An Iranian-American businessman tied to a network of pro-Tehran advocates coordinated with a Middle Eastern monarch to target prominent Americans in an international hacking-and-disinformation campaign, according to court documents filed in the United Kingdom in September.
Amir Handjani, an oil executive and attorney who sits on the board of directors of Washington's Atlantic Council think tank, has worked as a registered foreign agent for Ras al Khaimah, or RAK, one of the seven monarchical states that make up the United Arab Emirates. The RAK has deep financial and diplomatic ties to Tehran. According to a $16.7 million complaint filed in September in a London court, RAK's ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi, ordered Handjani to execute a smear operation which appeared to be aimed in part at perceived critics of Iran, including former Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon.
In the complaint, American aviation magnate Farhad Azima says that RAK and its associates were behind a hack of his email and devices as part of an effort to blackmail him in 2016.
Experts on Iran and its espionage operations said the smear campaign appeared to be another example of Iran using its proxies and allies to target its perceived critics, even inside the United States.
David Asher, a former State Department official and expert in money laundering schemes, told the Washington Free Beacon that the alleged hacking attack on Azima and Solomon reflects "a classic Iranian information warfare exercise."
Solomon "was the most vocal and well regarded reporter working on Iran sanctions enforcement, among other things," said Asher, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "It looks to me that they targeted quite deliberately to hack into his emails and clean the guy out. That's totally in keeping with the history of the [Iranian] Ministry of Intelligence's activities over the years to Iranian dissidents and other journalists."
Azima and Sheik Saud are embroiled in a financial dispute that's tied, in part, to a failed effort by RAK's sovereign wealth fund, RAKIA, to sell strategic assets in the Republic of Georgia to representatives of Iran's elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The proposed deals, which included a Black Sea port, could have provided Tehran with the infrastructure needed to subvert Western sanctions on its economy.
Azima's lawsuit alleges that Handjani worked through New York-based public relations firm KARV Communications to set up a string of fake accounts and blogs on the internet to house Azima's stolen data, which the American businessman charges was doctored in some cases. Handjani and KARV Communications partnered in this effort with two British firms, Bell Pottinger and Digitalis Reputation, as well as the U.S. law firm Dechert LLP, to run the smear campaign, according to the suit.
Bell Pottinger went bankrupt in 2017 after the U.K. trade body that governs the communications industry expelled the firm for unethical behavior. A 2018 investigation conducted by the New Yorker exposed what it said were multiple efforts by Bell Pottinger to target journalists who were seen as threats to their clients. Some of these tactics mirror those alleged in the suit to have been used against Azima, such as the creation of fake internet accounts and Twitter feeds.
Handjani has served in leadership positions at the National Iranian American Council, or NIAC, a group that lobbies for closer U.S.-Iranian relations. NIAC was one of the Obama White House's closest outside partners in selling the nuclear deal four years ago to Congress and the American public. Handjani currently serves as a senior adviser to KARV Communications, which also is a registered foreign agent for RAK, according to filings with the Justice Department.
Representatives for RAKIA categorically denied the charges when reached for comment by the Free Beacon. Dechert also has denied the accusations and is representing RAKIA in a parallel lawsuit against Azima. The American businessman is accused of engaging in fraud in his business dealings with RAKIA and Sheik Saud, a charge he has denied.
"Mr. Azima has yet again attempted to divert attention away from his role in an international fraud committed against RAK entities," a representative of RAKIA told the Free Beacon. "Mr. Azima is accused of bribery, receipt of secret commissions, fraudulent misrepresentation and conspiracy, and RAKIA looks forward to presenting its case against Mr. Azima robustly when the U.K. trial commences in January 2020."
Azima alleges in his suit that he was threatened by a senior Dechert lawyer, Neil Gerrard, in August 2016 that he would become "collateral damage" if he didn't succeed in brokering a financial settlement with one of Sheik Saud's top business partners. Just days later, when the deal wasn't concluded, dozens of sites appeared on the internet charging the American businessman with corruption and linking to his stolen data.
Azima’s suit is based, in part, on emails and other communications entered into the London court as part of the discovery process in the litigation. These include communications between Handjani and executives from RAKIA.
Solomon also was caught up in this cyber operation. Accounts were established online that accused the journalist and former senior writer for the Wall Street Journal of engaging in business with Azima, including a purported arms deal.
The Journal fired Solomon in 2017 on the grounds the reporter had not been forthcoming about his relationship with Azima.
Solomon denied having any business relationship with Azima, and none has been found. Solomon later wrote in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review that he believed he was targeted because of an article he wrote in 2013 exposing Iran's role in the attempted purchase of assets from RAKIA. Solomon acknowledged in his Columbia piece that Azima had served as a major source for his Journal story.
The publication of Solomon's Journal report resulted in the government of Georgia freezing hundreds of Iranian bank accounts and suspending a visa-free travel agreement with Tehran. The U.S. Treasury Department subsequently sanctioned three of the Iranian businessmen who were trying to do business with RAK's sovereign wealth fund.
Solomon garnered international attention for breaking a string of stories in 2016 that detailed how the Obama administration sent $1.7 billion in hard currency to Iran as part of a choreographed diplomatic effort to gain the release of four American prisoners.
Solomon would not comment for this story, but pointed to his Columbia Journalism Review article on the matter. In Solomon's account, he voiced his concern that he had been targeted for his journalism by an elaborate espionage operation, involving foreign state actors, international law firms, and black PR shops. He mentioned the role of attorneys at Dechert, who both have been working for RAKIA and units of Rupert Murdoch's media empire that includes the Wall Street Journal.
"Hackers—likely state-sponsored—went after me, I believe, to hurt one of my sources and throw me off the Iran story, which dominated my career for nearly a decade," he wrote.
Handjani serves in numerous positions in Washington and the Middle East, giving him a unique ability to influence policymaking in Washington, Tehran, and the UAE. He sits on the board of directors at RAK Petroleum and previously served as the company's legal counsel, according to his online bios. He also has served as president of PG International Commodity Trading, which is Cargill International SA's agent in Iran to trade grains and oilseeds. Handjani also is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, another Washington think tank.
Handjani has used his perches at the Atlantic Council and NIAC to lobby for closer relations between the United States and Iran. He has been a sharp critic of American sanctions, arguing in a May article for the Lawfare blog that U.S. policies were upending Tehran's ability to conduct humanitarian trade. In January of last year, Handjani wrote an article for Reuters in which he argued the Trump administration's hardline stance on Iran was undermining the prospects for democracy in the country.
The Atlantic Council declined to comment on the lawsuit and the claims made against its board member.
A spokesperson for KARV Communications denied Azima's claims when reached by the Free Beacon.
"We categorically deny this baseless accusation, and Mr. Azima has offered not a shred of evidence that KARV or Mr. Handjani or the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority engaged in any hacking whatsoever," the spokesperson said.
Representatives for the RAK government said that Azima's case is unlikely to ever be heard in full by a court.
"Mr. Azima's baseless counterclaim, while filed, was immediately stayed and will never be heard if, as anticipated, RAKIA prevails at trial in January 2020," the RAK maintained through a spokesman with the Pagefield Global PR firm. "He has furthermore been ordered to pay RAKIA's costs of responding to this misguided application. This follows the ruling by the U.S. District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeal in June 2019 that it was improper for Mr. Azima to bring a lawsuit against RAKIA in the United States."
Pagefield Global, RAKIA's PR firm, is staffed by nearly 20 former executives from Bell Pottinger, the defunct British firm. As the Free Beacon was reporting this story in September, Pagefield Global shut down.