Saturday, May 5, 2018

Revealed: Trump team hired spy firm for ‘dirty ops’ on Iran arms deal

Israeli agency told to find incriminating material on Obama diplomats who negotiated deal with Tehran

The Observer


Aides to Donald Trump, the US president, hired an Israeli private intelligence agency to orchestrate a “dirty ops” campaign against key individuals from the Obama administration who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, the Observercan reveal.
People in the Trump camp contacted private investigators in May last year to “get dirt” on Ben Rhodes, who had been one of Barack Obama’s top national security advisers, and Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to Obama, as part of an elaborate attempt to discredit the deal.
The extraordinary revelations come days before Trump’s 12 May deadline to either scrap or continue to abide by the international deal limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.
Jack Straw, who as foreign secretary was involved in earlier efforts to restrict Iranian weapons, said: “These are extraordinary and appalling allegations but which also illustrate a high level of desperation by Trump and [the Israeli prime minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, not so much to discredit the deal but to undermine those around it.”
One former high-ranking British diplomat with wide experience of negotiating international peace agreements, requesting anonymity, said: “It’s bloody outrageous to do this. The whole point of negotiations is to not play dirty tricks like this.”
Sources said that officials linked to Trump’s team contacted investigators days after Trump visited Tel Aviv a year ago, his first foreign tour as US president. Trump promised Netanyahu that Iran would never have nuclear weapons and suggested that the Iranians thought they could “do what they want” since negotiating the nuclear deal in 2015. A source with details of the “dirty tricks campaign” said: “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.”
Benjamin Netanyahu on Israeli television, describing how Iran has continued with its plans to make nuclear weapons.
 Benjamin Netanyahu on Israeli television, describing how Iran has continued with its plans to make nuclear weapons. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA
According to incendiary documents seen by the Observer, investigators contracted by the private intelligence agency were told to dig into the personal lives and political careers of Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, and Kahl, a national security adviser to the former vice-president Joe Biden. Among other things they were looking at personal relationships, any involvement with Iran-friendly lobbyists, and if they had benefited personally or politically from the peace deal.
Investigators were also apparently told to contact prominent Iranian Americans as well as pro-deal journalists – from the New York Times, MSNBC television, the Atlantic, Vox website and Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper among others – who had frequent contact with Rhodes and Kahl in an attempt to establish whether they had violated any protocols by sharing sensitive intelligence. They are believed to have looked at comments made by Rhodes in a 2016 New York Times profile in which he admitted relying on inexperienced reporters to create an “echo chamber” that helped sway public opinion to secure the deal. It is also understood that the smear campaign wanted to establish if Rhodes was among those who backed a request by Susan Rice, Obama’s final national security adviser, to unmask the identities of Trump transition officials caught up in the surveillance of foreign targets.
Although sources have confirmed that contact and an initial plan of attack was provided to private investigators by representatives of Trump, it is not clear how much work was actually undertaken, for how long or what became of any material unearthed.
Neither is it known if the black ops constituted only a strand of a wider Trump-Netanyahu collaboration to undermine the deal or if investigators targeted other individuals such as John Kerry, the lead American signatory to the deal. Both Rhodes and Kahl said they had no idea of the campaign against them. Rhodes said: “I was not aware, though sadly am not surprised. 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.”
A spokesman for the White House’s national security council offered “no comment” when approached. However, the revelations are not the first time that claims of “dirty tricks” have been aimed at the Trump camp. Special counsel Robert Mueller is leading an investigation into apparent attempts by Trump’s inner-circle to dig up damaging information on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Missiles are paraded through Tehran on Iran’s annual army day on 18 April.
 Missiles are paraded through Tehran on Iran’s annual army day on 18 April. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Of particular interest is a meeting involving the US president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who had promised damaging information about Clinton.
Trump has repeatedly signalled his intention to scrap the Iran deal, denouncing it as “the worst deal ever.” In a January speech the US president accused his predecessor of having “curried favour with the Iranian regime in order to push through the disastrously flawed Iran nuclear deal.”
Last Monday, Netanyahu, accused Iran of continuing to hide and expand its nuclear weapons know-how after the 2015 deal, presenting what he claimed was “new and conclusive proof” of violations.
However, European powers including Britain responded by saying the Israeli prime minister’s claims reinforced the need to keep the deal.
On Thursday the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres urged Trump not to walk away from the deal, warning that there was a real risk of war if the 2015 agreement was not preserved. The following day details emerged of some unusual shadow diplomacy by Kerry, meeting a top-ranking Iranian official in New York to discuss how to preserve the deal.
It was the second time in around two months that Kerry had met foreign minister Javad Zarif to apparently strategise over rescuing a pact they spent years negotiating during the Obama administration. Straw, who was foreign secretary between 2001 and 2006, said: “The campaign against the JCPOA has been characterised by abuse and misinformation. It is the best chance of ensuring Irannever develops a nuclear weapons programme, and it is insane to suggest abandoning the deal could do anything but endanger international security.”

