by Eli Clifton
For the second year in a row, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chose an unusual venue in which to present new escalations in the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran during the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Speaking last week at United Against Nuclear Iran’s (UANI) annual conference, Pompeo announced the administration was expanding its pressure campaign, targeting Chinese entities believed to be transporting Iranian oil. “[W]e’re telling China and all nations, know that we will sanction every violation of sanctionable activity,” said Pompeo.
Pompeo’s choice of venues was a curious one. What UANI is and who is behind it appears to be a closely held secret but documents reviewed by LobeLog show a funding apparatus funneling over $35 million over two years into anti-Iran and anti-Qatar advocacy work. LobeLog was provided emails that appear to show UANI principals soliciting diplomats and government advisers from regional rivals of Iran for funding, raising questions about UANI’s funding sources and whether the group is acting as an undeclared foreign agent.
The “non-governmental” anti-Iran pressure group’s summit included Bahraini Ambassador to the U.S. Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, Saudi Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sahban, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, and U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker. UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba was also visible in the audience. Billionaire Thomas Kaplan, who was shown to be the majority funder of UANI in 2013, was also in attendance.
Earlier in the week, UANI drew notice from both U.S. media outlets and Iran’s foreign ministry. Last Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi announced the addition of UANI to Iran’s list of terrorist groups due its “close ties and cooperation with terrorist groups,” according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. The reference to “cooperation with terrorist groups” is presumably regarding a conference of Iranian opposition groups held last week in New York. The event had murky ties to UANI and was primarily attended by supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an opposition group that the U.S. listed as a terrorist organization until 2012. Iran still considers the MEK a terrorist group.
UANI denied any involvement with Tuesday’s event and said Wallace convened it in his “personal capacity.” The program for the event at the Roosevelt Hotel, however, listed UANI as the organizer. UANI said that was an error.
UANI’s support for Iranian opposition groups, including those who have engaged in terrorism according to the State Department, makes a lot more sense when clues to the organization’s financial backers are examined.
In 2017, UANI received $5 million of its $5,084,533 in contributions from its umbrella group, the Counter Extremism Project United Inc (CEPU), according to publicly available tax documents. UANI’s sister group, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), which receives State Department funding and echoes Saudi and UAE accusations about Qatar’s ties to terrorism, received $7 million of its $7.8 million in contributions from CEPU.
CEPU received over $22 million in 2017 and nearly $15 million in 2016. UANI and CEP are the primary recipients of CEPU’s largesse, but former National Security Adviser John Bolton received $240,000 between 2016 and 2017 from CEPU, according to CEPU tax filings, before he entered the Trump White House, an amount that differs from the $165,000 he declared in his financial disclosure.
The source of those funds is unknown but a previously unreported email, allegedly originating from the email account of UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba, offers a clue.
In September 2014, CEP president and former U.S. Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend emailed Otaiba:
By the way can we chat about UAE support for the Counter Extremism Project? I had this whole idea about an Abu Dhabi Sheik Zaid conference. I know you have spoken with Mark Wallace and the (sic) Richard Mintz was briefed. I don’t want to see this get caught in the The (sic) bureaucracy and I think it is exactly something both you and MBZ would support.
Mark Wallace is the CEO of UANI and CEP, Richard Mintz is the managing director of the Harbour Group which advises the UAE government, and “MBZ” is the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Townsend did not respond to a request for comment about the email.
Other emails previously published by LobeLog add to the evidence of Emirati and/or Saudi funding behind CEP and UANI.
Earlier that same September, Wallace appeared to email Otaiba regarding a “cost estimate” for an upcoming “forum.” 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.
An email allegedly sent in January, 2015, appears to show Townsend soliciting Otaiba’s assistance in arranging a meeting in Abu Dhabi with Mohammed bin Zayed. Townsend concluded her email writing:
And many thanks for your and Richard Mintz’ ongoing support of the CEP effort! Given the tragedy in Paris this effort becomes more urgent everyday!
Republican Party mega-fundraiser and Saudi lobbyist Norm Coleman also appears in the tranche of Otaiba’s emails, specifying the tax status of CEP on behalf of then-Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir. He wrote:
Foreign Minister Al Jubeir recommended that I follow up with you on the attached matter. The Counter Extremism Project is a 501c4. Let me know if you have any questions.
Mark Wallace, France Townsend, and the embassies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia did not respond to requests for comment about the possible role of Emirati and Saudi funding in fueling UANI, CEP, and Bolton’s advocacy work.
Other efforts to identify the funders behind UANI and CEP have met little success.
In 2015, the plaintiff in a lawsuit against UANI sought to review the group’s donor rolls as part of the discovery process. The Justice Department quashed the suit with an invocation of state secrets, a surprising occurrence since the U.S. government wasn’t a defendant in the suit.
Also in 2015, CEP faced scrutiny for its funding after Twitter refused to participate in one of the group’s conferences.
A Twitter spokesman told BuzzFeed News that Twitter declined to work with the group when it reached out to the company last year because of concerns over its “undisclosed funding.” Twitter was invited by the State Department to the event on Monday and declined to participate, again due to questions about the CEP’s funding, the spokesman said.
Asked about Twitter’s reasoning in an interview with BuzzFeed News, Wallace said it was “irresponsible” for Twitter to suggest that CEP should disclose its donors. Their being public, he argued, could put them at risk of being threatened. Fran Townsend, for example, has received death threats from ISIS-boosting Twitter accounts, he said. “We keep our donors confidential for security reasons.”
If UAE and Saudi funding are underwriting CEP and UANI’s advocacy work, it raises serious questions about whose interests the groups are representing and whether they are acting as agents of foreign principals, a status requiring disclosure under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
The fact that the Secretary of State has twice chosen UANI as a venue for high profile speeches outlining new sanctions against Iran and its trading partners, and that the former National Security Advisor received $240,000 in compensation from CEPU before entering the Trump administration—$75,000 of which appears to have gone unreported—suggests that UANI is an influential force in shaping U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf and has access to the highest levels of the U.S. government.
While UANI’s presence during the UN General Assembly last week was unmissable, whoever funneled $35 million over two years into CEPU prefers to remain in the shadows.
PBS Frontline obtained video footage of a private event with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) three months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. UANI funder Thomas Kaplan and UANI Senior Adviser Norman Roule were in attendance and filmed at the private event with MbS.
Later in the film, Roule is interviewed and says:
Well, I have stated that I believe it is very unlikely [MbS] did not know of at least a rendition [attempt on Khashoggi]. I can easily imagine that the decision making might have been as simple as [MbS adviser] Saud al-Qahtani saying, “We have this dissident. We will conduct a rendition operation from Istanbul,” and being told, “Go ahead.”
Roule then confirms that he has high level contacts within Saudi Arabia who tell him that Khashoggi’s death was the result of an effort to rendition the journalist back to Saudi Arabia, a narrative that maintains the Saudi line that MbS did not order Khashoggi’s murder.