This is part one of a two part series on the growing impact of the US economic war on Iran.
Several US citizens have been questioned by the FBI and threatened with arrest for their participation in New Horizon, a public media conference held each year in Iran.
The interrogations and threats are the result of orders apparently delivered by Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal P. Mandelker, a militantly pro-Israel lawyer with longstanding ties to right-wing political networks.
Mandelker was reportedly involved in brokering the infamous Florida deal that allowed the wealthy child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein to avoid federal charges.
Since Mandelker’s appointment as Under Secretary of Treasury in 2017, she has been described on pro-Israel news sites as a “former Israeli” and “Israeli-born.”
Asked by The Grayzone if Mandelker currently holds Israeli citizenship, and if so, whether she was given a special exemption that allowed her to obtain a security clearance, the US Department of Treasury did not reply.
Mandelker’s actions against the US citizens who participated in New Horizon represent an under-acknowledged but significant escalation in the Trump administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure” to bring about regime change in Iran. As the Atlantic noted, Mandelker is “the one with her hand on the lever” of Trump’s unilateral sanctions policy against Iran.
Michael Maloof, a former security analyst in the US Department of Defense, was among the New Horizon attendees who has been visited by the FBI. Bureau agents appeared at Maloof’s Virginia home in the early morning last May to inquire about his participation in the conference. Sander Hicks, another participant in New Horizon, claimed that others who joined the conference had been threatened with arrest if they attended again.
“OFAC [the US Office of Financial Sanctions Regulations] is supposed to restrict exchanges of money, but this conference was just an exchange of ideas,” Maloof told The Grayzone. “They’re interpreting the regulations to say that even if you associate with someone who has been sanctioned, you are subject to fines and imprisonment. I haven’t seen anything in the regulations that allows that, but they’ve set the bar so low that anyone can be designated.”
The New Horizon Conference is an annual event overseen by Iranian TV host and filmmaker named Nader Talebzadeh and his wife, Zeina Mehanna, a Lebanese writer. Both were placed under financial sanctions this year by the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Sanctions Regulations [OFAC] on the grounds that they had organized events where Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps “recruitment and collection efforts were made.”
“We wrote to OFAC challenging them about their accusations, however, they only responded by acknowledging the receipt of our letter. Nothing more!” Mehanna complained to The Grayzone.
She insisted that “we are not in contact with the IRGC nor have we ever been funded by them.”
Negative scrutiny of the New Horizon Conference began in 2014 with a series of reports by the pro-Israel pressure group, the Anti-Defamation League [ADL]. The ADL openly coordinates with local and federal US law enforcement, and escorts law enforcement officials on annual training and lobbying tours of Israel.
According to the ADL, New Horizon was an “anti-Semitic gathering” that “included U.S. and international anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and anti-war activists.”
There was some truth to the charge: over the years, New Horizon has played host to an array of conspiracy cranks and figures with disturbing records of vehemently anti-Jewish statements.
The event has also featured well-known anti-war activists and former US national security professionals seeking to forge relations with a country that has been under sustained Western economic and military attack for decades.
Peter Van Buren, an author and former diplomat who served in the State Department for 24 years, attended New Horizon this May in the city of Mashhad. He returned with a colorful account for Reuters of life in Iran under escalating US sanctions.
“Outside, in Mashhad city, there were no demonstrations, no flag burnings, and when I visited the central mosque here after Friday prayers more people were interested in a selfie with a foreigner than anything else,” Van Buren reported.
Maloof, too, said his attendance of the conference was motivated by a desire to build diplomatic bridges. “We felt that it was important for dialogue to go [to New Horizon]. And I don’t agree with the US position on Iran,” he explained. “All we did was went there, talked and met with people, and this is the only way you’re going to have better relations.”
Maloof emphasized, “We’re all still US patriots, but we believe there’s another way to go about things than looking at everything in Iran through the prism of Israel.”
Asked if there was any interaction with IRGC officials or assets at the event, Maloof insisted, “We were not approached by anyone. And those of us who are national security veterans, we’re very attuned to that stuff.”
Under Mandelker’s guidance, the Trump administration designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization this April, provoking Iran to counter by branding all US military personnel in the Middle East as terrorists.
Since then, Mandelker has expanded her target list in Iran and across the region, even sanctioning institutions that collaborate with the US government.
On August 30, the Treasury Department’s OFAC sanctioned an Iranian oil tanker and its captain after it was freed from detention in Gilbraltar. Mandelker claimed that the vessel was used to “transfer large volumes of oil, which attempt to mask and sell illicitly to fund the regime’s malign activities and propagate terrorism.”
That same day, Treasury sanctioned Jammal Trust Bank in Lebanon, claiming that it and its subsidiaries had been “brazenly enabling Hizballah’s financial activities.”
“Jammal Trust provides support and services to Hizballah’s Executive Council and the Martyrs Foundation, which funnels money to the families of suicide bombers,” Mandelker declared.
But Hezbollah has not employed suicide bombing as a tactic since the 1980’s. And as Asia Times noted, Jammal Trust partnered with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as recently as last year on public initiatives intended to help impoverished communities in Lebanon.
Because Lebanon’s economy is so thoroughly dollarized, the sanctions represent a likely death sentence for Jammal, preventing it from carrying out transactions in the US currency.
