by Eli Clifton and Derek Davison
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.
The Trump administration insists that the goal of its “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran is not to effect regime 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 regime, 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 9/11 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 Adelson also 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.
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.
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.