People were making decisions that the counter-terrorism mission and the Iran nuclear deal was a central and all-important element whereas containing Iran’s malevolent forces was less important.”

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The Obama administration “systematically disbanded” law enforcement investigative units across the federal government focused on disrupting Iranian, Syrian, and Venezuelan terrorism financing networks out of concern the work could cause friction with Iranian officials and scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran, according to a former U.S. official who spent decades dismantling terrorist financial networks.

David Asher, who previously served as an adviser to Gen. John Allen at the Defense and State Departments, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday that top officials across several key law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the Obama administration “systematically disbanded” law enforcement activities targeting the terrorism financing operations of Iran, Hezbollah, and Venezuela in the lead-up to and during the nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

“Senior leadership, presiding, directing, and overseeing various sections [of these agencies] and portions of the U.S. intelligence community systematically disbanded any internal or external stakeholder action that threatened to derail the administration’s policy agenda focused on Iran,” he testified.

Asher now serves on the board of directors of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Illicit Finance and is an adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security, two national security think tanks.

He attributed the motivation for decisions to dismantle the investigative units to “concerns about interfering with the Iran deal,” a reference to the nuclear deal forged between the U.S., five other world powers, and Iran during the final years of the Obama administration.

As a result, “several top cops” retired and the U.S. government lost their years of expertise.

The United States squandered the chance “at a very low financial cost” to take apart Hezbollah’s finances, its global organization, and the Iran proxy’s ability to “readily terrorize us, victimize us, and run a criminal network through our shores, inside our banking systems—and in partnership with the world’s foremost drug cartels—target our state and society,” he said.

“We lost much of the altitude we had gained in our global effort, and many aspects including key personnel, who were reassigned, budgets that were slashed—many key elements of the investigations that were underway were undermined,” he said.

“Today we have to deal with the legacy of that and how we rebuild this capability—knowing that you can have a nuclear deal with Iran and you can contain and disrupt their illicit activities,” he continued.

The decision was a “mix of tragedy and travesty combined with a seriously misguided turn of policy that resulted in no strategic gain and a serious miscarriage of justice,” he said.

“Instead, in narrow pursuit of the [nuclear agreement], the administration failed to realize the lasting effect on U.S. law enforcement collaborative efforts and actively mitigated investigations and prosecutions needed to effectively dismantle Hezbollah and the Iran ‘Action Network,'” he said.

Asher defined the Iran “Action Network” to include groups and governments involved in crafting covert elements of Iran’s foreign policy, including terrorism, illicit finance, weapons and narcotics trafficking, and nuclear procurement and proliferation.

“The level of cooperation between the government of Venezuela, the government of Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah that we observed in our operations—that we personally were involved with—including people in this room—was actually astonishing,” he said. “The evidentiary base to take down this entire global network exists. The facts are clear.”

Before the administration dismantled them, the collaboration between a small group of U.S. agencies was making great strides in targeting terrorist financial networks, Asher said.

“This combination of law enforcement’s criminal, civil, and regulatory authorities led to actions that provided a framework to deter, disrupt, and publicly illuminate Hezbollah’s global illicit network,” he said. “The result was the most successful path taken against Hezbollah to date after many years of inaction.”

The decision to dismantle the investigative units undermined the U.S. government’s success just as it was beginning, “perhaps because of fear of the consequences,” he said.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) plans to introduce additional sanctions aimed at Hezbollah as soon as next week, according to a congressional aide.

After Asher’s testimony, Royce called the scenario a “striking lesson in life, which is the zeal for the deal, which becomes a deal for any cost, and people get caught up in that.”

The dismantling of these investigative units is just one of many aspects of the nuclear deal and its impact on U.S. Iran policy receiving new scrutiny in recent months.

Royce referred to the Obama administration’s release of seven Iranian-born prisoners in U.S. custody last year as part of a prisoner swap for dual U.S.-Iranian citizens. A Politico article in April detailed how several of the seven freed individuals were accused by the Obama administration’s own Justice Department of posing threats to national security.

Citing unpublicized court filings, the report said the Justice Department dropped charges and international arrest warrants against 14 other men.

Critics this week also are questioning why the administration never publicly disclosed an Iranian cyber-attack on the State Department in late September of 2015 that sent shockwaves through the department and private-contractor community. The Washington Free Beacon reported new details about the hacking Wednesday.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector who now runs the Institute for Science International Security, testified to the same panel recently that out of a “misplaced” fear of disrupting the nuclear deal, the Obama administration also interfered with U.S. law enforcement efforts against Iran’s terrorist network.

Royce asked Asher about some of his similar assertions—that the Obama administration aborted law enforcement operations against Iran’s terrorism network.

“There are many holes in this cheese and law enforcement didn’t need to be one of them,” Asher said.

Asher said the late-March Justice Department arrest of Kassim Tajideen, who he called a “super-facilitator” financier of Hezbollah, rattled the regime.

“The fact that we’ve got him in prison and he might cooperate—I’m sure that’s gotten their attention,” he said. “We had many more that we were prohibited from acting on for political reasons.”

“We had operations that were denied overseas. We had funding that was cut,” he said. “People were making decisions that the counter-terrorism mission and the Iran nuclear deal was a central and all-important element whereas containing Iran’s malevolent forces was less important.”

“I think you can do both—and we have to do both,” he said.

Asher also recalled a similar scenario during the Bush administration when it stripped the Justice Department of its authorities to indict the government of North Korea in order not to derail the proposed North Korea nuclear deal.

“I think this is a bipartisan syndrome—this is not blame the Obama administration, blame the Bush administration,” he said. “There’s something about people wanting a deal at any cost.”

Obama Admin Did Not Publicly Disclose Iran Cyber-Attack During ‘Side-Deal’ Nuclear Negotiations

June 7, 2017

Obama Admin Did Not Publicly Disclose Iran Cyber-Attack During ‘Side-Deal’ Nuclear Negotiations, Washington Free Beacon, June 7, 2017

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 22, 2016 in New York. / AFP / Bryan R. Smith (Photo credit should read BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump, during his trip to the Middle East in late May, talked tough against Iran and its illicit ballistic missile program but has so far left the nuclear deal in place. A Trump State Department review of the deal is nearing completion, the Free Beacon recently reported, and some senior Trump administration officials are pushing for the public release of the so-called “secret side deals.”

Infiltrating State Department emails and internal communications about where the United States stood on a number of sensitive issues could have given the Iranians an important negotiating advantage, according to David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

“The [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] had a lot of loose language at the time and the question was whether the U.S. was going to accept it,” he told the Free Beacon, referring to the weeks immediately following the Congressional Review Period, which ended Sept. 17, and Iran’s own review process, which ended Oct. 15.

“It would be to Iran’s great benefit to know where the U.S. would be” on a number of these issues dealing with the possible military dimensions of the Iran nuclear program, he said. “If they could tell the U.S. was going to punt, they could jerk around the [International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA] a bit.”

“That’s essentially what happened with the IAEA,” he added.

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State Department officials determined that Iran hacked their emails and social media accounts during a particularly sensitive week for the nuclear deal in the fall of 2015, according to multiple sources familiar with the details of the cyber attack.

The attack took place within days of the deal overcoming opposition in Congress in late September that year. That same week, Iranian officials and negotiators for the United States and other world powers were beginning the process of hashing out a series of agreements allowing Tehran to meet previously determined implementation deadlines.

Critics regard these agreements as “secret side deals” and “loopholes” initially disclosed only to Congress.

Sources familiar with the details of the attack said it sent shockwaves through the State Department and the private-contractor community working on Iran-related issues.

It is unclear whether top officials at the State Department negotiating the Iran deal knew about the hack or if their personal or professional email accounts were compromised. Sources familiar with the attack believed top officials at State were deeply concerned about the hack and that those senior leaders did not have any of their email or social media accounts compromised in this particular incident.

Wendy Sherman, who served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs for several years during the Obama administration and was the lead U.S. negotiator of the nuclear deal with Iran, could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for Albright Stonebridge LLC, where Sherman now serves as a senior counselor, said Tuesday that Sherman is “unavailable at this time and cannot be reached for comment.”

Asked about the September 2015 cyber-attack, a State Department spokesman said, “For security reasons we cannot confirm whether any hacking incident took place.”

At least four State Department officials in the Bureau of Near East Affairs and a senior State Department adviser on digital media and cyber-security were involved in trying to contain the hack, according to an email dated September 24, 2015 and multiple interviews with sources familiar with the attack.

The Obama administration kept quiet about the cyber-attack and never publicly acknowledged concerns the attack created at State, related agencies, and within the private contractor community that supports their work.

