Pompeo and Bolton Are Headlining a Pro-War, Anti-Iran Event—And We Should All Be Very Worried

The Trump administration’s decision to send senior officials to the annual summit of “United Against Nuclear Iran” is deeply troubling.

Eli Clifton and Derek Davison September 24, 2018

Bolton: A bad choice.

On Tues­day, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er John Bolton are sched­uled to deliv­er keynote address­es at Unit­ed Against Nuclear Iran’s (UANI) annu­al sum­mit” dur­ing the Unit­ed Nations Gen­er­al Assem­bly. This rais­es trou­bling red flags, to say the least, about the Trump administration’s Mid­dle East pol­i­cy and its ties to the most aggres­sive anti-Iran forces in the Unit­ed States and in the region itself, includ­ing the ambas­sadors from Sau­di Ara­bia, the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates (UAE), and Bahrain.

In short, while UANI promotes policies that increase the chances of a military conflict in the Persian Gulf, its CEO and main financial backer have promoted investments that stand to gain from instability in the Middle East.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion insists that the goal of its max­i­mum pres­sure” pol­i­cy toward Iran is not to effect régime change but rather to change the behav­ior” of the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment. If that’s the case, then the deci­sion to send two senior for­eign pol­i­cy offi­cials to this UANI event is puz­zling. Accord­ing to the organization’s guest list, in atten­dance will be vir­tu­al­ly every promi­nent offi­cial both in the Unit­ed States and over­seas who has pushed for a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with Iran — a ver­i­ta­ble who’s who of warmongers.

Beyond that, the deci­sion to send Pom­peo and Bolton to this event may be deeply inap­pro­pri­ate. UANI’s murky finan­cial ties include links to ques­tion­able busi­ness­men and shad­owy for­eign actors with pos­si­ble ties to the mas­sive 1MDB cor­rup­tion scan­dal in Malaysia under inves­ti­ga­tion by the U.S. Jus­tice Department.

Unit­ing for War

UANI was found­ed in 2008 to inform the pub­lic about the nature of the Iran­ian régime, includ­ing its desire and intent to pos­sess nuclear weapons.” Its board, chaired by for­mer U.S. sen­a­tor and ardent Iran hawk Joe Lieber­man, includes a num­ber of influ­en­tial neo­con­ser­v­a­tives with well-known anti-Iran views, such as for­mer Sen­a­tor Mark Kirk, Ray Takeyh of the Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions, and Wall Street Jour­nal colum­nist Wal­ter Rus­sell Mead of the hard­line Hud­son Insti­tute. Bolton him­self is a past UANI board mem­ber and received at least $165,000 in con­sult­ing fees from the group’s part­ner orga­ni­za­tion, the Counter Extrem­ism Project (CEP). UANI stri­dent­ly opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action or JCPOA), going so far as to part ways with its then-pres­i­dent, arms con­trol expert Gary Samore, after Samore (who remains on UANI’s board) came out in sup­port of the final deal.

The U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty, Israeli intel­li­gence, and the Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency have repeat­ed­ly con­tra­dict­ed UANI’s con­tention that Iran is pur­su­ing nuclear weapons. Like­wise, its claims that Iran was involved in the 911 attacks have nev­er been proven. Nev­er­the­less, UANI has been a reli­able source of talk­ing points on both fronts for anti-Iran pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton. It has pushed for a com­pre­hen­sive array of mea­sures intend­ed to iso­late Iran inter­na­tion­al­ly, weak­en its econ­o­my, and increase the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a U.S.-Iran mil­i­tary confrontation.

Though UANI has become one of the most promi­nent orga­ni­za­tions in the anti-Iran pol­i­cy world, rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle is known about its inter­nal work­ings or its financ­ing. Finan­cial doc­u­ments acquired by LobeL­og reveal that trusts con­trolled by bil­lion­aire investor Thomas Kaplan con­tributed $843,000 to UANI in 2013, near­ly half of the group’s $1.7 mil­lion rev­enue in that year. GOP and Trump megadonors Shel­don and Miri­am Adel­sonalso con­tributed $500,000 in 2013. (That same year Adel­son sug­gest­ed that the Unit­ed States should fire an atom­ic weapon” at Iran rather than nego­ti­ate.) UANI’s bud­get bal­looned to almost $5.2 mil­lion in 2016, but the source of the group’s ongo­ing fund­ing is large­ly shroud­ed in mystery.

