ast week, in what the White House billed as a major foreign-policy speech, Donald Trump threatened to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. He unveiled a new strategy that he said would curb Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. One part of his plan is to impose sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Treasury Department is also designating several ostensibly private Iranian companies (and one Chinese firm) as aides in Tehran’s efforts to fund terrorism and build weapons of mass destruction. But something important has been left unsaid: the Trump Administration has not sanctioned an Iranian firm with ties to both the Revolutionary Guard and to one of the Trump Organization’s business partners.
In response to decades of U.S. and global sanctions, the Revolutionary Guard has created hundreds of private companies that work as a loose network, allowing the Revolutionary Guard to conceal the movement of sanctions-evading money into and out of Iran, purchase crucial components for weapons of mass destruction, and evade sanctions in other ways. These companies follow a similar pattern: they are, typically, construction or engineering firms run by veterans of the Revolutionary Guard that appear, to the outside world, as independent companies but act under the direction of Guard leadership.
After Trump’s speech, the Treasury named Shahid Alamolhoda Industries, Rastafann Ertebat Engineering Company, and Fanamoj as, essentially, tools of the Revolutionary Guard. Strikingly, the Treasury did not name Azarpassillo, an Iranian firm with a leadership made up of lifelong Revolutionary Guard officers. Azarpassillo’s leaders have been named by U.S. officials as likely money launderers for the Revolutionary Guard and, through their international construction operations, the company is ideally suited to provide W.M.D. components.
Azarpassillo has another interesting connection; one of its apparent partners in money laundering, the Mammadov family of Azerbaijan, was also, until quite recently, in business with the Trump Organization. In fact, for the entire Presidential campaign, the Trump Organization knew that it was actively involved with a company that was likely laundering money for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This is not a wild conspiracy theory; it is an acknowledged fact, confirmed by Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s general counsel, and not disputed by the White House or any of the people involved. Ivanka Trump directly oversaw the relationship with the Mammadov family, led by Ziya Mammadov, a man whom American diplomats have called “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.”
The details of Trump’s indirect relationship with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were revealed in The New Yorker in March, and, soon afterward, several Democratic senators asked for more details from the Administration. They were hoping to learn if the more than five million dollars the Trump Organization received from the Mammadovs had originated with the Revolutionary Guard. No answer ever came. Several Republicans who have taken a hard line against Iran declined to comment on Trump’s profitable relationship with such enthusiastic allies of the Guard.
There is no reason to think that anyone in the Trump Organization was intentionally seeking to help the Iranians. Trump’s top lawyer at the time, Jason Greenblatt, oversaw the contract with the Mammadovs and is now at the White House, serving as an adviser on the Middle East. An Orthodox Jew, Greenblatt is known as a supporter of Israel and an antagonist of Iran. Still, the Trump firm’s relationship with Iran seems almost inevitable, given the type of business it has pursued since it was nearly bankrupted by the 2009 financial crisis and various business missteps. Over the past decade, Trump’s business focussed on providing its name, for a large fee, to those operating in the shadows of the global economy. These were people and businesses who were unable—or unwilling—to work with the vast majority of international companies which demand comprehensive due diligence. A remarkable number of Trump’s business partners met one or more of the warning signs of troubling business practices: they had been investigated or convicted of fraud or other economic crimes; they were government officials in a position to abuse their power for financial gain; or they were secretive entities, hidden behind shell companies.
Azarpassillo is one of the largest companies run by Revolutionary Guard veterans. Much of its business within Iran is with projects run by Khatam-al Anbia. It also received an enormous contract to build highways in neighboring Azerbaijan. U.S. officials believe that it got this contract in a sweetheart deal with Azerbaijan’s then-transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov. At the same time, Mammadov’s son and brother signed a contract with the Trump Organization to build a hotel and a residential tower at the foot of one of the country’s newest highways. As part of the contract—which was in effect from 2011 to December, 2016, just after the election—the Trump Organization had the right to look at the Mammadov family’s business accounting records. Garten, the Trump Organization lawyer, told me he learned of the Mammadov family’s likely relationship to Azarpassillo in the summer of 2015. At any point after this, the Trump Organization could have checked to see if, indeed, they were receiving funds that originated with the Revolutionary Guard. They could likely have learned a great deal about how Iranian businesses closely linked to the Guard operate. They chose not to.