Critics of the nuclear deal said the Obama administration did not publicly disclose the cyber-attack’s impact out of fear it could undermine support right after the pact had overcome political opposition and cleared a critical Congressional hurdle.

The hacking of email addresses belonging to State Department officials and outside contractors began three days after the congressional review period for the deal ended Sept. 17, according to sources familiar with the details of the attack and the internal State Department email. That same day, Democrats in Congress blocked a GOP-led resolution to disapprove of the nuclear deal, according to sources familiar with the details of the attack and the internal State Department email. The resolution of disapproval needed 60 votes to pass but garnered just 56.

President Trump, during his trip to the Middle East in late May, talked tough against Iran and its illicit ballistic missile program but has so far left the nuclear deal in place. A Trump State Department review of the deal is nearing completion, the Free Beacon recently reported, and some senior Trump administration officials are pushing for the public release of the so-called “secret side deals.”

State Department alerts outside contractors of cyber-attack

State Department officials in the Office of Iranian Affairs on Sept. 24, 2015 sent an email to dozens of outside contractors. The email alerted the contractors that a cyber-attack had occurred and urged them not to open any email from a group of five State Department officials that did not come directly from their official state.gov accounts.

“We have received evidence that social media and email accounts are being compromised or subject to phishing messages,” the email, obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, states. “Please be advised that you should not open any link, download or open an attachment from any e-mail message that uses our names but is not directly from one of our official state.gov accounts.”

“We appreciate learning of any attempts to use our names or affiliations in this way,” stated the email. Shervin Hadjilou, the public diplomacy officer in the Office of Iranian Affairs, sent the email and cc’d four other State Department officials who deal with Iran issues, including one cyber-security expert.

Two sources familiar with the details of the hack said the State Department and outside contractors determined that Iranian officials were the perpetrators. The hack, which began Sept. 21, had compromised at least two State Department officials’ government email accounts before they regained control of them, as well as private email addresses and Facebook and other social media accounts, the source said.

“They had access to everything in those email accounts,” the source said. “Everyone in the [State Department Iranian Affairs] community was very upset—it was a major problem.”

The hack also stood out because cyber-warfare between Iran and the United States, which had been the weapon of choice between the countries for years, had cooled considerably in 2015 during the nuclear negotiations in what cyber-security experts have described as a limited détente.

Since Iran discovered the Stuxnet virus—a cyber-worm the United States and Israel planted to degrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities—in 2011, the countries have been engaged in escalating cyber warfare as Tehran’s cyber capabilities become increasingly sophisticated and destructive.

Since 2011 Iran has attacked U.S. banks and Israel’s electric grid. In 2012, Iranian hackers brought down Saudi-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, erasing information on nearly 30,000 of the company’s work stations and replacing it with a burning American flag.

Cyber-security experts have long believed that Russia helped Iran quickly build up its cyberweaponry in response to Stuxnet. A team of computer-security experts at TrapX, a Silicon Valley security firm that helps protect top military contractors from hackers, said in April they officially confirmed that Iranians were using a cyber “tool set” developed by Russians.

Tom Kellerman, a TrapX investor who also served on a commission advising the Obama administration on cyber-security, said Iranian cyberwarfare has dramatically improved over the last two or three years in large part due to Russian technical assistance.

“Much like you see the alliance between Syria, Iran, and Russia, the alliance doesn’t just relate to the distribution of kinetic weapons,” he said, but extends into cyberwarfare.

Uproar among private contracting community over cyber-attack

In the late September 2015 hack, at least two State Department officials and a handful of outside contractors lost control of access to their email and social media accounts, which were automatically forwarding emails to work and personal contacts. This spread the hack to a wider network of victims.

The private-contracting community involved in State Department Iran programs—approximately 40 private firms, some of which are based in Washington and others located throughout the United States—were outraged by the infiltration.

“They were saying ‘We’re mad—we’re angry,'” the source recalled. “We all got compromised.”

Eric Novotny, who served as a senior adviser for digital media and cyber security at the State Department at the time, was involved in trying to shut down the hack and help affected officials and private contractors regain control of their accounts. Novotny was one of the four government officials copied on Hadjilou’s Sept. 24 email.

Critics: Obama administration’s silence on hacking was needed to secure nuke deal

Critics of the Obama administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear deal argue that the State Department stayed silent about the hack because acknowledging it could have publicly undermined the pact right after it became official.

“Within hours of the Iran deal being greenlighted, Iran was already conducting cyberattacks against the very State Department that ensured passage of the [nuclear deal],” said Michael Pregent, a senior Middle East analyst at the Hudson Institute. “Acknowledging a cyberattack after the [nuclear deal] was greenlighted would be something that would immediately signal that it is a bad deal—that these are nefarious actors.”

Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran’s hacking of State Department personnel at such a critical period is “just one of many of Iran’s malign activities that continued and the State Department essentially ignored while the Obama administration was working out the fine points of the nuclear deal.”

“The Obama administration didn’t acknowledge it publicly out of fear that public outrage could threaten the nuclear deal,” he said.

In early November 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guard military had hacked email and social-media accounts of Obama administration officials.

Yet that report wrongly tied the beginning of the uptick in Iranian cyberattacks to the arrest October 29, 2015 of Siamak Namazi, a businessman and Iranian-American scholar who has pushed for democratic reforms. Namazi and his elderly father remain imprisoned in Iran and face a 10-year sentence on espionage charges.

The Journal report also did not indicate that the attacks had occurred more than a month earlier, within three days of the end of the congressional review period, nor did it indicate any specific individual targeted nor how officials and contractors reacted to it.

The Sept. 24 email obtained by the Free Beacon shows the Iranian hacking of State Department officials occurred much earlier—the weekend after Republicans in Congress failed to push through a resolution disapproving the Iran nuclear pact, effectively sealing the foreign policy win for Obama.

The late September time period was particularly important for negotiating critical details of the nuclear deal’s implementation, what critics, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, have labeled “secret side deals” allowing Iran to evade some restrictions in the nuclear agreement in order to meet its deadline for sanctions relief.

Among other non-public details of the pact, the side agreements involved the controversial exchange of American prisoners held in Iran for $1.7 billion in cash payments.

Infiltrating State Department emails and internal communications about where the United States stood on a number of sensitive issues could have given the Iranians an important negotiating advantage, according to David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

“The [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] had a lot of loose language at the time and the question was whether the U.S. was going to accept it,” he told the Free Beacon, referring to the weeks immediately following the Congressional Review Period, which ended Sept. 17, and Iran’s own review process, which ended Oct. 15.

“It would be to Iran’s great benefit to know where the U.S. would be” on a number of these issues dealing with the possible military dimensions of the Iran nuclear program, he said. “If they could tell the U.S. was going to punt, they could jerk around the [International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA] a bit.”

“That’s essentially what happened with the IAEA,” he added.

The IAEA is charged with verifying and monitoring Iran’s commitments under the nuclear agreement.

According to Albright, the IAEA ultimately accepted far less access to nuclear sites than it originally wanted. The United States and other world powers also accepted other concessions involving “loopholes” allowing Iran to exceed uranium enrichment and heavy water limits for a certain time period in order for Iran to meet implementation deadlines, he said.

“The IAEA didn’t know much at all and had to write a report [in December 2015] that it was content in knowing so little,” he said.

Others who credit Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard with the cyber-attack say it may not have focused entirely on gaining leverage in the negotiations but simply demonstrating a resistance to the deal among hardline factions in the country.

“Iran has two personalities, and I think you were seeing the other personality shine through,” Kellerman said of the hack during a critical phase of the nuclear deal.

Hack used common spear-phishing technique

Sources said the September 2015 hacking incidents compromised email accounts by sending spear-phishing messages, or efforts to gain unauthorized access to confidential data by impersonating close contacts.

The phishing emails targeted both State Department and private contractors’ personal email and social media accounts, including Facebook, shutting down the users’ access and sending out emails to some of the hacked individuals contacts and forwarding other information to unfamiliar emails with Persian-sounding names, two sources told the Free Beacon.

Samuel Bucholtz, co-founder of Casaba, a cyber-security firm that conducts test-hacking for Fortune 500 companies, said the hackers were likely trying to gain access to contacts and emails. The hackers also may have tried to install malware that would provide greater access to information held on computers or the entire computer network of the organizations, he said.

“If it’s a phishing account that installs malware on your machine, then they have access to all the information on your machine,” he said. “Then they start using that foothold to start exploring access throughout the entire organization.”

How to Secure and Stabilize the Middle East

May 14, 2017

How to Secure and Stabilize the Middle East, Clarion ProjectShahriar Kia, May 14, 2017

An Iranian protester during the Green Revolution (Photo: Reuters)

The opinions below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Clarion Project.

