0913 GMT February 20, 2020
The Saudis inquired at a time when Prince Mohammed was consolidating power and directing his advisers to escalate military and intelligence operations outside the kingdom. Their discussions, more than a year before the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, indicate that top Saudi officials have considered assassinations since the beginning of Prince Mohammed’s ascent.
Saudi officials have portrayed Khashoggi’s death as a rogue killing ordered by an official who has since been fired. But that official, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, was present for a meeting in March 2017 in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where the businessmen pitched a $2 billion plan to use private intelligence operatives to try to sabotage the Iranian economy.
During the discussion, part of a series of meetings where the men tried to win Saudi funding for their plan, General Assiri’s top aides inquired about killing Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.
The interest in assassinations, covert operations and military campaigns like the war in Yemen — overseen by Prince Mohammed — is a change for the kingdom, which historically has avoided an adventurous foreign policy that could create instability and imperil Saudi Arabia’s comfortable position as one of the world’s largest oil suppliers.
As for the businessmen, who had intelligence backgrounds, they saw their Iran plan both as a lucrative source of income and as a way to cripple a country that they and the Saudis considered a profound threat. George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman, arranged the meeting. He had met previously with Prince Mohammed, and had pitched the Iran plan to Trump White House officials. Another participant in the meetings was Joel Zamel, an Israeli with deep ties to his country’s intelligence and security agencies.
During the March 2017 meeting about the plan to sabotage Iran’s economy, according to the three people familiar with the discussions, the Saudis asked the businessmen whether they also “conducted kinetics” — lethal operations — saying they were interested in killing senior Iranian officials. The businessmen hesitated, saying they would need to consult their lawyer.
The lawyer flatly rejected the plan, and the businessmen told the Saudis they would not take part in any assassinations. Nader told the Saudis about a London-based company run by former British special operations troops that might take on the contract.
Before he was ousted last month, General Assiri was considered one of Prince Mohammed’s closest advisers, a man whose sharp ascent tracked the rise of the young crown prince. In 2016, he became the public face of Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, giving briefings about the state of the war.
General Assiri was dismissed last month when the Saudi government acknowledged Khashoggi’s killing and said he had organized the operation.
Nader’s and Zamel’s plan dates to the beginning of 2016, when they started discussing an ambitious campaign of economic warfare against Iran similar to one waged by Israel and the United States during the past decade aimed at coercing Iran to end its nuclear program. They sketched out operations like revealing hidden global assets of the Quds Force; creating fake social media accounts in Farsi to foment unrest in Iran; financing Iranian opposition groups; and publicizing accusations, real or fictitious, against senior Iranian officials to turn them against one another.
Nader is an adviser to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, a country that, along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, has identified Iran as an enemy.
Both he and Zamel believed that Hillary Clinton’s anticipated victory in the 2016 election meant a continuation of the Iran nuclear deal signed by former US president Barack Obama — and little appetite in Washington for a concerted campaign to cripple the Iranian economy. So, they decided to pitch the plan to Saudi and Emirati officials, even submitting a proposal to General Assiri during a meeting in Belgium.
The election of Donald Trump changed their calculus, and shortly after, Nader and Zamel traveled to New York to sell both Trump transition officials and Saudi generals on their Iran plan.
In a suite on one of the top floors of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York, Zamel and Nader spoke to General Assiri and his aides about their Iran plan. The Saudis were interested in the idea but said it was so provocative and potentially destabilizing that they wanted to get the approval of the incoming Trump administration before Saudi Arabia paid for the campaign.
After Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, Nader met frequently with White House officials to discuss the economic sabotage plan.