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Why Saudi and the UAE shouldn’t bet on Trump

Saudi strategy should not be to dominate the Sunni world and cast Palestinians aside, but to build an alliance of Sunni states as a balance to Iran

By David Hearst

These are trying times for Mohammed bin Zayed, the Darth Vader of the Middle East who plans to establish a Galactic Empire of “moderate Islamic” states. Liberal in name, police states in practice, all would end up paying tribute to the Death Star, Abu Dhabi.
Emirati military trainers have just been kicked out of Somalia, after $9.6m of cash was seized on a UAE plane. The crown prince’s plans to establish a string of ports along the Indian Ocean, including Berbera in breakaway Somaliland, have taken a hit as a result.
His plans for Libya are not faring any better either. The self-appointed field marshal, Khalifa Haftar, limped back home after a prolonged absence in a Paris hospital. He is reported to have lung cancer that has metastasised to the brain, and walked with difficulty on his return home. 

In the line of fire

Haftar’s enemies, in contrast, are in rude health. The leaders of the two warring city states, Misrata and Zintan, have reconciled. (The Zintanis represented Haftar’s best chance of establishing a military presence in western Libya.) And one of Haftar’s most prominent opponents, leading Muslim Brotherhood member Khalid al-Mishri, has just been voted head of the High Council of State.
The war in Yemen grinds on. The Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Khaled bin Salman, a former fighter pilot, claimed in a tweet that his elder brother, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had ordered the attack that killed Salah al-Sammad, the head of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council. 
But it may not be wise to crow about this killing. Both the Houthis and pro-Iran Shia groups in Iraq have promised to avenge the death of their leader by killing members of the Saudi royal family. Bin Salman, who is also defence minister and launched the “quick” war in Yemen, is first in the line of fire. Perhaps this is why he now travels with three rings of bodyguards.
When you buy into Trump, you also become a stakeholder in the battles he engages in. Before long you acquire his enemies, too
More broadly, the Saudi-Emirati intervention has long since squandered the support of those Yemenis who invited them in and should have remained their natural allies.
The exiled president of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, has himself become a de facto inmate of Riyadh’s prison palaces. He was forced to sign a paper agreeing to the “formation of a tripartite committee” with Saudi and the UAE “to participate in the management of the situation of his country”. Reports like these seem to confirm the Yemeni view that a war of liberation has morphed into a war of occupation.
Hadi had just lost a power battle with the Emirati-controlled militias over the control of Aden airport. Further humiliation followed when Hadi and an office manager, Abdullah al-Alimi, were transferred to a room with a sofa bed, two armchairs and no blankets for 24 hours, after meeting the king at his residence.

Expensive miscalculation

Curiously, bin Zayed’s biggest disappointment and his most expensive miscalculation may turn out to be none of the above: Somalia, Libya or Yemen. He could yet lose on the most substantial bet he has placed: on US President Donald Trump himself.
Bin Zayed spotted Trump early on in the US presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton was still the outright favourite.
Clinton was too long in the tooth as a foreign policy hand as far as the Emiratis were concerned. They needed an aggressive novice, a truly blank page on which anyone fast and rich enough could scribble the script. The Qataris had shunned Trump’s advances. Here was an opportunity the Emiratis could not miss.
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on 20 March 2018 (AFP)
Bin Zayed alighted upon another novice - a young prince, bin Salman, who was then at two removes from the Saudi throne - in late 2015 and took him on a camping trip in the desert with falcons, the equivalent of a round of golf. The pair was on the yacht with George Nader, the Lebanese-American back channel used by successive US administrations, in which moves were made to re-align the region. 
Bin Zayed instructed bin Salman on what he had to do to become king. The Machiavellian mentor knew how to nurture the ambitions of a power-hungry prince. Bin Zayed introduced bin Salman to Israel, and then to Trump’s family. Bin Zayed promoted bin Salman in Washington, using his able and hyperactive ambassador, Youssef Otaiba. This was when his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, was still the toast of the US defence establishment. Otaiba then successfully set about destroying bin Nayef’s reputation. 