In contrast to other countries that lack a opposition that can be trusted, Iran enjoys an internationally-recognized alternative based on democratic values acknowledged across the globe.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and its pivotal member, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), is the largest and most organized opposition in the face of the Iranian regime. The NCRI enjoys widespread support inside Iran and throughout the world, with the ability to organize an uprising against the regime in Tehran. Senior Iranian regime officials have acknowledged the time and again that the main threat compromising Iran’s entire regime apparatus is none other than the PMOI/MEK. To this end, they have focused their entire efforts on physically obliterating this Iranian opposition group.

In 2009, when the Iranian people took to the streets and demanded fundamental change, their efforts went unsupported due to Obama’s appeasement policy that sought to sign the nuclear deal with Tehran at all costs. This was an opportunity that enjoyed the potential of significantly decreasing existing Middle East crises. Today, the regime in Tehran is facing crises far more dangerous than 2009.

The correct Iran policy is supporting regime change by the Iranian people and their organized and legitimate resistance. By adopting such a stance, the international community can begin to confront Iran’s notorious influence in the region and its nuclear ambitions in order to spread security in a non-nuclear Middle East free of terrorism.

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced at a press conference on April 19 that the White House is evaluating its policy on Iran. This policy overview will not merely cover the Iran nuclear deal, but will be a comprehensive look at all Iran-related issues.

At a press conference, Tillerson formalized Iran’s provocative and destructive measures in different fields.

“Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, and continuing to support attacks against Israel … An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea, and take the world along with it … Iran’s provocative actions threaten the United States, the region, and the world …” he said.

“Iran continues to have one of the world’s worst human rights records,” Tillerson added.

Defense Secretary James Mattis adopted a similar approach on April 22 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, saying, “But we’re talking about the Mideast at an inflection point. And I would just point out right now that among the many challenges the Mideast faces, I think Iran is actually foremost … The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

Iran’s meddling has neutralized all efforts to resolve the region’s crises, said Bahrain Interior Minister Rashed bin Abdullah at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) session, adding the region faces threats that demand cooperation to confront. He emphasized the need for unity in Gulf positions regarding strategic matters.

What is the right Iran policy?

Supporters of the Iran appeasement approach believe the correct policy is to engage the mullahs’ regime and continue dialogue. They justify this approach for two reasons: first, to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and second, to attempt to establish change from within by supporting so-called “moderates” inside the regime apparatus.

This is the policy pursued during the Obama years without any political or strategic reservation, and also that of previous administrations throughout the past few decades.

However, rapprochement with Tehran not only failed to contain the mullahs’ ambitions and terrorism; in fact, it further encouraged the regime and plunged the entire Middle East into insecurity and instability.

The Wall Street Journal wrote in a recent piece, “President Donald Trump’s hard-line view on Iran was at odds with State Department diplomats.”

Yet, the solution placed forward by Obama and the State Department’s experienced diplomats resulted in Iran escalating its flagrant human rights violations and expanding its devious influence throughout the Middle East.

Others believe the right Iran policy is a military solution and the U.S. must launch airstrikes targeting Iran’s nuclear sites. Although this can deliver significant blows to Iran’s ambitions and disrupt the mullahs’ efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, the consequences on regional security and stability are controversial, placing the U.S. and its allies in yet another Middle East war.

What is the durable solution? Can we avoid war while bringing an end to the spread of extremism and terrorism across the globe?

Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in today’s world. Since the appeasement policy adopted by previous U.S. administrations has been fruitless in containing Iran and actually led to the current dangerous circumstances, the only viable long-term solution is to adopt a firm policy that hinges on regime change.

In contrast to other countries that lack a opposition that can be trusted, Iran enjoys an internationally-recognized alternative based on democratic values acknowledged across the globe.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and its pivotal member, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), is the largest and most organized opposition in the face of the Iranian regime. The NCRI enjoys widespread support inside Iran and throughout the world, with the ability to organize an uprising against the regime in Tehran. Senior Iranian regime officials have acknowledged the time and again that the main threat compromising Iran’s entire regime apparatus is none other than the PMOI/MEK. To this end, they have focused their entire efforts on physically obliterating this Iranian opposition group.

Following a visit paid by Senator John McCain to Albania and his meeting with Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, an analysis posted on April 27 in Iran Dideban, a state-sponsored outlet, made vivid the regime’s concern that the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) failed to quell and destroy the PMOI/MEK.

“The IRGC’s involvement in Syria led to serious neglect. This inattention has surfaced, resulting in this group [MEK] gaining a more open hand to play a role in on-the-ground developments … It is worth noting this group has significant experience in organizing campaigns and can pose a potential security threat for the country. The use of social domestic networks inside the country and influencing grayscale correspondents are among the efforts of this group. This has launched a wave of disappointment among forces loyal to the establishment and state.”

In 2009, when the Iranian people took to the streets and demanded fundamental change, their efforts went unsupported due to Obama’s appeasement policy that sought to sign the nuclear deal with Tehran at all costs. This was an opportunity that enjoyed the potential of significantly decreasing existing Middle East crises. Today, the regime in Tehran is facing crises far more dangerous than 2009.

The correct Iran policy is supporting regime change by the Iranian people and their organized and legitimate resistance. By adopting such a stance, the international community can begin to confront Iran’s notorious influence in the region and its nuclear ambitions in order to spread security in a non-nuclear Middle East free of terrorism.

Iran: Destabilizing the Middle East Through Proxy Allies

May 11, 2017

Iran: Destabilizing the Middle East Through Proxy Allies, Clarion ProjectAmir Basiri, May 11, 2017

An Iranian Shiite militia in Iraq (Photo: Reuters)

It is a known fact throughout the region that the Islamic Republic of Iran founded the Lebanese Hezbollah as an offspring to expand its influence in the Middle East and gain a foothold on the shores of the Mediterranean.

U.S. National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster recently accused Tehran of imposing the “Hezbollah model” to gain influence over various Middle East states, destabilizing the region through the process.

Such a blueprint includes targeting vulnerable governments across the region through a variety of plots while, at the same time, backing armed militia groups stationed in those countries. Hezbollah has already managed to consolidate its influence over the government of Lebanon after Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, took control over the country’s presidency last year.

It has also become quite obvious that the United States, despite the highly flawed nuclear deal which supposedly aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear program, enjoys the leverage of pressuring Iran through the use of comprehensive sanctions. Tehran will likely not forget this obvious factor and knows the Trump administration can kick-start new sanctions whnever it deems necessary.

The new administration has already slapped the Iranian regime with two series of sanctions in the past three months and more can be expected.

The reference made by Trump’s national security adviser to “militias and other illegal armed groups” backed by Iran refers to the vast variety of Shiite militias in Iraq under the Baghdad-backed umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). These groups have their parallel in Yemen with the Houthis, who are focusing their efforts on ousting the Western-backed government.

British researchers discovered evidence indicating without a doubt how Tehran is deeply involved in keeping a “weapons pipeline” up and running for Houthis.

At the same time, Tehran continues to harass the Saudis from their southern border and threaten international shipping lines passing through the strategic Bab el Mandab waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

This goes in line with a conglomerate of Shiite foot-soldiers Iran has rallied from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries for the bloodbath raging on in Syria after six long years.

Iran has abetted the barbaric tactics of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, further demonstrating its ill intentions across the region. The PMU and Hezbollah have boosted Tehran’s efforts and role in keeping Assad in power. They have all been accused of having played atrocious roles in unspeakable war crimes, with the Khan Shaykhoun chemical attack by Assad in Idlib Province of northern Syria acting as yet another stark reminder of this reality.

Iran’s destabilizing role in nations across the Arab and Islamic worlds has been on the rise significantly with news reports seen in recent months.

The Iraqi Parliament legitimized the PMU last November through the adoption of a law aimed at maintaining this entity’s command structure and hierarchy. Iraqi Sunnis, alongside all minorities in the country including Christians, Yazidi and others, are now left extremely concerned, knowing how this measure can actually legalize the brutal retaliation measures conducted by the Shiite militias.

While Iran’s “medddling” has become obvious to the international community, officially Tehran has continued to deny its role of fueling these Middle East conflicts.

In March, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi denied “any intervention in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” The irony lies in the fact that despite such remarks, Alireza Zakani, known to be a close confidante of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is also known to have boasted in remarks dating back to November 2014 of Iran controlling four Arab capitals following the Houthis’ capture of the Yemeni capital. The list included Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus.

Following eight years of the Obama administration’s disastrous Iran engagement policy, it is high time to make it crystal clear to Iran that such a trend will no longer be tolerated and must come to an end.

Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program: On Course, Underground, Uninspected

April 25, 2017

Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program: On Course, Underground, Uninspected, Center for Security Policy, Clare M. Lopez, April 24, 2017

The Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons program, born in secrecy and kept hidden for years, has never skipped a beat and today continues on course in underground and military facilities to which inspectors have no access. On 21 April 2017, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the oldest, largest, and best organized democratic Iranian opposition group presented startling new evidence that the jihadist regime in Tehran is violating the terms of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) agreement reached in July 2015 among the P-5 +1 (Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and Iran.

As will be recalled, it was the NCRI that first blew the lid off Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2002, at a time when it had been in progress for at least fourteen years (since 1988), unbeknownst to most of the world, including the IAEA. Virtually all of the Iranian nuclear sites now known publicly were only retroactively ‘declared’ by the mullahs’ regime after exposure: the Natanz enrichment site, Isfahan conversion site, Fordow enrichment and Research and Development (R&D) site, Lavizan-Shian, and more. Regularly corroborated additional revelations since 2002 by the NCRI have built a record of credibility that should prompt a closer official look at these new reports by the U.S. State and Defense Departments, National Security Council (NSC), and White House.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of NCRI’s Washington office, provided a devastating expose of the ongoing activities of the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND), the Tehran-based element of the Iranian Ministry of Defense that has primary responsibility for the regime’s nuclear weapons development. The SPND, established in February 2011, was officially sanctioned by the U.S. Department of State in August 2014 for engaging in nuclear weapons R&D.   Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (aka Dr. Hassan Mohseni), the founder and director of the SPND and a veteran IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) brigadier general, was designated individually under UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1747 in 2007 and by the U.S. in July 2008 for his involvement in Iran’s proscribed WMD activities. Despite these designations, and the IAEA’s failure to resolve the many critical indicators of “Possible Military Dimensions” related to Iran’s nuclear program as specified in the November 2011 IAEA Board of Governors report, the July 2015 JCPOA inexplicably lifted sanctions against the SPND.

It is hardly surprising, then, to learn that the SPND not only continues critical weaponization research involving nuclear warheads, triggers, and explosives, but has expanded that work at each of seven subordinate locations. One of these, revealed by the NCRI in 2009 but never declared to the IAEA, is the Center for Research and Expansion of Technologies on Explosions and Impact (Markaz-e Tahghighat va Tose’e Fanavari-e Enfejar va Zarbeh or METFAZ), which works on triggers and high-impact, non-conventional explosives. The current METFAZ director is a Ministry of Defense engineer named Mohammad Ferdowsi, whose expertise is in high explosives. Ferdowsi also serves as chairman of the board of directors of the High-Explosive Society of Malek Ashtar University (affiliated with the Defense Ministry).

After conclusion of the July 2015 JCPOA, much of METFAZ’s personnel and work was moved to the Parchin military facility for better cover and security. Parchin Chemical Industries, an element of Iran’s Defense Industries Organization (DIO), was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2008 for importing “a chemical precursor for solid propellant oxidizer, possibly to be used for ballistic missiles.” Parchin is the location where the IAEA long suspected Iran was conducting test explosions for nuclear detonators. In October 2014, Iran finally admitted to using Parchin to test exploding bridge wires, but implausibly claimed they were not for weapons development. Equally incredibly, the IAEA concluded a secret side deal with Iran that allowed it to collect its own samples at Parchin—in which the IAEA in fact did find evidence of enriched uranium. But despite that and more evidence, the JCPOA was concluded and sanctions against Parchin Chemical Industries were lifted.

Within Parchin are twelve separate military and missile complexes. According to the NCRI’s new information, METFAZ has established a new location within one of these that is near the center of Parchin and referred to simply as the “Research Academy” in SPND internal communications. Located on the sprawling Parchin complex some 30 miles southeast of Tehran, the new METFAZ center is called the Chemical Plan of Zeinoddin and is located in a section called Plan 6. It’s completely fenced in and protected by heavy security under control of the IRGC’s Intelligence Service. What goes on there is concealed from the IAEA, and likely with good reason.

Old and New Locations for the SPND

METFAZ’s Research Academy Location within Parchin Plan 6 Area

Lambasting the Iranian regime for its ongoing regional aggression and support to terrorist organizations, as Secretary of State Tillerson did on 20 April 2017, is certainly a step in the right direction. Noting that after ten years, Iran can break out and build all the bombs it wants is also a useful observation. But neither of those comes close to fulfilling the Trump campaign pledge to “rip up” the JCPOA – or hold Iran accountable for its violations of the JCPOA. Secretary Tillerson’s 18 April letter to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, certifying that Iran was in compliance with the 2015 deal, simply cannot be squared with the NCRI’s latest revelations, which it has shared with both the U.S. government and the IAEA. Indeed, the independent Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) issued a March 3, 2017 report in which it explicitly states about the IAEA’s 24 February 2017 Quarterly report, “Nowhere in the report does the IAEA state that Iran is fully compliant with the JCPOA, and it should not make that judgement.”

The real problem with the JCPOA—and why it needs to be ripped to shreds—is not what’s in it: it’s what’s been left out or exempted in any number of secret side deals that the U.S. and IAEA concluded with the Iranians. Among critical issues either explicitly permitted or simply not covered in the JCPOA are the following:

  • Iran keeps its entire nuclear infrastructure intact
  • Iran keeps all its centrifuges and is allowed to work on newer models
  • Iran can deny IAEA inspectors access to any site it seeks to keep off-limits
  • Iran can continue its ballistic missile nuclear weapons delivery system research, development, and testing
  • Iran’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and ballistic missile collaboration with North Korea is not mentioned in the JCPOA
  • Iran’s ongoing support for terrorism is off-limits for the JCPOA

The Trump administration must make good on its campaign promises with regard to Iran, its nuclear weapons program, and the JCPOA. The U.S. with its international partners and the IAEA must demand that Iran fully implement all UN Security Council Resolutions (including the one prohibiting Iran from any nuclear enrichment activities); accept the Additional Protocol; and allow unhindered access for IAEA inspectors to all suspected centers and facilities.

Beginning to fill relevant USG positions with officers untainted by association with the failed JCPOA or Iran Lobby affiliates like NIAC (National Iranian American Council) is an imperative and urgent first step. Announcing U.S. intent to end all activities associated with the JCPOA, hold Iran to account for its human rights abuses, involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and continuing support for terrorism would be natural subsequent policy positions.

We look forward to the results of the JCPOA policy review that Secretary Tillerson has announced.

Obama’s hidden Iran deal giveaway

April 24, 2017

Obama’s hidden Iran deal giveaway, Politico, April 24, 2017

Sean McCabe for POLITICO

The biggest fish, though, was Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili, who had been charged with being part of a conspiracy that from 2005 to 2012 procured thousands of parts with nuclear applications for Iran via China. That included hundreds of U.S.-made sensors for the uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran whose progress had prompted the nuclear deal talks in the first place.

The saga of how the Obama administration threw a monkey wrench into its own Justice Department-led counterproliferation effort continues to play out almost entirely out of public view, largely because of the highly secretive nature of the cases and the negotiations that affected them.

That may be about to change, as the Trump administration and both chambers of Congress have pledged to crack down on Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a government-wide review of U.S. policy toward Iran in the face of “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time.”

Over the past year, the system has kicked back into gear, with some new cases filed and movement in existing ones. Some, however, involve activity dating to 2008, including the prosecution of some of Ravan’s suspected associates in the Iraq IED case. Privately, some prosecutors and investigators are hopeful that the Trump administration’s more hard-line approach to Tehran will mean more support for their efforts.

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By dropping charges against major arms targets, the administration infuriated Justice Department officials — and undermined its own counterproliferation task forces.

When President Barack Obama announced the “one-time gesture” of releasing Iranian-born prisoners who “were not charged with terrorism or any violent offenses” last year, his administration presented the move as a modest trade-off for the greater good of the Iran nuclear agreement and Tehran’s pledge to free five Americans.

“Iran had a significantly higher number of individuals, of course, at the beginning of this negotiation that they would have liked to have seen released,” one senior Obama administration official told reporters in a background briefing arranged by the White House, adding that “we were able to winnow that down to these seven individuals, six of whom are Iranian-Americans.”

But Obama, the senior official and other administration representatives weren’t telling the whole story on Jan. 17, 2016, in their highly choreographed rollout of the prisoner swap and simultaneous implementation of the six-party nuclear deal, according to a POLITICO investigation.

