Norman Roule speaking at an event hosted by New America, Nov. 2018 (Photo credit: New America https://www.flickr.com/photos/newamerica/45912412921)
Official linked to anti-Iran pressure group breaks ranks, says Iran should get all the help it needs to fight COVID-19 

Norman Roule, a senior adviser to the anti-Iran group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which led a multi-year effort pressuring pharmaceutical and medical supply companies to cease legal trade with Iran even during the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to be distancing himself from UANI’s work, effectively whitewashing his own role at the organization. “The international community should do everything it can to enable the Iranian people to obtain access to medical supplies and equipment,” said Roule in a recent article in the Nation.

While hawks in Washington are calling for more sanctions on Iran amid the COVID-19 crisis, the Nation published a fascinating scoop last week showing that U.S. military intelligence is deeply concerned about the public health implications of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s ability to combat COVID-19. A leaked intelligence brief specifically cited the risk of COVID-19 infections, originating in Iran, to U.S. troops based in Qatar.

In the article, Roule —a retired CIA official who served as national intelligence manager for Iran until 2017 when he joined UANI as a senior adviser — urged the international community to facilitate the transfer of medical supplies to Iran “not just because it’s the right thing to do, the human thing to do, but also because as Iranians travel throughout the region, they will continue to disperse the virus.”

It’s a  seemingly reasonable argument echoing points made a month ago by the Quincy Institute research fellow Annelle Sheline, but it’s also a total departure from the campaign undertaken by Roule’s client, UANI.

UANI says it aims to persuade “the regime in Tehran to desist from its quest for nuclear weapons, while striving not to punish the Iranian people.” (The U.S. intelligence community does not believe that Iran has any desire or plans to build nuclear weapons.) But UANI’s efforts extend well-beyond sanctions into naming and shaming companies that do legal trade with Iran, often under the Treasury Department’s humanitarian exemptions to sanctions — including medical-related trades that would presumably have aided in combating a massive public health crisis like COVID-19.

UANI’s “Iran Business Registry” is an online database of companies the group believes are conducting business in or with Iran and were urged to completely “end their Iran business,” until UANI changed the language on the website last month following an article published in Responsible Statecraft and The Intercept highlighting the group’s efforts to stymie the sale of medicine and medical supplies to Iran. Multiple medical companies with Treasury Department licenses to conduct trade with Iran are in UANI’s registry. Nine pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical-device corporations, all with special licenses, are listed on UANI’s business registry. Companies urged by UANI to “end their Iran business” include Bayer, Merck, Pfizer, Genzyme, AirSep, Medrad, Becton, Dickinson & Company, Eli Lilly, and Abbott Laboratories.

Also last week, UANI’s leadership, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and CEO Mark Wallace, signed on to a letter denying that U.S. sanctions were exacerbating the public health crisis facing Iran from the COVID-19 pandemic and urged the Trump administration to keep sanctions in place, a position at odds with Roule’s warnings that the pandemic’s rapid spread in Iran could expand globally. “Iranian military personnel are in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and parts of Afghanistan, and Iran also has a history of training foreign militants,” Roule told The Nation. These populations “could spread viruses throughout the region and from there, the international community.”

Roule’s common-sense approach, which sharply diverges from UANI, is surprising given his deep ties to UANI and its suspected foreign funders.

Besides serving as UANI’s senior adviser, Roule’s consulting firm, Pharos Strategic Consulting, received $366,000 from Counter Extremism Project United, Inc. (CEPU), the umbrella group for UANI that appears to primarily exist to funnel money to UANI, contractors like Roule, and UANI’s partner group the Green Light Project (which does business as the Counter Extremism Project.).

Tax documents from 2013 showed that investor and mining magnate Thomas Kaplan, who promoted a number of his investments as retaining or appreciating in value if there were military conflicts in the Middle East, was the primary funder of UANI.

Emails allegedly originating from the United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba showed UANI and Counter Extremism Project principals, including Wallace, soliciting funding from the UAE and Saudi lobbyist and Republican Party fundraiser Norm Coleman discussing Saudi support for the groups.

Roule maintains close ties to Kaplan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). All three were filmed by PBS Frontline at a private event with MbS months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Large payments from CEPU to Roule and his proximity to Kaplan and MbS all raise more questions than answers about Roule’s decision to raise concerns about public health consequences of the punishing sanctions that his clients at CEPU, and potentially Saudi Arabia and the UAE (via their possible funding of CEPU), continue to promote. 

One possibility is that Roule is attempting to retain his credibility as a trusted media expert as his client’s promotion of a “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran creates a massive public health crisis in the Middle East and threatens the safety of U.S. forces based in the region. 

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