Trump team hired Israeli firm to discredit Obama aides, Iran deal – UK report

Observer says agreement to ‘get dirt’ on Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl was discussed shortly after US president’s visit to Israel last May

Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor to US president Barack Obama (Magnolia Pictures)
Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor to US president Barack Obama (Magnolia Pictures)

As part of a push to discredit the nuclear deal with Iran, people close to US President Donald Trump hired a private Israeli intelligence agency to “get dirt” on figures in the Barack Obama administration who were involved in negotiating the pact, the British outlet the Observer reported on Saturday.

According to the report, which comes ahead of Trump’s expected May 12 announcement on whether he will scrap the agreement, aides to the president contacted the Israeli agency shortly after his visit to Jerusalem last May and asked for information on Obama administration officials Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl.

“The idea was that people acting for Trump would discredit those who were pivotal in selling the deal, making it easier to pull out of it,” a source with knowledge of the campaign was quoted as saying.

The report cited “incendiary documents” showing that the Israeli intelligence agency was hired to unearth damning information on the personal and professional lives of Kahl and Rhodes, including any relationships with pro-Iranian lobbyists, as well as any indications that the two had benefited from the deal, either politically or personally.

The report said the Israeli investigators were also contracted to be in touch with senior Iranian American journalists as well as journalists for liberal news outlets that were in contact with Kahl and Rhodes, so as to establish whether they had leaked any information in breach of protocol. It said that among those outlets were The New York Times, Vox, the Atlantic, MSNBC and Haaretz.

US President Barack Obama (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, November 9, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

The report said Rhodes’s comments in a New York Times Magazine profile, in which he boasted of having created a media “echo chamber” that amplified support for the deal, also figured in the decision to reach out to members of the press.

It was unclear how much work was done by the Israeli firm and what material it amassed, the report said.

“I was not aware, though sadly am not surprised,” Rhodes was quoted as saying. “I would say that digging up dirt on someone for carrying out their professional responsibilities in their positions as White House officials is a chillingly authoritarian thing to do.”

“It’s bloody outrageous to do this,” the report quoted an unnamed former senior British diplomat as saying. “The whole point of negotiations is to not play dirty tricks like this.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump is fast approaching his self-imposed May 12 deadline for walking away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is formally known. In January, he gave Congress and European allies an ultimatum to either amend the pact to his liking or stand by as he renewed sanctions against Tehran.

Last-ditch effort to salvage the deal

The US secretary of state under president Obama, John Kerry, met recently with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss possible ways of salvaging the pact, the Boston Globe reported on Friday, citing a source briefed on the meeting.

Kerry, one of the chief architects of the 2015 accord, was said to be intent on finding a way to save it, and working behind the scenes to find a solution. He reportedly met with Zarif at the United Nations on April 22 — the second meeting between the two on the matter in the span of two months.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, in Vienna, Austria, on January 16, 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool via AP)

The Globe’s source said Kerry also met recently with other top officials to discuss strategies to maintain the accord, including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Reuters reported Thursday that Trump had “all but decided” to withdraw from the nuclear deal. Two White House officials and a third source told the news agency that the president would most likely end the waivers on Iran sanctions on May 12, when they next come up for renewal.

However, one official said it was possible that he would decide on a compromise that was “not a full pullout,” though it was unclear what form such a decision would take.

The US president has not said explicitly what he will do. But on Monday, after Netanyahu staged a dramatic press conference detailing a vast stolen intelligence trove on Iran’s past covert efforts to design nuclear weapons, Trump expressed a sense of vindication.

“What’s happening today and what’s happened over the last little while and what we’ve learned has really shown that I’ve been 100 percent right,” he said. “That is just not an acceptable situation.”

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