So maybe the Iranians do have much to be paranoid about. An explosive New York Times story citing multiple unnamed sources familiar with the matter details how top Saudi intelligence officials conspired to assassinate Iranian leaders — including Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Quds force commander Qassim Suleimani — in a plot wherein the Saudis mulled using private contractors, and even approached Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater and at the time adviser to the Trump transition team.
The discussions took place around two years before the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as MbS was still deputy crown prince and defense minister, and was in the midst of ramping up intelligence operations outside the kingdom.
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. - NYT report
According the Times report a group of international businessmen assisted then deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri (recently sacked over the Khashoggi murder) in shopping around the plan to private contractors and Western allies, specifically the United States, and ultimately aimed to "assassinate Iranian enemies of the kingdom" and try to "sabotage the Iranian economy".
The program to use private operatives to wage a dirty tricks assassination and destabilization campaign against Tehran was pitched during initial secretive meetings for a contract that was worth $2 billion.
According to the NYT report:
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 Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and a man considered a determined enemy of Saudi Arabia.
The Times identifies George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman, and an Israeli named Joel Zamel, who has close ties to Israeli intelligence and owns a company called Psy-Group, as a couple of the key businessmen who attempted to move the plan forward. Notably both are witnesses in the Mueller investigation, but it's unclear if these late breaking revelations have anything to do with the probe.
Interestingly the pair had been deeply involved in "an ambitious campaign of economic warfare against Iran" since at least 2016, when 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," according to the Times report. And further George Nader is a known adviser to the UAE crown prince — a country at the forefront of executing the Saudi coalition war on Yemen.
Eventually, the businessmen would pitch the plan to the White House at a moment they thought they could gain a sympathetic ear in the then incoming Trump administration.
This is where controversial Blackwater founder Erik Prince comes in, who long had his own plans of landing major contracts with the Saudis. According to the Times report:
Mr. Nader and Mr. Zamel 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 Mr. Prince, in a meeting when they learned of his own paramilitary proposals that he planned to try to sell to the Saudis. A spokesman for Mr. Prince declined to comment.
In a suite on one of the top floors of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York, Mr. Zamel and Mr. 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.
The details of these meetings are unknown, but what is known is that Nader did have somewhat routine access to the White House during the period he shopped the proposal around:
After Mr. Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, Mr. Nader met frequently with White House officials to discuss the economic sabotage plan.
While it's unclear the extent to which the ambitious plan was ever put into motion, a number of journalists and analysts have connected it with last month's bombshell revelation that Green Beret, Navy SEAL, and CIA paramilitary veterans were hired under the aegis of an American based security company called Spear Operations Group to become what a BuzzFeed exclusive described as the private "murder squad" for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ).
Starting in 2015 the UAE sent a group of about a dozen mostly American private contractors to Yemen to conduct targeted killings of prominent clerics and political figures who had run afoul crown prince MBZ in the war-torn country, where the Emirati military has played a lead role in the ongoing Saudi coalition bombing campaign. The group would receive active "target lists" through the UAE military chain of command while en route to Yemen.
MBS-linked saudi deputy intel chief enquired with Nader/zamel about assassinating Iran’s qaasem soleimani. Their lawyer allegedly balked. But this seems related to uae/Dahlan enlisting Abraham Golan/ex US special operatives to target al islah imams in Yemen cc: @AramRoston https://t.co/VIxO46QlE2— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) November 11, 2018
Interestingly the Saudi deputy intelligence chief Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri who's been identified in the latest NYT revelations as being involved in arranging an anti-Iranian assassination squad, was also at the time responsible for overseeing intelligence operations in Yemen, where the Saudi coalition is claiming to fight Iranian proxies (the Shia Houthi rebels).
We can imagine that even if Nader and Zamel's plan never materialized as was originally envisioned, the moment Washington pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) it was likely at that point open season in terms of these types of covert dirty tricks operations against the Islamic Republic.
We can also only imagine what Iran's president and his generals must be thinking this morning as they open up the pages of the New York Times to find such a far ranging plan that had the intimate involvement of an Israeli businessman and top Saudi leaders to assassinate themselves detailed for all the world to see.