In his Sunday morning address to the American people, Obama portrayed the seven men he freed as “civilians.” The senior official described them as businessmen convicted of or awaiting trial for mere “sanctions-related offenses, violations of the trade embargo.”

In reality, some of them were accused by Obama’s own Justice Department of posing threats to national security. Three allegedly were part of an illegal procurement network supplying Iran with U.S.-made microelectronics with applications in surface-to-air and cruise missiles like the kind Tehran test-fired recently, prompting a still-escalating exchange of threats with the Trump administration. Another was serving an eight-year sentence for conspiring to supply Iran with satellite technology and hardware. As part of the deal, U.S. officials even dropped their demand for $10 million that a jury said the aerospace engineer illegally received from Tehran.

And in a series of unpublicized court filings, the Justice Department dropped charges and international arrest warrants against 14 other men, all of them fugitives. The administration didn’t disclose their names or what they were accused of doing, noting only in an unattributed, 152-word statement about the swap that the U.S. “also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful.”

Three of the fugitives allegedly sought to lease Boeing aircraft for an Iranian airline that authorities say had supported Hezbollah, the U.S.-designated terrorist organization. A fourth, Behrouz Dolatzadeh, was charged with conspiring to buy thousands of U.S.-made assault rifles and illegally import them into Iran.

A fifth, Amin Ravan, was charged with smuggling U.S. military antennas to Hong Kong and Singapore for use in Iran. U.S. authorities also believe he was part of a procurement network providing Iran with high-tech components for an especially deadly type of IED used by Shiite militias to kill hundreds of American troops in Iraq.

The biggest fish, though, was Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili, who had been charged with being part of a conspiracy that from 2005 to 2012 procured thousands of parts with nuclear applications for Iran via China. That included hundreds of U.S.-made sensors for the uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran whose progress had prompted the nuclear deal talks in the first place.

When federal prosecutors and agents learned the true extent of the releases, many were shocked and angry. Some had spent years, if not decades, working to penetrate the global proliferation networks that allowed Iranian arms traders both to obtain crucial materials for Tehran’s illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs and, in some cases, to provide dangerous materials to other countries.

“They didn’t just dismiss a bunch of innocent business guys,” said one former federal law enforcement supervisor centrally involved in the hunt for Iranian arms traffickers and nuclear smugglers. “And then they didn’t give a full story of it.”

In its determination to win support for the nuclear deal and prisoner swap from Tehran — and from Congress and the American people — the Obama administration did a lot more than just downplay the threats posed by the men it let off the hook, according to POLITICO’s findings.

Through action in some cases and inaction in others, the White House derailed its own much-touted National Counterproliferation Initiative at a time when it was making unprecedented headway in thwarting Iran’s proliferation networks. In addition, the POLITICO investigation found that Justice and State Department officials denied or delayed requests from prosecutors and agents to lure some key Iranian fugitives to friendly countries so they could be arrested. Similarly, Justice and State, at times in consultation with the White House, slowed down efforts to extradite some suspects already in custody overseas, according to current and former officials and others involved in the counterproliferation effort.

And as far back as the fall of 2014, Obama administration officials began slow-walking some significant investigations and prosecutions of Iranian procurement networks operating in the U.S. These previously undisclosed findings are based on interviews with key participants at all levels of government and an extensive review of court records and other documents.

“Clearly, there was an embargo on any Iranian cases,” according to the former federal supervisor.

“Of course it pissed people off, but it’s more significant that these guys were freed, and that people were killed because of the actions of one of them,” the supervisor added, in reference to Ravan and the IED network.

The supervisor noted that in agreeing to lift crippling sanctions against Tehran, the Obama administration had insisted on retaining the right to go after Iran for its efforts to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads and cruise missiles that could penetrate U.S. defenses, and to illegally procure components for its nuclear, military and weapons systems.

“Then why would you be dismissing the people that you know about who are involved in that?” the former official asked.

A SHREWD CALCULATION

The saga of how the Obama administration threw a monkey wrench into its own Justice Department-led counterproliferation effort continues to play out almost entirely out of public view, largely because of the highly secretive nature of the cases and the negotiations that affected them.

That may be about to change, as the Trump administration and both chambers of Congress have pledged to crack down on Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a government-wide review of U.S. policy toward Iran in the face of “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time.”

On Thursday, President Donald Trump declared that even if Iran is meeting the terms of its deal with the Obama administration and other world powers, “they are not living up to the spirit of it, I can tell you that. And we’re analyzing it very, very carefully, and we’ll have something to say about that in the not-too-distant future.”

At left, President Barack Obama delivers a statement Jan. 17, 2016, on the relations between the U.S. and Iran. At right, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet July 7, 2015, in Vienna, Austria, during the nuclear talks between the E3+3 and Iran. | AP and Getty Photos

Such reviews are likely to train a spotlight on an aspect of the nuclear deal and prisoner swap that has infuriated the federal law enforcement community most — the hidden damage it has caused to investigations and prosecutions into a wide array of Iranian smuggling networks with U.S. connections.

Valerie Lincy, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said Obama administration officials made a shrewd political calculation in focusing public attention on just those seven men it was freeing in the United States, and portraying them as mere sanctions violators.

That way, she said, “They just didn’t think it was going to make too many waves. And I think they were right.”

But Lincy, who closely tracks the U.S. counterproliferation effort against Iran, said that by letting so many men off the hook, and for such a wide range of offenses, Washington has effectively given its blessing to Iran’s continuing defiance of international laws.

Former Obama administration officials deny that, saying the men could still be prosecuted if they continue their illegal activity. But with their cases dropped, international arrest warrants dismissed and investigative assets redirected, the men — especially the 14 fugitives — can now continue activities the U.S. considers to be serious threats to its national security, Lincy said.

“This is a scandal,” she said. “The cases bear all the hallmarks of exactly the kinds of national security threats we’re still going after. It’s stunning and hard to understand why we would do this.”

Even some initial supporters of negotiating with Iran said the disclosures are troubling.

“There was always a broader conceptual problem with the administration not wanting to upset the balance of the deal or the perceived rapprochement with the Iranian regime,” said former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Juan Zarate, who later turned against the accord. “The deal was sacrosanct, and the Iranians knew it from the start and took full advantage when we had — and continue to maintain — enormous leverage.”

Most, if not all, of the Justice Department lawyers and prosecutors involved in the Counterproliferation Initiative were kept in the dark about how their cases were being used as bargaining chips, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials.

So were the federal agents from the FBI and departments of Homeland Security and Commerce who for years had been operating internationally, often undercover, on the front lines of the hunt for Iranian arms and weapons smugglers.

It wasn’t just that prosecutors and agents with years of detailed knowledge about the cases were left out of the consultations about the significance of the 21 men let go in the swap. The lack of input also meant that negotiators were making decisions without fully understanding how the releases would impact the broader and interconnected matrix of U.S. investigations.

At the time, those investigations were providing U.S. officials with a roadmap of how, exactly, Tehran was clandestinely building its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and maintaining its military with the unwitting assistance of so many U.S. weapons parts and technology companies. The cases were also providing key operational details of how the Iranian procurement networks operate, and who in Tehran was calling the shots.

“So when they downplayed it, it really infuriated people,” said Kenneth MacDonald, a former senior Homeland Security official who helped establish the multi-agency coordination center at the heart of the National Counterproliferation Initiative.

“They’d spent months or years on these cases and the decisions were made with no review of what the implications were,” said MacDonald, who retired in 2013 but keeps in contact with agents as co-principal investigator at the DHS-affiliated Institute for Security Policy at Northeastern University. “There was absolutely no consultation.”

A SYSTEM IN LIMBO

In a series of interviews, senior officials from the Obama White House and Justice and State Departments said the prisoner swap was a bargain for the U.S., given the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati and three others. Iran also promised cooperation on the case of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who had disappeared in Iran nearly a decade earlier and was believed to be either imprisoned or dead.

Those senior officials acknowledged that all but a handful of people were kept in the dark, but said top representatives of the Justice Department and FBI helped vet the 21 Iranian proliferators and that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch herself participated in blocking some other individuals demanded by Tehran from inclusion in potential prisoner trades.

“The condition was that they not be engaged in anything remotely attached to violence or proliferation activities,” said one senior Obama administration official familiar with the swap negotiations. “And none of them were in any stage where they were providing assistance to the [Tehran] government.”

That may be true for the seven men granted clemency in the United States, but it certainly wasn’t the case for the 14 fugitives.

“These were people under active investigation, who we wanted very badly because they were operating at such a high level that they could help us begin to find out what was happening inside the black box of how Iran’s procurement networks really operate,” said Aaron Arnold, a former intelligence analyst at CPC2, the FBI’s special Counterproliferation Center unit dedicated to thwarting Iranian nuclear and weapons smuggling. “Without that kind of strategic insight, it leaves our analysts, but more importantly, our policy-makers just guessing at what Iran is up to and how to stop it.”