Evi­dence sug­gests that UANI has an array of sketchy rela­tion­ships with for­eign intel­li­gence agen­cies and finan­cial inter­ests. Many of the ques­tions about UANI swirl around its con­vo­lut­ed rela­tion­ship with pre­cious met­als spec­u­la­tor Kaplan.

Desta­bi­liz­ing the Mid­dle East for Fun and Profit

Although UANI CEO Mark Wal­lace has worked close­ly with Kaplan and at least three oth­er indi­vid­u­als have worked for both Kaplan and the advo­ca­cy group, Kaplan nev­er acknowl­edged his links to UANI for years. But in 2017 he spoke pub­licly at the group’s annu­al con­fer­ence. There he deliv­ered a brief lec­ture about Iran’s aggres­sive for­eign pol­i­cy, explain­ing it through the lens of taqiyah—a favorite trope of anti-Mus­lim con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists such as Frank Gaffney, who use the term to sug­gest that Mus­lims are encour­aged to par­tic­i­pate in reli­gious­ly sanc­tioned lying about their true aims and inten­tions. Kaplan went on to offer a crude ani­mal metaphor to describe Iran, describ­ing it as a python” seek­ing sanc­tions relief to digest their prey” in peace and quiet.”

UANI’s Wal­lace — who was a top aide to Bolton dur­ing the latter’s short tenure as UN ambas­sador — also serves as COO of Kaplan’s Elec­trum Group and CEO of Kaplan’s Tigris Finan­cial Group. A 2011 mine prospec­tus issued by Tigris argued that, Invest­ment demand for sil­ver expo­sure remains strong” and is dri­ven in part by con­tin­ued U.S. dol­lar weak­ness, ongo­ing eco­nom­ic uncer­tain­ty in Europe and polit­i­cal unrest in the Mid­dle East.” (This was at a time when ten­sions with Iran were ratch­et­ing up over Israeli threats to uni­lat­er­al­ly attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.)

If it’s not suf­fi­cient­ly clear what polit­i­cal unrest” in the Mid­dle East might look like, a 2002 annu­al report from Kaplan’s Apex Sil­ver Mines (which is now bank­rupt) asked investors to con­sid­er the fol­low­ing fac­tors: desta­bi­liza­tion in the Mid­dle East and Per­sian Gulf, ten­sions between India and Pak­istan, the poten­tial for nuclear con­fronta­tion with North Korea and Iran, […] reli­gious extrem­ism and ter­ror­ism on a glob­al scale and cor­po­rate hooliganism.”

The solu­tion to all of this unrest, wrote Kaplan, is to invest in assets like the sil­ver mined by Kaplan’s company.

In short, while UANI pro­motes poli­cies that increase the chances of a mil­i­tary con­flict in the Per­sian Gulf, its CEO and main finan­cial backer have pro­mot­ed invest­ments that stand to gain from insta­bil­i­ty in the Mid­dle East.

The orga­ni­za­tion also refus­es to explain leaked emails appear­ing to show Wal­lace, its CEO, solic­it­ing fund­ing from the UAE ambas­sador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otai­ba, one of Washington’s most influ­en­tial diplo­mats. The ambas­sador has used his influ­ence—par­tic­u­lar­ly with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­n­er, with whom he has forged a close bond — to pro­mote aggres­sive U.S. poli­cies against Iran and, more recent­ly, Qatar.

For­eign Connections?

Besides what was shown in the 2013 donor rolls acquired by LobeL­og, lit­tle is known about who funds UANI and how much.

The group cer­tain­ly main­tains close con­nec­tions to for­mer offi­cials from var­i­ous for­eign and domes­tic intel­li­gence agen­cies. The advi­so­ry board includes for­mer direc­tors of Ger­man, Israeli, and UK intel­li­gence agen­cies and for­mer diplo­mats from the Unit­ed States, the UK, Poland, Italy, Cana­da, Spain, and Australia.

But efforts to gain a com­pre­hen­sive look at UANI’s fund­ing were obscured by a US gov­ern­ment-backed veil of secre­cy. Sev­er­al years ago, a Greek busi­ness­man, Vic­tor Restis, filed suit against UANI alleg­ing that the group had defamed him by pub­licly assert­ing his company’s vio­la­tion of U.S. sanc­tions against Iran. With the law­suit, Restis sought access to the group’s list of fun­ders. But in 2014, the Oba­ma Jus­tice Depart­ment inter­vened to quash Restis’s law­suit, cit­ing the state-secrets priv­i­lege,” imply­ing that dis­clo­sure of UANI’s donors would harm U.S. nation­al security.