Visit delayed

The pair of crown princes spent literally a fortune buying Trump’s favours - up to $500bn in defence contracts from Saudi alone over the next decade.
All of this patient groundwork was to culminate in a series of royal visits to Washington, of which bin Zayed positioned himself to be the last. It was scheduled to come at the end of April, but I am informed that it has been postponed. 
Far from being the triumphal tour that bin Zayed and bin Salman expected, the US is not proving easy terrain on which to manoeuvre. True enough, the mass media is gullible and easy to hoodwink. Washington’s think-tanks are venal and eminently buyable. 
But when you buy into Trump, you also become a stakeholder in the battles he engages in. Before long you acquire his enemies, too. 
I understand that bin Zayed is asking for a written undertaking that neither he nor his entourage will be stopped for questioning by special counsel Robert Mueller about his inquiry into illegal funding of Trump’s election campaign.
Mueller has inside information on bin Zayed’s past dealings from Nader, one of bin Zayed’s former advisers. Bin Zayed wants to avoid the further forensic dissections in the New York Times that this could produce. 

Joker in the pack

Then there is the joker in the pack: Trump himself. Bin Zayed does not want to repeat the fiasco where bin Salman was humiliated by the former reality TV host pulling out a series of large, coloured cards showing how much the kingdom was spending on US arms. Bin Salman visibly winced when the cards were produced, and well he might. 
Nor does he want Trump to repeat the lines he spoke recently to French President Emmanuel Macron, that US allies in the Middle East would crumble “within a week” if the US was not there to protect them.
“They wouldn’t be there except for the United States. They would not last a week. We are protecting them. They have to now step up and pay for what is happening,” Trump bragged.
Emirati distress was such that licensed commentators were instructed to hold forth. One of them was Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who tweeted that the Arab Gulf States had been around well before the US was founded and would be around years after the US leaves.

Assuaging US Jewish audience

Neither has Trump played ball on Qatar, from the Saudi and Emirati perspective.
No sooner had the two crown princes congratulated themselves on dispatching Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to an early retirement, than they were told by his successor, Mike Pompeo, the same thing: Enough is enough. End the blockade. 
This is not what Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had expected to hear. They wanted to build a moat on the border of the Qatari peninsula and fill it with nuclear waste. 
From the start, bin Zayed and bin Salman set out to do everything they could, bar physically prostrating themselves, to please Trump and assuage a US Jewish audience. Bin Salman went as far as telling US Jewish leaders, according to reports by Israel’s Channel 10 news, that Palestinians should accept the latest proposals or shut up.
Palestinians from the Shuafat refugee camp in occupied East Jerusalem watch as Israeli forces repair the separation wall dividing the camp from the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Zeev on 27 April 2018 (AFP)
“It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining,” the crown prince was reported as saying.
Trump and Israel are demanding that Palestinians accept a number of conditions as a basis for restarting talks: the loss of East Jerusalem; the abandonment of the right of return and folding of the refugee issue; and defunding of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
But none of this is enough. The thought must by now have occurred, even to them, that Trump’s agenda and theirs do not necessarily match.

Iranian influence

Bin Salman has recast Saudi foreign policy. It was passively aggressive; now it is just plain aggressive. Its strategic aim is to coordinate the Sunni Arab pushback against Iranian military and political influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
An air campaign against Iranian nuclear facilities and its air defence would be the culmination of this policy.
Trump is not part of the region, but the next ruler of Saudi Arabia is. When those American and Israeli fighters return to their bases, Saudi will feel the consequences first and foremost
If there is to be a conventional war against Iran, it will be an American and Israeli one. The Saudi role in such a war would be to provide cover, support and bases, as it was in George W Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
The lesson of Iraq was that long before the retreat, the US lost control of the country it had conquered, ceding power to Shia politicians in Iran’s pocket. The Iraqi war was started and conducted by American rules, and ended on American terms. The Saudi interest in these was secondary to Washington’s. The result now is a belated Saudi offensive to buy influence in Iraq. 
Trump is not part of the region, but the next ruler of Saudi Arabia is. When those American and Israeli fighters return to their bases, Saudi will feel the consequences first and foremost. There are any number of highly organised and trained Shia militias who could do the job.

Devastating effects

If Bush’s war on Iraq opened up a sectarian hell in the region, a war on Iran could be far worse, and the Saudi kingdom would find itself in the epicentre of this maelstrom.
Unlike 2003, the Saudis would not be protected by a brotherly feeling from fellow Arab states. When you kick out hundreds of thousands of foreign Arab workers from your land - 800,000 expatriates left Saudi in the last year and a half, according to one estimate - you lose a lot of goodwill in Jordan, Egypt and the other countries that depend on their remittances.
An Iranian war may suit a US neo-conservative (and Netanyahu’s) regional agenda, but its effects on the stability of Saudi Arabia, and specifically the new king himself, may be devastating. The Saudi strategy should not be to dominate the Sunni world and cast the Palestinians to one side. It should be to build an alliance of Sunni states as a balance to Iran. 
For their personal interest, Bin Salman’s and Bin Zayed’s bet on Trump is looking increasingly like a misjudged one.
David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.