Fifteen months later, the fallout from the nuclear deal and prisoner swap — and questions about the events leading up to them — continue to reverberate through the Justice Department and the specialized units at the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Commerce Department created to neutralize the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear and military ambitions.

The National Counterproliferation Initiative, created with much fanfare a decade ago, has suffered greatly, many participants said, even as they acknowledged that metrics are hard to come by. Much of the work is done in secret, and in long-range efforts that can’t be publicly disclosed, much less measured in annual arrest or conviction statistics.

But key enforcement efforts are in limbo as the result of stalled or stymied investigations and prosecutions, and the trail of some high-value targets has gone cold, numerous participants said.

At least six times in the run-up to the nuclear deal, federal investigators scrambled to get Justice and State Department approval to lure top Iranian targets into traveling internationally in order to arrest them, according to one top Obama administration Justice Department official and other participants. But the requests weren’t approved and the targets vanished, depriving the U.S. of some of its best opportunities to gain insight into the workings of Tehran’s nuclear, missile and military programs, the sources said.

“We would say, ‘We have this opportunity and if we don’t do it now, we’ll never have the opportunity ever again,” the recently departed Justice Department official recalls. But, he added, “There were periods of time where State Department cooperation was necessary but not forthcoming.”

Obama Secretary of State John Kerry declined to comment through a former senior State Department official, who said certain requests might have been delayed temporarily because they came at particularly sensitive times in the negotiations, but only with the concurrence of the White House and Justice Department.

But even now, many experienced agents and prosecutors say they are reluctant to pursue counterproliferation cases for fear that they won’t go anywhere. They say they have also received no helpful guidance on what they can — and cannot — investigate going forward given the complicated parameters of the Iran deal and lifting of nuclear sanctions. Some said they are biding their time to see how hard-liners in the new administration, including Trump himself, deal with Iran.

But others have grown so frustrated that they have moved on from the counterproliferation effort, taking with them decades of investigative experience and relationships cultivated with other government agencies and cooperating U.S. companies, a number of current and former officials said.

And critical momentum has been lost, many say, as the 10-year anniversary of the initiative in October approaches.

“This has erased literally years — many years — of hard work, and important cases that can be used to build toward other cases and even bigger players in Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs,” said former Justice Department counterproliferation prosecutor David Locke Hall, adding that the swap demolished the deterrent effect that the arrests and convictions may have had. “Even though these men’s crimes posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, the [Obama] administration has essentially told them their efforts have produced nothing more than political capital that can be traded away when politically expedient.”

One senior Obama administration official who served at the White House and DHS disagreed, saying much of the intelligence about Iranian networks remains usable even though the 21 cases were vacated, and that counterproliferation agents are a resilient bunch who will continue to do their jobs.

When asked whether the counterproliferation effort has struggled, one current Justice Department spokesman said no and quipped, “We are still in the export violation prosecuting business.”

That may be the case, said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, a physicist and former weapons inspector whose decades of scientific research into Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program brings him into regular close contact with federal authorities.

But like others involved in ongoing U.S. counterproliferation efforts, Albright said he witnessed many instances since late 2014 in which important investigations and prosecutions were hindered. Albright, who serves as an expert witness in Justice Department Iran trafficking prosecutions, added that federal agents have told him of numerous cases of “lure memos” and other requests never approved by the State Department.

“You can’t keep turning these down and expecting them to want to keep doing this,” said Albright, who added that efforts to lure suspects to countries where they can be arrested are essential in getting beyond the lower rungs of middlemen for Iran. He said he could not disclose specific details, but said, “The amount of rejections has risen to the level where people were worried that it would kill the counterproliferation effort.”

“They had wanted all of these things prosecuted, they were on a roll, they were freaking out the Iranians and then they were told, boom, stop,” Albright said of the Obama administration’s counterproliferation efforts. “And it’s hard to get them back again. We are shooting ourselves in the foot, destroying the infrastructure that we created to enforce the laws against the Iranians.”

The repercussions from the prisoner swap are especially strong in Boston, where authorities had worked for years to build the case against Jamili, the suspected Iranian nuclear procurement agent, and his China-based associate Sihai Cheng.

The two were secretly indicted in 2013 along with two Iranian companies, and Cheng pleaded guilty in mid-December 2015 to four criminal counts. He acknowledged conspiring with Jamili to knowingly provide more than 1,000 high-tech components known as pressure transducers to Iran, which authorities say advanced its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Less than a month later, though, as the prisoner swap unfolded, Boston prosecutors got orders from Washington to file court papers vacating the charges against Jamili and dropping the Interpol arrest warrant for him.

It wasn’t until later that the case agents and prosecutors learned that the Iranian negotiators had specifically demanded that Jamili be included in the swap, said Arnold, the former analyst at the FBI’s Counterproliferation Center Iran unit, where he headed a financial intelligence team tracking the money flows of the Iranian networks.

A GLOBAL CAT AND MOUSE GAME

By the time of the nuclear deal and prisoner swap, the U.S. government had spent 35 years in pursuit of Iran’s ever more sophisticated web of smugglers, traffickers, transport operatives and procurement agents.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared that Iran constituted an unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. security after Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took hostage 52 Americans. Tehran began calling the United States “the Great Satan” and vowed its destruction, in part by using proxy forces like Hezbollah.

A raft of economic sanctions against Iran and Iranian entities were put in place, followed by other restrictions on U.S. parts and technology that Tehran needed for military or other restricted applications, including its squadrons of F-class fighter jets that Washington sold it during friendlier times. Its ambitious ballistic missile program became a grave concern over the years, especially when it became apparent that Tehran was using U.S. commodities to engineer inter-continental versions that could reach the United States, and to top them with nuclear, conventional or even chemical and biological weapons.

And as Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program ramped up, so did the U.S. effort to stop it.

Overseas, U.S. intelligence operatives shadowed Iranian procurement agents, cultivated informants and used cyberweapons to sabotage Iran’s clandestine program. The U.S. military tried to interdict illicit shipments headed for Tehran. The Treasury Department issued endless rounds of targeted sanctions, but each time it restricted access to global markets for suspect individuals and companies, Tehran would simply create new ones. And successive administrations tried the diplomatic route to slow or stop Iranian proliferation, including Tehran’s efforts to share weapons and research with other enemies of the United States, without success.

In response, federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors were deployed to shut down the Iranian procurement networks and dam the rivers of U.S. parts and technology illicitly flowing to Iran in violation of export control laws.

That proved virtually impossible, given the hundreds of trading, shipping and transport companies Iran employed, and the complex payment schemes and often unwitting procurement agents it used to get the products via other countries with lax export controls.

Meanwhile, since at least 1982, the Government Accountability Office began issuing stinging reports about how the lack of coordination and information-sharing among U.S. agencies severely hampered efforts to bring criminal cases against traffickers.

After the 9/11 attacks, those turf battles intensified. The cases often took years to investigate, and federal agents from two or even three agencies would sometimes discover they were conducting international undercover operations against the same target, a top former Homeland Security official recalls.

Securing convictions from American juries was also a huge challenge given the complex nature of the cases, especially when the procurement networks were buying so-called dual-use components that also could be used for less nefarious purposes.

Two post-9/11 cases exposed gaping holes in the global counterproliferation safety net. In the United States, Israeli-born trafficker Asher Karni was arrested for illegally shipping suspected U.S. nuclear components to Pakistan for its atomic bomb arsenal. And in Pakistan, metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan was caught selling his country’s nuclear capability to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

At left, an Iranian security employee walks in a part of the uranium conversion facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, in 2005. At right, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facilities on April 8, 2008. Ahmadinejad announced on Iranian state television during the visit that Iran had begun the installation of some 6,000 new centrifuges, adding to to the 3,000 centrifuges already at the facility. | Getty

Both cases ratcheted up Washington’s fears that the vast underground of WMD trafficking rings could sell their wares to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

In 2007, the Bush administration responded by establishing the National Counterproliferation Initiative, charging the Justice Department with coordinating and expanding U.S. efforts to dismantle the procurement networks.

Task forces were established around the country, with special training for prosecutors and agents in how to collectively build cases that would not only put front-line traffickers in prison, but also map the illicit networks and target their leadership.

From the outset, Iran cases were front and center, especially in cities like San Diego, Houston and New York with large military, industrial or technology sectors. Boston, in particular, seemed a favorite of the Iranian networks.

