Senior Saudi officials, including aides close to General Ahmed al-Asiri, who was fired last month for allegedly ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, inquired about assassinating prominent Iranian officials and sabotaging Iran’s economy, the New York Times has reported.
The paper said on Sunday that during a meeting with private businessmen in 2017, senior aides close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, inquired about killing Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The paper said that al-Asiri attended a meeting in March 2017 in Riyadh where businessmen pitched a $2bn plan to use private intelligence operatives to try to sabotage the Iranian economy.
George Nader, a convicted paedophile and former political adviser to the United Arab Emirates’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, arranged the meeting, it said.
Nader also met MBS and pitched the Iran plan to officials in the White House.
Another participant in the meetings was Joel Zamel – an Israeli whose now-defunct Psy-Group intelligence firm is under investigation by the FBI and is suspected of pitching a media manipulation plan for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
During the meeting about the plan to sabotage Iran’s economy, three people familiar with the discussions told the newspaper that the Saudis asked the private businessmen whether they also “conducted kinetics” – lethal operations – saying they were interested in killing senior Iranian officials.
The businessmen reportedly hesitated, saying they would need to consult their lawyers.
The NYT reported that Nader and Zamel’s plan dated 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 programme.
“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 publicising accusations, real or fictitious, against senior Iranian officials to turn them against one another,” the paper said.
Nader and Zamel reportedly enlisted Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater and an adviser to the Trump transition team.
They had already discussed elements of their plan with Prince, in a meeting when they learned of his own paramilitary proposals that he planned to try to sell to the Saudis.
After Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, Nader met frequently with White House officials to discuss the economic sabotage plan, the paper added.
Ronen Bergman, a journalist at the New York Times and member of the team that broke the story, told Al Jazeera that after the businessmen’s lawyer rejected the idea of carrying out any assassinations, “Nader told the Saudis there are a group of SAS in London who might take the initiative.”
“We don’t know what the end of that connection was, but the fact that all these high-ranking Saudi officials, very close to the crown prince discussed that, pitched that, offered that project to private businessmen, suggests a total change of policy during the time of the crown prince.”
Saudi Arabia has changed its narrative about the murder several times amid international outcry and intensifying scepticism over its account.
After insisting for more than two weeks that Khashoggi had left the consulate, it then admitted the journalist had died in a fistfight inside the building. Later, Riyadh conceded Khashoggi was killed in a premeditated murder, but that the murder was an unplanned “rogue operation”.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News last month that “This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had. They made a mistake when they killed Jamal Khashoggi”.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the “highest levels” of the Saudi government of ordering the hit, while some officials have pointed the finger at the crown prince – a charge Riyadh denies.
Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey shared recordings related to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi with Saudi Arabia, the US, Germany, France and Britain.
The Turkish leader discussed the issue with US President Donald Trump during a dinner marking the end of the First World War in Paris, according to White House officials.