The Mysterious Tale of a Powerful American Businessman, Three Sanctioned Iranians and an Imprisonment in Tehran
On May 13, 2012, Afsaneh Azadeh, an Iranian-American living in Dubai, touched down at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. Azadeh, who had returned to Iran to help her elderly mother convalesce from cataract surgery, tried to visit Tehran frequently, despite a punishing work schedule. At the time, she was employed as general manager of HeavyLift International, a private, United Arab Emirates-based cargo airline run by Farhad Azima, a politically connected Iranian-born American aviation magnate based in Kansas City, Missouri. Smart, loyal and ambitious, she had established herself as one of Azima’s key employees.
Azadeh deplaned, exited customs and collected her bags. Suddenly, according to Azadeh, she was encircled by five agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), who informed her of her arrest on national security grounds. Her belongings were confiscated. She was handcuffed, blindfolded and pushed into the back seat of a car, where a female IRGC agent forced her to rest her head in the agent’s lap to avoid detection. “Where are we going?” Azadeh asked, as they sped through Tehran. “Evin Prison,” her captor replied. And here began Azadeh’s months-long nightmare in the fetid dungeons of the Islamic Republic.
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Azadeh claims that during her captivity—which she describes in a lawsuit she has since filed against the Iranian government in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia—she was whipped, beaten and tortured; drugged daily and poisoned; and subjected to mock executions and other forms of extreme psychological abuse. (It does not appear that Iran has responded to the allegations; since the United States and Iran do not maintain diplomatic relations, the lawsuit was delivered to the Iranian foreign ministry via the Embassy of Switzerland in Tehran.)
Iran has a sordid history of jailing and torturing American citizens—especially those of dual citizenship—for allegedly spying on behalf of the United States. Superficially, at least, Azadeh’s case follows this script. But there is a key difference: In her court filings, as well as subsequently leaked emails of Azima’s, Azadeh says her captors’ core interest was not in her own activities and contacts, but in those of her boss, Azima. (Azima claims those emails were hacked and dumped online by agents of the United Arab Emirates, and he is currently suing a UAE sheikdom in a D.C. federal court over the matter.)
Why would the Iranian government be so interested in Azima’s activities that it would allegedly torture an American citizen? Both he and Azadeh declined to comment for this article through their shared lawyer, Kirby Behre. But the answer to that question might lie in Azima’s extraordinary, decades-long career in the private airline business. It’s a tale that could be ripped from a Hollywood thriller—including his entanglement with three Iranians whom the U.S. Treasury Department later sanctioned for their activities on behalf of Iranian banks and whom U.S. officials, in a 2014 civil forfeiture case, also linked to an Iranian money-laundering scheme to evade U.S. sanctions.
Now that the Trump administration is withdrawing from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and plans to re-impose all the sanctions lifted as part of the agreement, the story of these three Iranians’ buying spree and Azima’s involvement in it—based on a review of thousands of Azima’s leaked emails and text messages, documents from five separate court cases, and conversations with individuals with knowledge of Azima’s and the three Iranians’ activities—might preview a not-too-distant future in which the regime’s sanctions-evasion and money-laundering schemes will kick back into high gear. Azadeh’s account of her detention and torture, meanwhile, spotlights the rigid, febrile core at the heart of the Islamic Republic, and its willingness to punish and extort those who run afoul of it.
This is also, fundamentally, a tale about power. For years, Azima seemed to perform an impressive tightrope act, working with the U.S. military and intelligence complex, according to various media reports, while leaping at opportunities with international business partners operating on the margins. Wavering to one side, he always regained his balance. Until, perhaps, he didn’t.
Who is Farhad Azima? According to reports in the Kansas City Star, the Associated Press and elsewhere, Azima’s planes delivered weapons to Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan; to Egypt after the Camp David Accords; and to Iran, where they a sent arms to the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Contra scandal. (Azima has confirmed, to the Star, the arms shipments to Pakistan and Egypt, but he has denied any connection to the delivery of weapons to Iran.) Azima’s alleged connections to the CIA ran so deep that in the 1980s, when federal investigators were looking into whether a bank he was affiliated with had financial ties to the mob, he was considered to have a sort of “get-out-of-jail-free card” that put a halt to the probe, one former federal prosecutor told the AP last year.
Indeed, Azima is comfortable in rarified circles, close to billionaire businesspeople and powerful politicians. FEC filings show he has contributed generously to both Democratic and Republican candidates, but particularly to Bill and Hillary Clinton. In 1999, the Washington Post reported that Azima had promised to donate at least $1 million toward Bill Clinton’s presidential library. He also has donated at least $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation, according to its website, and he has hosted Hillary Clinton “many times” at his home for high-dollar fundraisers, according to the Star.
At the time of Azadeh’s arrest, HeavyLift was working openly with the Defense Department “to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq,” according to Azadeh’s declaration in her D.C. court case against the Iranian government. Azadeh says she told her captors that HeavyLift supplied troops with foodstuffs; IRGC agents, she says, instead claimed the company was fomenting revolution on behalf of the CIA. (A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on HeavyLift’s contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
But in a 2012 email sent while she was under house arrest in Tehran, Azadeh told Azima that the IRGC appeared to have placed him under broad surveillance. And the year before, outside his work with the U.S. government, Azima had done significant business with three Iranians who later were identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as working on behalf of Iran. It was a complicated relationship that ran hot and cold, and was centered on Azima brokering the sale of a Tbilisi, Georgia, hotel from a United Arab Emirates sheikhdom to the three Iranians. The deal soured before Azadeh’s arrest, landed Azima in legal battle with the sheikhdom, which he alleges is responsible for hacking his emails, and eventually attracted the scrutiny of federal U.S. investigators.