Soon, the multi-agency teams were homing in on key players in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and another network procuring the IED components that Tehran’s fearsome Revolutionary Guard used to assist Iraqi insurgents killing American troops in Iraq.

An early high-value target was Amin Ravan, who by 2008 was working with a Singapore firm on behalf of the Aerospace Industries Organization, described by a secret State Department cable that year as “the umbrella organization and key procurement center for all Iranian industries responsible for developing and manufacturing missiles.”

Another was Behrouz Dolatzadeh, the suspected assault weapons buyer for Tehran. Authorities say he had been active as far back as 1995 in illegal arms smuggling and other illegal activities in connection with a sprawling business empire linked to Iran’s hard-line leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

By 2011, the Justice-led task forces had developed so many promising leads that the FBI, Commerce and Homeland Security Department had created special units to better coordinate efforts. Together, they also improved liaisons with overseas law enforcement agencies instrumental in interdicting shipments headed for Iran.

And working with U.S. intelligence agencies and the State Department, the task forces successfully lured several key Iranian operatives out of Tehran and China for capture elsewhere, including two who would end up on Obama’s prisoner swap list.

Dolatzadeh was indicted under seal in Arizona in February 2012, lured to the Czech Republic to inspect weapons en route to Iran, and arrested. And Ravan, already linked to the IED network, was secretly indicted in Washington in November 2012 and captured soon after in Malaysia.

And after a three-year undercover investigation, U.S. authorities lured a major Iranian proliferator named Parviz Khaki to the Philippines in May 2012 and arrested him on charges of conspiring to smuggle nuclear-related U.S. equipment to Iran.

“By dismantling this complex conspiracy … we have disrupted a significant threat to national security,” John Morton, then-director of DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said at the time.

All three investigations provided U.S. officials with unprecedented insight into Iran’s secret procurement efforts, current and former task force members said. But Dolatzadeh and Ravan were released by courts overseas, and Khaki died in custody, before the U.S. could extradite them.

The counterproliferation teams also enlisted the help of American companies, providing them with Iran’s massive shopping list of needed items and hotlines to call when they got a nibble.

“It took a long time to mature, but by 2013 to 2014, it became very evident that we were getting a lot of great leads,” recalls Randall Coleman, who as assistant FBI director oversaw the bureau’s fledgling Counterproliferation Center and special coordinators in all 56 field offices.

“We were very aggressive, and as a result of that, our caseload went up about 500 percent,” Coleman said. “It really exploded. We were rocking and rolling.”

One of the most promising cases was in Boston, where federal agents were deep into their investigation of the illicit flow of parts to Iran from a Massachusetts firm, MKS Instruments, and its Shanghai subsidiary.

With help from MKS, which was not suspected of wrongdoing, agents initially focused on Cheng and gathered evidence that he had been indirectly supplying Iran with components with nuclear applications for years. The trail led to Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing, an Iranian company designated by European authorities as an entity involved in developing and procuring parts for Iran’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“Time is important, not only for you, for me, for your end user, but also for your nation,” Cheng wrote in a 2010 instant message to a suspected Iranian accomplice. “I personally believe the war will break out in 2 years and that will be the start of World War Three.”

But the agents’ curiosity was also piqued by another message from back in 2007, in which the Iranian accomplice, Seyed Jamili, asked Cheng for thousands of pressure transducers, for “a very big project and secret one.”

The project, authorities determined, was Iran’s clandestine uranium nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, where the transducers helped run thousands of gas centrifuge cascades to reach weapons-grade capability. There was even a photo of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touring Natanz, with the centrifuges — and MKS transducers clearly visible — in the background.

International U.S. arrest warrants were secretly issued for the two men, and authorities nabbed Cheng when he traveled to London to watch a soccer match in February 2014. After he was extradited and brought to Boston that December, authorities began to realize that Jamili was a far more important cog in Iran’s proliferation network than they had suspected.

It was Jamili who had recruited Cheng with the promise of big and easy money, they determined, and who had been using his Iranian import-export firm as cover for personally recruiting other procurement agents on trips to China and possibly other countries.

Around that same time, negotiations over a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran were heating up, and so were the top-secret prisoner swap talks on the sidelines of them.

AN OPERATIONAL SLOWDOWN

By the winter of 2014, federal agents and prosecutors began to detect waning support at the higher rungs of the Obama administration for their counterproliferation efforts against Iran, according to numerous officials involved. Also, they said, Justice Department management — and an interagency Iran working group — suddenly were scrutinizing Iran cases more closely, asking a lot more questions and holding up requests and approvals that in the past had been routine.

No specific guidance or order was given, some said, but the message was clear.

“They didn’t want to have cases just popping up in the workup to the agreement or shortly after the agreement. The administration would not look good if there were [cases documenting] these acquisition attempts. And the Iranians kept doing it,” MacDonald, the former senior Homeland Security official, said of Tehran’s illegal procurement efforts.

“They were never told no, just to wait,” MacDonald said of the agents. “It was a common theme among the people working these cases. The official response was that nothing had changed, that if you brought the case forward, it would be worked. But unofficially, that was just not the case.”

Some of the cases involved significant investigations into nuclear and missile proliferation that required State Department approval, including visas to lure suspects to the U.S. for arrest, said MacDonald, who had also served on the White House Task Force on Export Control Reform. “I’ve been told that the highest levels of the State Department weren’t processing those, and the cases couldn’t move forward.”

A former senior State Department official said that in most cases, State Department and White House could only provide nonbinding guidance on how ongoing law enforcement operations might affect the sensitive negotiations. Ultimately, he said, the Justice Department was responsible for pushing back and protecting the integrity of its investigations and prosecutions.

And while it’s possible that federal law enforcement officials missed opportunities as a result of State Department delays, “I am not aware of a single case where they lost out on some key arrest or information, or some proliferation activity was allowed to continue,” the former senior State Department official said, adding that some lures and extraditions were approved “until the very end of our tenure.”

Clockwise from upper left: A U.S. plane sits on the tarmac of Geneva’s airport Jan. 17, 2016, awaiting the arrival of some of the Americans freed by Iran in a prisoner swap with the United States. The prisoners were former Marine Amir Hekmati, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, private investigator and retired FBI and DEA agent Robert Levinson, Massachusetts student Matthew Trevithick and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari (not pictured). | AP and Getty Photos

Richard Nephew, a former top Iran sanctions official at the State Department and National Security Council, said any delays were “much more a case of managing the diplomatic initiative than letting the bad guys get away with stuff. If we found out in the NSC that something involved active law enforcement activity, then we were advised to stay the hell away from it.”

A top Obama Justice Department official rejected the notion that the State Department didn’t undermine important cases. He said prosecutors and investigators sometimes acceded to requests for delays they believed to be reasonable. But they became infuriated at times, he said, especially when opportunities to lure and arrest key Iranian proliferators were lost due to delay or outright rejection by State.

“The impediment was not the leadership of DOJ but the other agencies that DOJ has to work with to bring these cases successfully,” the Obama Justice official said. “They can kibosh it, they can pocket veto it, they can tell us no, they can punt it down a couple of steps.”

Justice Department officials demanded “high-level conversations” with the State Department and White House, but “not a whole lot” changed, the Obama Justice official said. “Did it fix the issue? I don’t think it did. I remember people up and down at DOJ being frustrated with the inability to move things.”

A senior former federal law enforcement official involved in counterproliferation efforts agreed, saying the FBI was especially impacted. “Did some of these other agencies’ actions … undermine what we were trying to accomplish in terms of the Iran network in the U.S.? Yes. But you are treading into waters where people don’t like what you are doing because it affects other things they are trying to do, diplomatically and politically.”

Ultimately, the dysfunction created by the slowdown spread far beyond the enforcement agencies and damaged relationships with partners in private industry and foreign governments, former DHS official MacDonald and others said.

By early 2015, the Obama administration’s oft-publicized desire for securing an Iran deal “was politicizing all of the ongoing investigations,” Arnold said. He visited his former CPC Iran Unit colleagues that August while briefing Treasury and FBI officials on the Iran deal, reached a month earlier, as a counterproliferation expert at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“There was a fear that as negotiations went on, the White House wouldn’t want to get caught in a flap” created by a high-profile arrest or criminal case, Arnold said.

For agents and prosecutors, the headlines such an incident would create would antagonize not only their superiors but also a White House intent on proving to Tehran that it was committed to reaching an accord. On the flip side, it could also provide ammunition to the proposed deal’s many critics in Congress and elsewhere, who were claiming that Iran was aggressively continuing its clandestine procurement efforts even as it pledged good behavior.

But agents and prosecutors had an even more powerful reason to throttle back on Iran proliferation cases, according to Arnold and others.

