Published at The New Arab.
A widely reported, 15,000-word article by Josh Meyer in Politico on Sunday moves us another step closer to finding out the actual terms of President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Though the Obama administration sold the Iran deal on the narrowest possible terms as an arms control agreement, the reality was that this agreement was intended to facilitate a strategic tilt in Iran’s favour—against traditional allies—that left a regional balance requiring less American commitment.
Because the administration wanted the paper agreement, Iran had the leverage to threaten to walk away, and was therefore appeased on multiple fronts ostensibly unrelated to the nuclear issue.
Meyer lays out a part of what that meant in practice: the US government ceasing to try to crack down on the global criminal fundraising of Hizballah, the Lebanese wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—the part of the Iranian regime charged with exporting the theocratic revolution, by terrorism and violence where necessary.
The revenue-generating schemes Iran/Hizballah was allowed a freer hand to pursue under Obama—many of them based on narcotics trafficking—involved corruption and terrorism inside the US itself; the support, in collaboration with the Russian government, of Bashar al-Assad’s war against Syria’s people; assisting Iran’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and the destabilisation of countries from the Middle East to Latin America.
What Was in the Iran Deal?
The Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was first announced as a working version in April 2015 and finalised on 14 July 2015—though not signed by anybody. Implementation began on 16 January 2016. The terms of the deal are immensely advantageous for Iran.
The sanctions, painstakingly put in place over a decade and finally showing results in 2012, were dismantled. The decommissioning of the plutonium reactor was fudged. Restrictions on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles are to be eliminated in under a decade.
Six UN Security Council resolutions banning any uranium enrichment on Iranian territory were repealed. Iran was permitted vast numbers of centrifuges and a research and development loophole to reduce the time needed to manufacture fissile material.
In short: Iran will have an industrial-scale programme capable of rapid breakout at the end of the JCPOA’s term, which was the most damaging concession: the “sunset clause”. What restrictions the JCPOA leaves in place—feeble as they are, with no effective mechanism for policing them—only last fifteen years.
In parallel, are several secret side deals, as they have become known, all of them favouring Iran. At least two were signed simultaneous with the JCPOA; the US saw neither. A Road Map that was supposed to clear up any “outstanding issues“, specifically Iran’s prior weaponisation work, so the IAEA had some basis for assessing Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.
The second agreement over Parchin, where Iran tested detonators for a nuclear weapon, was so bizarrely structured that it amounted to what critics called self-inspection. These question were resolved formally without answering key questions. The sanctions were lifted anyway.
At least four more side agreements have been revealed. One involved the shipping of $1.7 billion in cash, literally in crates, in three installments, to get American hostages out of Iran. Obama evaded the terms of his own deal to allow implementation. The IAEA was handicapped by another side deal from reporting on the full extent of Iranian violations, which have already begun to occur. And yet another side deal allowed Iran to begin the replacement of antiquated centrifuges with those that can create weapons-grade uranium more quickly four years before JCPOA elapses.
There was always, however, a larger rider on the deal, which was the Obama administration using it as a means to re-orient US policy away from traditional allies and towards Iran in an attempt to find an “equilibrium” that would allow the US to draw down in the region.
By eliminating the nuclear issue, the administration removed the largest legal and political sticking point to finding common interests in US-Iranian relations, and the war against the Islamic State group provided a fortuitous testing ground for this new partnership.
In the Obama conception, Iran would be among the legitimate “stakeholders” in the region, particularly in Syria, which was ceded to Iran as a sphere of influence. It was to avoid Iran walking away from the JCPOA table that Obama stood down on his threat to punish Assad for murdering 1,400 people in one morning with chemical weapons of mass destruction in August 2013.
By extension—since it is completely inseparable as an issue—Hizballah’s dominance of Lebanon and the intrusion of its death squads into Syria to preserve the Assad regime was granted to Iran as among “their equities“ that would be “respected”.
This is where Meyer’s revelations in Politico come in.
A Terror Threat, Funded By Crime
In 2008, drawing on several investigations that began after 9/11, the US Drug Enforcement Administration launched a legal assault, dubbed Operation Cassandra, on Hizballah’s global criminal enterprise, which often works through the Lebanese diaspora in Europe, West Africa and Central America, to traffic weapons, drugs, and human beings, and launder the proceeds.
Hizballah is hardly the only terrorist organisation that bears a close resemblance to a crime syndicate, and uses diasporas to fund politico-terrorist activity. Probably the most successful current group that combines both is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Hizballah had long taken a cut from the drug trade among Lebanese diasporas, and at a certain point moved to take direct control through a “Business Affairs Component”, overseen by Hizballah’s military leader, Imad Mughniya, a Lebanese officer of the IRGC, who was the most-wanted terrorist in the world before Osama bin Laden.
Mughniya was struck down in February 2008, and control of BAC passed to two men.
One was Adham Tabaja, the owner of the real estate development and construction firm Al-Inmaa Group for Tourism Works, based in Lebanon and also operating in Iraq. According to the Treasury sanctions against Tabaja, he was directly tied into Hizballah’s “operational component”, the terrorist apparatus known as Islamic Jihad.
While Iran/Hizballah have largely, though not completely (see below) eschewed attacks on the US “homeland”, this is a tactical decision of the kind al-Qaeda has made in the past few years. “By 2008, the Bush administration came to believe that Islamic Jihad was the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world, capable of launching instantaneous attacks, possibly with chemical, biological or low-grade nuclear weapons, that would dwarf those on 9/11,” Meyer writes.
