Senior Saudi officials close to the crown prince met with business leaders, including an Israeli, last year to inquire about the possibility of using private firms to assassinate prominent Iranian officials and hamstring the Tehran’s economy, The New York Times reported on Sunday.
The Israeli present at the meeting was Joel Zamel, a strategist with an intelligence background whose now defunct Psy-Group firm is under investigation by the FBI and is suspected of pitching a media manipulation plan for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Also involved in the talks of potential regime change in Iran was Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, a representative of the United Arab Emirates, who reportedly set up the meetings.
During one meeting in Riyadh in March 2017, aides to Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri broached the possibility of assassinating top Iranian enemies of the kingdom, including Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the paramilitary Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Times reported.
The businessmen said they would consult with their lawyer, who subsequently rejected any such plan, prompting the group of businessmen to refer the Saudis instead to an unnamed British private intelligence group.
Al-Assiri, deputy Saudi intelligence chief and a close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was one of five top officials fired as part of the Jamal Khashoggi scandal. The kingdom has been accused of engineering the murder of the Saudi journalist and US resident when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. Though cast as a botched one-time killing in a rogue operation, the Khashoggi affair now appears to have roots in a broader scheme to eliminate the foes of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, The New York Times reported.
While the Saudis had expressed interest on assassinations in that March 2017 meeting, Zamel, Nader and the others had come to pitch a plan to undermine the Iranian economy in order to secure funding from the Saudis for the scheme, the report said.
“They sketched out operations like revealing hidden global assets of the Quds force; creating fake social media accounts in Farsi to foment unrest in Iran; financing Iranian opposition groups; and publicizing accusations, real or fictitious, against senior Iranian officials to turn them against one another,” the report said.
The idea began in 2016, and was in part motivated by a desire to undermine the Iran nuclear deal.
“Both he [Nader] and Mr. Zamel believed that Hillary Clinton’s anticipated victory in the 2016 election meant a continuation of the Iran nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama — and little appetite in Washington for a concerted campaign to cripple the Iranian economy. So, they decided to pitch the plan to Saudi and Emirati officials, even submitting a proposal to General Assiri during a meeting in Belgium,” it said.
“The election of Donald J. Trump changed their calculus, and shortly after, Mr. Nader and Mr. Zamel traveled to New York to sell both Trump transition officials and Saudi generals on their Iran plan.”
The US has denied seeking regime change in Tehran as it has renewed a painful crackdown against the Islamic Republic, reinstating sanctions earlier this month after Trump pulled out of the nuclear accord last May.
Information on the meetings had previously been reported by The New York Times and Daily Beast.
Psy-Group, which operates in Israel under the name Invop Ltd, is a self-styled leader in “intelligence and influence” which boasts in its marketing material of its covert techniques and capabilities. Its founder and co-owner Zamel was reported by The New York Times earlier this year to have met with Donald Trump Jr. three months before the November 2016 US presidential elections, offering to assist his father’s campaign, and the company was reported to have drawn up “a multi-million-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump.”
According to The New York Times, Psy-Group, which employed former Israeli intelligence officers before undergoing liquidation, offered to engineer campaigns in support of Trump using social media manipulation against both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and Republican Senator Ted Cruz, whom the campaign feared could attempt to push an insurgent nomination effort at the Republican Convention in Cleveland.
While a lawyer for Zamel denied that he or any his companies had any involvement in the US election campaign, Bloomberg News has reported that Special Counsel Mueller’s team is investigating flows of money into Psy-Group’s Cyprus bank account, and also that Psy-Group formed an alliance with Cambridge Analytica, a (now collapsed) company that the Trump campaign consulted on social media issues, following Trump’s election.
Nader is an international fixer whose long history included intrepid back-channel mediation between Israel and Arab countries — and a 15-year-old pedophilia conviction in Europe.