Despite repeated requests, many were not given guidance or reassurances that the nuclear deal being negotiated in secret wouldn’t render unprosecutable new and ongoing cases, especially high-priority ones against nuclear traffickers, Arnold said. So agents had no confidence that their work would bear fruit.

“It was absolutely insane,” Arnold said. “People didn’t know what to do.”

“From the summer of 2015 on, there was a serious slowdown” as many counterproliferation officials shut down prosecutions and investigations voluntarily, Arnold said. “During that time, CPC wasn’t as aggressive as it should have been.”

The senior Obama administration official acknowledged that the twin sets of negotiations influenced the overall U.S. counterproliferation effort against Iran, especially the timing of individual investigations, prosecutions and international efforts to bring suspects to justice.

Such competing equities are unavoidable when high-level matters of diplomacy and geopolitics are under consideration, the official said. At those times, the White House must be guided by broader policy objectives, in this case de-escalating conflict with Iran, curbing its nuclear weapons program and freeing at least four American prisoners.

“The White House wouldn’t be getting involved in saying yea or nay to particular arrests or cases or the like” that are the purview of the Justice Department, the administration official said. “It was not uncommon, though, that before we were going to undertake a law enforcement action that we thought would have foreign policy implications, we would alert folks at the White House so that there could be appropriate notice given to a foreign government. That happens.”

The former official also acknowledged the complaints by agents and prosecutors about cases being derailed but said they were unavoidable, and for the greater good.

“It’s entirely possible that during the pendency of the negotiations, that folks who were doing their jobs, doing the investigations and bringing cases, having no understanding of and insight into the other process, were frustrated because they don’t feel like their stuff is moving forward,” said the Obama official. “Or they were not getting answers, because there are these entirely appropriate discussions happening on the policy side.

“That doesn’t strike me as being, a, unusual or, b, wrong,” the official added. “But I completely understand why it’s frustrating.”

The Justice Department refused repeated requests to make available for interviews anyone related to the counterproliferation effort since the Iran deal, or to provide information about its role in the negotiations.

But in a statement to POLITICO, the Justice Department said the negotiations “did not affect the Department’s determination to investigate and charge worthy cases” and that it continued to “investigate, charge, and prosecute viable criminal cases … throughout negotiations of the JCPOA,” the formal term for the Iran deal. The Justice Department said it filed federal charges against 90 individuals and entities for violations of export controls and sanctions implicating Iran between 2014 and 2016, many under seal. It did not provide information about cases under seal for those or other years, making it impossible to place those numbers in the proper context.

Also, some of those cases involve the 21 Iranians let go in the swap. And because numerous individuals and entities often are charged in a single case, the statistics suggest a slowdown in counterproliferation efforts, according to current and former investigators and a POLITICO review of DOJ cases.

The timing of arrests, prosecutions and other investigative activities “may be informed by a variety of factors, including, especially in the national security context, collateral foreign policy consequences and impacts on American lives,” the Justice Department said. “Once an individual is charged, the Department works to ensure that the defendant, whether located in the U.S. or abroad, is held accountable. In seeking to apprehend defendants located abroad, however, we need assistance from other departments, agencies, and countries, and sometimes we cannot accomplish an arrest without it.”

Senior Obama administration officials also said the negotiations over the nuclear deal and, even more so the prisoner swap, required such extraordinary secrecy that only a tiny number of people were involved.

But as the nation’s top law enforcement official — and as a participant in the negotiations —Lynch failed in her responsibility as attorney general to protect the integrity of the Justice Department’s investigations and prosecutions from any political interference, some current and former officials believe.

Lynch, through an aide, declined to comment.

(A timeline graphic is at the link below. — DM

Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, raised the issue of Justice Department independence in 2015, when as a senator he asked incoming Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates about whether she knew that she had “the responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper?”

Earlier this year, this issue arose again when Trump fired then-Acting Attorney General Yates for doing just that and refusing to defend his executive order on immigration. By doing so, Trump had “placed the independence of the Justice Department at stake,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). “The attorney general is the people’s attorney, not the president’s attorney.”

Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis also emphasized the importance of such a firewall recently when addressing Trump’s claim that Obama had ordered wiretaps of him or his campaign. “A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” Lewis said.

Many front-line current and former authorities disagree, and say the Iran deal and prisoner swap is a glaring example of that.

“A lot of people were furious; they had cases in the pipeline for months, in some cases years, and then, all of a sudden, they were gone — all because they were trying to sell the nuke deal,” a former Department of Commerce counterproliferation agent said. “Things fell apart after that. There are some really good cases out there and they are not going forward. They just let them die on the vine.”

A MASTERMIND EMERGES

Top Obama administration officials insist that the nuclear deal does not impede any of the broader U.S. efforts to go after Iran’s vast nuclear, missile and conventional weapons procurement efforts. Even so, many participants said the way forward is still sufficiently unclear that they can’t, or won’t, proceed.

Over the past year, the system has kicked back into gear, with some new cases filed and movement in existing ones. Some, however, involve activity dating to 2008, including the prosecution of some of Ravan’s suspected associates in the Iraq IED case. Privately, some prosecutors and investigators are hopeful that the Trump administration’s more hard-line approach to Tehran will mean more support for their efforts.

Like many others, though, Albright said he is concerned that the counterproliferation effort has suffered significant and lasting damage, even if much of it involves classified efforts that may never become public.

“How much damage was done to the law enforcement side of this from us pulling back from these prosecutions?” he asked. “We have to pick up the pieces.”

Albright said that is especially the case in Boston, where he testified for the government against Cheng.

A few weeks after the prisoner swap, a judge sentenced Cheng to nine years in federal prison, even more than the prosecutors asked for, for his role in the conspiracy.

Cheng’s lawyer, Stephen Weymouth, accused federal prosecutors of unfair treatment, saying they threw the book at his client, a relatively small fish, while dropping all charges against the “mastermind,” Jamili.

Since the swap, federal authorities have learned more about Jamili, including intelligence tying him directly to Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, a top Iranian nuclear official who supervised a key “commercial affairs” initiative at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, according to officials familiar with the case. Authorities believe Jamili was on the phone with Ahmadi-Roshan on Jan. 11, 2012, when unknown assailants on a motorbike killed him by attaching a bomb to his car. Tehran accused Israel’s Mossad in the attack.

But the federal agents’ efforts to pursue such leads, even in the U.S., have been complicated by the general uncertainty hanging over the broader counterproliferation effort, according to Arnold, the former FBI analyst.

At left, young supporters of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah movement carry portraits March 18, 2017, of the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they march in the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Hatta during the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter. At right, an S-200 surface-to-air missile is driven past Iranian military commanders Sept. 22, 2015, during the annual military parade in Tehran marking the anniversary of the start of Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Iraq. | Getty

“Part of the frustration is that there is strong evidence Iran is still conducting illegal procurement operations and the FBI can’t really go forward with these cases,” said Arnold, who has been closely following the Jamili-Cheng case as part of a Harvard research project into nuclear proliferation networks.

That frustration is especially acute when it comes to Jamili and the 13 other fugitives. When dropping the charges, the Justice Department said it was doing so in large part because it was unlikely that the U.S. would ever be successful in capturing or extraditing them anyway.

Some federal officials familiar with the cases scoffed at that, noting that they have lured many Iranians to places where they could be arrested, and that others were tripped up by sealed Interpol warrants while traveling. In Jamili’s case, said one, “he has traveled so we know there’s a chance we could get him.”

Despite decades of intensive investigations, Arnold said, U.S. officials still have a “major air gap” when it comes to understanding the intermediaries like Jamili involved in the Iranian networks — who are between foot soldiers like Cheng and government officials running the nuclear and weapons programs.

“All of a sudden, we’re no longer playing whack-a-mole, and we suddenly have this key player who is directly involved and has insider knowledge as to how this whole process works,” he said. “So to see him being traded away is frustrating.”

Krauthammer’s Take: Obama ‘Caved’ on Inspections, Now Iran Is Developing a Nuclear Weapon

April 22, 2017

Krauthammer’s Take: Obama ‘Caved’ on Inspections, Now Iran Is Developing a Nuclear Weapon, National Review via YouTube, April 21, 2017

(Please see also, Iran violating U.S. deal with secret nukes research, opposition group says.

Iran is cheating on its historical deal with the U.S. by secretly conducting research into nuclear weapons components such as bomb triggers and enriched uranium, the main Iranian opposition group said Friday.

The regime is doing engineering and weaponization testing at a walled military complex south of Tehran, a location which Iran has declared off-limits to inspectors, said the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and its main operational arm, the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran (MEK).

— DM)