The government’s involve­ment in a law­suit between two pri­vate par­ties was high­ly unusu­al, rais­ing ques­tions about who or what was being shield­ed from expo­sure in the dis­cov­ery phase of the law­suit. Restis’s lawyer told The New York Times that there is no prece­dent, lit­er­al­ly, for what the gov­ern­ment is attempt­ing to do,” and ACLU lawyer Ben Wiz­n­er said that he had nev­er seen any­thing like” what the Jus­tice Depart­ment had done.

There have been hints that for­eign fund­ing might have trick­led in to UANI or its part­ner orga­ni­za­tion, the Counter-Extrem­ism Project (CEP), from the UAE, which, along with its Sau­di ally, has spread tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in recent years in con­tri­bu­tions to var­i­ous U.S. think tanks and pub­lic-rela­tions outfits.

Emails alleged­ly orig­i­nat­ing from Otaiba’s email account and pro­vid­ed to media out­lets, includ­ing LobeL­og, point to finan­cial links between UANI and both the UAE and Sau­di Arabia.

A Sep­tem­ber 3, 2014 email from Wal­lace to Otai­ba con­tains a cryp­tic ref­er­ence regard­ing cost esti­mates” for an upcom­ing forum,” sug­gest­ing an exist­ing or upcom­ing finan­cial rela­tion­ship between Otai­ba and Wallace’s event, pre­sum­ably host­ed either by CEP or UANI. Wal­lace wrote:

Forum con­cept. Was asked for an [sic] includ­ed very aggres­sive mean­ing high cost esti­mates and we includ­ed that. Believe that this will be self-fund­ing in short order with donors and atten­dees that we would attract.. Thanks and look for­ward to actu­al­ly meeting.

A 2015 email appeared to show Frances Townsend, a for­mer senior counter-ter­ror­ism offi­cial in the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion who leads CEP along­side Wal­lace and sits on the advi­so­ry board of UANI, thank­ing Otai­ba for his ongo­ing sup­port for the CEP effort.”

And a 2016 email from Repub­li­can Jew­ish Coali­tion (RJC) chair­man and Sau­di Ara­bia lob­by­ist Norm Cole­man to Otai­ba showed Cole­man pro­vid­ing CEP’s tax sta­tus (501C4) to Otai­ba as part of Coleman’s work for the Saudis.

CEP’s fund­ing was under scruti­ny in 2015 when Twit­ter decid­ed not to par­tic­i­pate in a con­fer­ence put on by the group. Buz­zFeed report­ed that Twit­ter declined to work with the group when it reached out to the com­pa­ny last year because of con­cerns over its undis­closed funding.’”

Kaplan, Otai­ba, and the 1MDB Scandal

In 2015, Malaysian author­i­ties accused then-Prime Min­is­ter Najib Razak of siphon­ing $700 mil­lion out of 1Malaysia Devel­op­ment Berhad (1MDB), the country’s strate­gic invest­ment fund, for his own per­son­al gain. What fol­lowed was an inves­ti­ga­tion that con­clud­ed that over $4.5 bil­lion had been stolen from 1MDB, pri­mar­i­ly by Malaysian financier Jho Low. The Oba­ma Jus­tice Depart­ment began inves­ti­gat­ing Najib’s finan­cial activ­i­ties in the Unit­ed States and filed a law­suit in 2016 to recov­er as much as $1 bil­lion in stolen funds. Najib was arrest­ed last week over charges relat­ed to the scandal.

Otaiba’s leaked emails show con­cern by UAE lob­by­ists and advis­ers that Otai­ba and Kaplan might be close­ly con­nect­ed to the 1MDB scan­dal. Emails between UAE lob­by­ist Richard Mintz and Otai­ba before the 2016 UANI con­fer­ence have the lob­by­ist express­ing con­cern about a plan for Otai­ba to appear on the stage along­side Kaplan. He wrote, I’m not excit­ed about hav­ing you up there just with Kaplan — con­sid­er­ing 1MDB links and that he is biggest $ behind UANI.”

Simon Pearce, an advi­sor to the Exec­u­tive Affairs Author­i­ty of Abu Dhabi, also wrote Chief Kaplan is just too much of an issue — I would please ask you to pull clear of him. He needs to be dilut­ed by at you and two oth­er sig­nif­i­cant speakers.”