The second man to take over BAC was Adballah Safieddine, Hizballah’s overt representative to Iran, and the man around whom the criminal networks revolve.
Hizballah in the Americas and Beyond
Safieddine was linked to a criminal scheme led by a Lebanese businessman and Hizballah agent, Ayman Joumaa, based in Medellin, Colombia, which worked through Los Zetas, the savage paramilitary wing of the Gulf Cartel in Mexico, to smuggle tons of cocaine directly into the United States.
In his 2013 book Hezbollah, Matthew Levitt, a former terror finance official at the Treasury Department, noted that Hizballah had long made significant money from criminal enterprises in America. Beginning in 1994, Hizballah orchestrated one of the largest frauds in US history, working with hackers to acquire credit card details from 138 different financial institutions around the globe, stealing “10,000 blank credit cards… from a security company in Nebraska, which they then embossed with legitimate but stolen credit card numbers, and produced false IDs to match”, Levitt reports.
The known damages for just two dozen of these institutions was $1.7 million; the total will never be known.
Levitt documents Hizballah revenue-generating schemes importing everything from counterfeit cigarette stamps to Viagra to people into the United States from networks stretching throughout the Western Hemisphere, consolidating Iran’s relationships with autocratic anti-Western governments in Latin America, notably Venezuela’s, in the process.
Joumaa “washed” the proceeds at least $200 million per month from smuggling cocaine into the US through used car dealerships, and shipped the vehicles to Benin in West Africa. Along this same route, Joumaa’s network directed narcotics into Europe. The proceeds from selling these vehicles in Africa was sent to Hizballah headquarters, helping the group dominate Lebanon and export terrorism beyond it.
Rinsed through Lebanese financial institutions, official (banks) and unofficial (hawala), some of this money was sent back to Joumaa in Colombia, and the cycle went around again.
Joumaa’s scheme funded Shia militias in Iraq, constructed and controlled by Hizballah’s Unit 3800 and IRGC Department 1000, which murdered Coalition soldiers and Iraqi Sunni civilians and now form part of the Iraqi state in a manner not dissimilar to IRGC in Iran. The money was particularly being put toward the armour-piercing “explosively formed penetrators” (EFPs).
Obama Lets Up on Hizballah
Another Safieddine associate, Ali Fayad, a Ukrainian citizen, was also connected to the EFP networks, and then began working with Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia to send munitions to the Assad regime after the Syrian uprising began in 2011. Fayad was arrested in a DEA sting operation in Prague in April 2014, but was released in January 2016 after the Obama administration dragged its feet on extradition proceedings and Moscow moved in hard to pressure the Czechs.
In the current atmosphere, less damning sequences of events than this have been taken as evidence of “collusion”.
The outcome with Fayad was part of a pattern where DEA and other law-enforcement agencies found themselves blocked by the Obama administration. “Several” former Obama administration officials told Meyer quite plainly that this was done for “broader policy objectives, including de-escalating the conflict with Iran”, and releasing the American hostages held in Iran.
Obama officials also worried about destabilising Lebanon, even though it was the Iranian nerve centre for destabilising the rest of the Levant, and wanted to pre-emptively appease Iran lest it recommence attacks on US troops Obama had deployed alongside Iran’s proxies in Iraq as part of the war against IS.
The DEA thought it would gain more support for its operations once the Iranian attempt to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC, via a Mexican cartel, became public in October 2011. They were exactly wrong. The public indictment for that plot was not permitted to mention Hizballah, and the Obama administration subsequently constrained DEA’s anti-Hizballah operations even further.
In February 2012, Hizballah assaulted Israeli diplomatic facilities in India and Georgia. Five months later, a Hizballah suicide bomber massacred Israeli tourists at the Burgas Airport in Bulgaria. In the background there was the bombing of the Jewish cultural centre, AMIA, and the Khobar Towers atrocity in Saudi Arabia, where Iran worked with al-Qaeda to kill nineteen Americans.
None of it dissuaded Obama from his course. To the contrary. Instead of paying a price, Obama intensified efforts to bring Iran in from the cold without any modification to its aggressive, criminal behaviour. By July 2012, Obama was secretly preparing the ground with Iran for the nuclear deal, and shortly after it was implemented, the remnants of Operation Cassandra pushed what they had into public view and effectively disbanded.
Iran’s terrorist apparatus has not slowed. Putting aside Iran’s role in instigating the carnage in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, Tehran continues to strike in the West. An Iranian oppositionist was assassinated in the Netherlands in November, and two Hizballah spies were arrested in New York earlier this year as they scoped out targets for attack.
A considerable backlash, attacking the credibility of Meyer and his sources, is already underway, and is likely to intensify. President Donald Trump has not so far made good on his rhetoric about pushing back Iranian bellicosity, but he has decertified the Iran deal and there is a looming fight in Congress about its fate.
During this time, the “echo chamber” of JCPOA validators that Obama’s deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, famously boasted of creating to neutralise opposition in Congress will be in high gear. Perhaps they will succeed again. But perhaps not. If Trump has any one guiding principle, it is to be the anti-Obama—and on foreign policy, there are worse doctrines.