I had no reason to be suspicious. I receive dozens of media requests a week and this one was no different. Last summer, I received an email from someone who said that he was a journalist—from an outlet I hadn’t heard of before—and that he wanted to ask a few questions about the Iran nuclear deal. At the time, my book on the subject, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, had just appeared.
I had no idea that the man in question was working for Black Cube, a private Israeli intelligence firm now best known for its expertise in intimidating and silencing women who had been sexually abused by Harvey Weinstein, as Ronan Farrow has reported in The New Yorker. But this time, Black Cube—which offers its clients the skills of operatives “highly experienced and trained in Israel’s elite military and governmental intelligence units”—was reportedly working not for Weinstein, but for a group of presidential aides or allies. The operation, as Julian Borger of The Observer (which first broke the story) said, was “commissioned by people close to Donald Trump,” and its aim was to find or fabricate incriminating information about former Obama administration officials, as well as people and organizations that had a part in securing the Iran nuclear deal. Farrow’s reporting has established that White House foreign policy advisers Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl were targets of Black Cube’s subterfuge.
At the time, I didn’t know any of this. I thought that I was giving an interview about the intricacies of the nuclear negotiations. After some initial small talk, we soon started discussing the deal. The interviewer sounded young over the phone, probably no more than twenty-five or twenty-six. He didn’t come across as having a particularly strong grasp of the subject, but he spoke with confidence.
I took the opportunity to steer the conversation toward one of the conventional wisdoms I challenge in my book: the idea that the pressure from sanctions forced Iran to finally show flexibility on the nuclear issue, paving the way for a deal. In the course of my research, I had interviewed almost all of the officials from the Iranian and American sides involved in the secret negotiations. What I learned about those talks was that it was primarily the US’s willingness to accept uranium enrichment on Iranian soil (that is, accepting Iran’s bottom line, since Tehran refused to give up its enrichment technology) that made Iranian flexible, not the pressure from sanctions.
Then, suddenly, the conversation took an unexpected turn. Instead of asking questions, the Black Cube operative started making assertions and pushing me to give statements affirming them. The real reason Obama had agreed to the nuclear deal, he insisted, was because of the financial interests of certain members of his White House staff. [Continue reading…]
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