Indeed, news reports would lat­er tie both Otai­ba and Kaplan to Jho Low. Kaplan offered a video trib­ute to Jho Low in 2014, in which he praised Low’s invest­ment com­pa­ny, Jyn­wel Cap­i­tal, now deeply impli­cat­ed in the 1MDB scan­dal. Fol­low­ing a slow-motion hand­shake with Low, Kaplan says:

What do we look for in a part­ner? Some­one first and fore­most whose word is their bond, that when they say they’re going to do some­thing, you can bank it.

Kaplan reap­pears moments lat­er and declares:

Every­thing that they’ve done since we have become part­ners has rein­forced the fact that they real­ly mean it.

The video can be watched below:

Low pledged $20 mil­lion to Kaplan’s big cat con­ser­va­tion group, Pan­thera, which, despite Kaplan’s harsh words for Iran, boasts of being one of only two West­ern con­ser­va­tion NGOs with per­mis­sion to oper­ate in Iran.” Otai­ba and his wife, Abeer Al Otai­ba, sit on Panthera’s con­ser­va­tion coun­cil.”

Low also invest­ed $150 mil­lion in Kaplan’s Elec­trum Group, an invest­ment that bought him a seat on Electrum’s board.

That invest­ment is now the tar­get of a Jus­tice Depart­ment asset-seizure lawsuit.

Otai­ba, accord­ing to The Wall Street Jour­nal, received $66 mil­lion from off­shore com­pa­nies that inves­ti­ga­tors in the U.S. and Sin­ga­pore have said con­tained funds mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ed from 1Malaysia Devel­op­ment Bhd, the doc­u­ments show.”

Nei­ther Otai­ba nor Kaplan has offered pub­lic state­ments about how they found them­selves involved in the 1MDB scan­dal. But the Trump administration’s deci­sion to send two senior fig­ures to an event put on by Kaplan’s orga­ni­za­tion and attend­ed by Otai­ba — who is list­ed as a fea­tured speak­er on the agen­da for tomor­row — is an odd deci­sion for a White House that has already had a brush with the Malaysian graft probe.

Last year, Elliott Broidy, the chair­man of Trump’s joint fundrais­ing com­mit­tee with the Repub­li­can Par­ty, was in nego­ti­a­tions with Jho Low to receive $75 mil­lion if the Jus­tice Depart­ment dropped its 1MDB inves­ti­ga­tion, accord­ing to emails reviewed by The Wall Street Jour­nal. Broidy is also believed to have pre­pared talk­ing points for Malaysia’s then-Prime Min­ster Najib Razak before a 2017 vis­it to Wash­ing­ton. The talk­ing points report­ed­ly includ­ed lan­guage argu­ing against the U.S. legal pur­suit of the 1MDB mat­ter,” accord­ing to the Jour­nal.

While the Jus­tice Department’s asset seizure case is mov­ing for­ward, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion appears to have no qualms about send­ing the nation’s top diplo­mat and Trump’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor to attend an event put on by a recip­i­ent of Jho Low’s efforts to invest stolen Malaysian monies in the U.S. finan­cial system.

Ties to for­eign intel­li­gence agen­cies, prof­i­teer­ing on con­flict in the Mid­dle East, opaque fund­ing, and links to the biggest graft probe in recent his­to­ry haven’t com­pro­mised UANI’s abil­i­ty to get senior Trump admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials to attend their summit.

As the admin­is­tra­tion push­es for­ward with a max­i­mum pres­sure” Iran strat­e­gy and antag­o­nizes U.S. allies who signed on to the JCPOA, UANI’s hawk­ish domes­tic and for­eign back­ers offer one of the few friend­ly audi­ences left for Bolton and Pom­peo dur­ing the UN Gen­er­al Assembly.

This arti­cle first appeared on Lobe Log.

Eli Clifton reports on mon­ey in pol­i­tics and US for­eign pol­i­cy. Eli pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed for the Amer­i­can Inde­pen­dent News Net­work, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Ser­vice.Derek Davi­son is a Wash­ing­ton-based researcher and writer on inter­na­tion­al affairs and Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. He has Master’s degrees in Mid­dle East Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where he spe­cial­ized in Iran­ian his­to­ry and pol­i­cy, and in Pub­lic Pol­i­cy and Man­age­ment from Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty, where he stud­ied Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy and Russian/​Cold War his­to­ry. He pre­vi­ous­ly worked in the Per­sian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.
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