National Security

Obama's Alternative Facts on the Iran Nuclear Deal

We're getting a glimpse of what the U.S. gave away in order to win Tehran's pledge of cooperation.

A deal at what cost?

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

When the Obama administration sold its Iran nuclear deal to Congress in 2015, one of its primary arguments was that the agreement was narrow. It lifted only nuclear sanctions. America, President Barack Obama told us, would remain a vigilant foe of Iran's regional predations through sanctions and other means.

Thanks to stunning new reporting from Politico's Josh Meyer, we can now assess these assertions and conclude that they are … well, "alternative facts."

Meyer reports that while the U.S. and other great powers were negotiating a deal to bring transparency to Iran's nuclear program, top officials in Obama's government dismantled a campaign, known as Operation Cassandra, intended to undermine Hezbollah's global drug trafficking and money laundering network. 

A few months after the implementation of that bargain in January 2016, Operation Cassandra was ripped apart. Agents were reassigned. Leads and sources dried up. Bad guys got away.

Hezbollah is many things: a Lebanese political party, a militia and a Shiite religious movement. It is also an arm of Iranian foreign policy. Hezbollah shock troops fight alongside Iran's Revolutionary Guard commanders in Syria and Iraq. Iran uses the group's operatives for international terror attacks in Latin America. Hezbollah's advanced arsenal is supplied by the Iranian state. Hezbollah's drug trafficking provides the revenue it needs to spread mayhem. To curb that trafficking is to starve Iran's primary proxy.

The Obama administration believed cracking down on Hezbollah's trafficking would undermine nuclear negotiations. As David Asher, a former Pentagon illicit finance analyst and a key player in Operation Cassandra, told Meyer: “This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision. They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”

The details are troubling. One example involves Ali Fayad, whom DEA agents suspected was the Hezbollah operative who reported directly to Russian president Vladimir Putin as a weapons supplier in Iraq and Syria. In 2014 Fayad was arrested by Czech authorities. Meyer reports that even though Fayad was indicted by U.S. courts for planning the murder of U.S. officials, "top Obama administration officials declined to apply serious pressure on the Czech government to extradite him to the United States, even as Putin was lobbying aggressively against it." Fayad eventually found his way back to Lebanon, and is believed today to be back at his old job, supplying Russian heavy weapons to Iranian-backed militants in Syria.

If the Trump administration had let Fayad slip through the net of law enforcement, that would be a five-alarm scandal. And yet for Obama this was part of a pattern. Obama never asked Syria's neighbors to deny fly-over rights to Russian aircraft in 2015, which could have slowed or prevented Putin from establishing air bases in Syria that were used to bomb civilians and aid workers.

Russia established those air bases less than two months after the end of the Iran nuclear negotiations. The chief of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, also saw the close of the nuclear talks as a green light. He was soon on a plane to Moscow to iron out the tactical alliance between Russia and Iran in Syria as Obama went about trying to persuade more than a third of Congress to support the nuclear bargain.

Obama officials reached for comment disputed elements of Meyer's reporting. Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for Obama, pointed to some European arrests of Hezbollah operatives after the implementation of the nuclear deal. But Meyer says officials with Operation Cassandra noted that these suspects were nabbed after the Obama Justice Department shot down efforts to prosecute these operatives in U.S. courts.

A particularly cringe-inducing response came from a senior national security official who suggested, anonymously, to Meyer that agents in a DEA operation might unwittingly botch a CIA or Israeli intelligence operation within Hezbollah.

That's doubtful, at least for the CIA. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 the agency's Beirut station, which tracked Hezbollah, was put out of business after most of its sources were arrested that year. It's highly unlikely the agency would have been able to build up its source network in a few short years. What's more, the CIA director for Obama's second term, John Brennan, had openly discussed his view of trying to separate Hezbollah hardliners from Hezbollah moderates in Washington policy forums. The decision to go soft on Hezbollah looks entirely deliberate.

So was all of this worth it? We know what the West got out of the nuclear deal: a temporary suspension of Iran's nuclear program and increased transparency into its stockpiles, enrichment facilities and laboratories. At the time the Obama administration told us that in exchange, the U.S. had to lift only the crippling nuclear sanctions against Iran. It turns out the price was much higher.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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