Notably, the bank is owned by a Shia businessman with close ties to Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and one of several who have been targeted under the watch of Mandelker. Berri was reportedly threatened with US sanctions this April by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for his insufficient hostility to Hezbollah.
When New Horizon’s Mehanna was sanctioned, her personal savings account in Lebanon was frozen.
“I got a call that I need to go to the bank and close my account,” Mehanna told The Grayzone. “The teller told me that the bank was informed by US Treasury Department to close my account because it had dollars! They closed my account, gave me a mere $400, and I was told politely to leave.”
She said she was given no documentation that her account had been closed. She recalled, “We just left the bank in total shock and bewilderment.”
It was all in a day’s work for Mandelker, the most militant official to serve in a department overseen by a long line of pro-Israel ideologues.
At a gathering of the elite Aspen Security Conference this July, Mandelker put her extreme views on display when she accused former Obama officials of mollycoddling Iran.
Seated beside Wendy Sherman, Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Jeremy Bash, the CIA’s ex-chief of staff, Mandelker declared that Iran was “posing an incredibly destabilizing presence in the region. They’re threatening our great ally in the region, Israel!”
She went on: “And after the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal], what did the Obama administration do to curb that kind of behavior? Nothing!”
“That’s not true,” Sherman protested.
“Bad actors need money to do bad things,” Mandelker continued. “That is why we have this massive sanctions regime. Because we know Iran is threatening our great partner, Israel!”
While media at the event focused on the dust-up between Trump and Obama officials, they ignored the stunning admission by a US official to advancing provocative policies on Israel’s behalf.
But this was the role that Mandelker and her predecessors have played since her position was established during the second Bush administration by her mentor, Stuart Levey.
Like Mandelker, Levey is an unabashedly ultra-Zionist ideologue. His 1985 senior thesis at Harvard University was a paean to the creation of Israel, declaring that the Zionist movement had created a “morally exemplary” state that “would be a light unto other nations.”
As journalist Phil Weiss noted, Levey’s thesis advisor was Martin Peretz, the neoconservative former New Republic publisher who emigrated to Israel after triggering protests with his declaration, “Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims.”
At the dawn of the so-called “war on terror,” Levey successfully lobbied Bush’s national security team to turn up the heat on Iran, a country that considered Al Qaeda its mortal enemy. His weapon of choice was sanctions, convincing the Bush administration to blacklist Iran’s Central Bank and sever Tehran’s ties to the global financial system.
“Stuart Levey’s war is like ‘Charlie Wilson’s War,’ ” an unnamed State Department official told the New York Times, referring to a former Texas congressman’s campaign to undermine the Soviet Union by funneling arms to Afghan insurgents. “It’s the most direct and aggressive stuff we’ve got going. It delivers.”
Mandelker learned the ropes in Levey’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, developing an innovative arsenal of financial weapons against the enemies of Israel, a state for which she and her boss clearly felt a passionate attachment.
She came to the job with the conservative movement credentials she gained as a clerk in the office of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and as a card-carrying member of the right-wing Federalist Society.
Mandelker’s husband, Stephen Capozolla, has worked as a spokesman for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a Washington-based lobbying group, while pumping out columns denying climate change for the right-wing site, Breitbart.com.
In 2008, while Mandelker served in Bush’s Department of Justice, she approved the notorious deal that allowed the wealthy child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein to escape federal prosecution.
“I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone,” Alex Acosta, the former US attorney who brokered the deal, told the Trump administration’s transition team.
When Mandelker returned to government in March 2017, she earned immediate praise from Levey, her former boss, who called her “an asset.” Michael Chertoff, another close colleague, described her as his “eyes and ears” when he was at the Department of Homeland Security.
Pro-Israel websites also buzzed about the appointee, homing in on her alleged Israeli roots.
The right-wing Jewish Press described Mandelker as an “Israeli-born deputy secretary,” while the Israeli security blog, Debka File, referred to her as a “former Israeli.” Meanwhile, the Jerusalem-based blogger, Jewlicious, called Mandelker a current Israeli citizen. When asked how he knew she maintained her citizenship, the blogger said he didn’t know, but that “she was born in Israel.”
According to Mandelker’s bio at the Treasury Department, however, she was born in Chicago, Illinois.
The Treasury Department did not respond to questions from The Grayzone about Mandelker’s citizenship status. It would be unusual for a US official to obtain a security clearance while maintaining dual citizenship, however, Mandelker’s former colleague at the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, was reportedly born an Israeli citizen.
Whatever her citizenship status is, Mandelker has made no secret of her desire to advance the geopolitical imperatives of “our great partner, Israel.”
Her sanctions blacklist is broadening by the day, resulting in even former US national security officials being visited by the FBI for their participation in an Iranian media event.
How the sanctioning of that conference came about is the subject of heavy intrigue. According to Mehanna, the co-founder of the New Horizon Organization, she and husband were targeted as the result of a separate US investigation into a former US counter-intelligence officer and her alleged handler, another American citizen.
The latter suspect American was an anchor for Press TV, Iran’s state broadcaster. Known as Mazrieh Hashemi, she was jailed by federal authorities this January when she attempted to return to the US to visit her family.
How Hashemi’s imprisonment was spun by US authorities into the sanctioning of New Horizon will be chronicled in the next installment of this series.
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