Yet those leaked emails, independently located online and downloaded by Politico Magazine, indicate that Azima’s interactions with the Iranians did not end after the hotel deal. (Azima’s own lawsuit in the D.C. federal court repeatedly refers to the emails as “stolen data,” without questioning their validity.) In fact, Azima’s interactions with some of the Iranians appear to resume after the failed deal, and stretched much further into the present—including after U.S. federal prosecutors had claimed the three men masterminded a billion-dollar international money-laundering and sanctions evasion scheme; and after the Treasury Department had sanctioned the three Iranians as agents of the Iranian regime.
Azima’s relationship with the Iranians dates to 2011. That year, the Dubai- and Tbilisi-based businessmen—Houshang Farsoudeh, Houshang Hosseinpour and Pourya Nayebi—seemed to materialize out of the ether, with tens of millions of dollars to invest. They bought up land, a bank, an airline and a shipping company, and founded a money-exchange business and an oil trading business, all in the nation of Georgia alone, according to reporting and congressional testimony by Emanuele Ottolenghi, an illicit finance expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. The three Iranians’ conspicuous activities there appeared to arouse the attention of Treasury Department investigators, who, according to a June 2013 Wall Street Journal article, traveled to that country multiple times to look into the Iranians’ businesses. (That article was co-authored by reporter Jay Solomon, who was fired from the Journal last year for what the newspaper said were ethical lapses in his dealings with Azima as a source. Solomon, who denied engaging in business with Azima as an AP story had suggested, has said that Azima fed him key information about the three Iranians, which Azima’s leaked emails corroborate.)
The three Iranians’ dealings were far more extensive than Georgia, however. In 2015, a report from Sayari Analytics, an American investigative firm specializing in financial risk, identified 263 business entities and 148 individuals from more than a dozen countries, including the United States, with ties to what Sayari calls the “Nayebi Network.” None of these entities was listed by the Treasury Department in February 2014, when the department sanctioned the three Iranians and eight companies associated with them, for helping Iran to avoid economic sanctions.
And then there are the Iranian trio’s dealings with Kenneth Zong. The three businessmen were accused of conspiring to undertake a fraudulent scheme over the course of 2011 and 2012—with Zong, a Korean-American, working as the Seoul-based intermediary—that freed more than $1 billion in restricted Iranian funds from South Korean state-owned banks, and involved bribing South Korean state banking officials along the way. The three Iranians were named in Zong’s 2014 civil forfeiture case, and individuals matching their description are referred to as unindicted co-conspirators in Zong’s 2016 indictment; Zong is currently serving a prison sentence in South Korea, where he was separately charged.
Reached by phone, Nayebi denied working on behalf of the Iranian government. He also said that he and his partners’ transactions with Zong were carried out according to “the basis of law at the time,” and declined to comment further on his business with Zong. Nayebi also denies any links to Azadeh’s imprisonment; he says Azadeh was jailed because of her connections to Azima and Azima’s potential connections, in turn, to the CIA. Hosseinpour did not respond to repeated requests for comment; Farsoudeh could not be reached for comment.
When the Iranians first connected with Azima in the fall of 2011, relations were chummy. Azima introduced them to the UAE sheikdom Ras al-Khaimah (RAK), with which he had “an extensive history of commercial dealings,” according to a 2017 memorandum from Azima’s legal team filed in a D.C. federal court. The filings also say RAK’s ruler was Azima’s guest at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2011, and Azima arranged for the sheik to become a CGI member. Azima even hosted an October 2011 meeting between Hosseinpour and Farsoudeh at the ruler’s palace to discuss the hotel deal, according to the same court documents.
According to Azima’s prior public statements, U.K. court filings and emails contained in the leaked cache, the Iranians paid a $20 million deposit to RAK for the Sheraton hotel, in a deal initially brokered by Azima. Azima eventually exited the deal. In the past, he has maintained that after checking with the State Department, he withdrew in late 2011 due to concerns about the Iranians’ activities. Solomon, who declined to comment for this article beyond what he has written about the topic, has said that Azima told him he withdrew because he learned the three Iranians were connected to the IRGC, which Solomon’s own diplomatic and intelligence sources confirmed to him. The deal, in any case, was never completed, collapsing altogether by 2013.
Azima is still dealing with the fallout today. RAK sued him in a U.K. court in 2016, accusing him of taking a “secret commission” for the sale of the hotel, and of bribing a senior RAK official in connection with the deal; Azima denies those allegations, and the case is ongoing. And since 2016, Azima’s lawyers have been in legal proceedings against RAK in Washington, claiming that RAK agents hacked Azima’s emails and text messages and subsequently posted them online. In its July 2017 feature about Azima, the AP also reported that federal investigators had examined whether his role in the original Sheraton sale had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits the bribery of foreign officials. The Justice Department declined to comment on the status of any investigation into Azima. But in response to queries about the three Iranians, Azima and the Sheraton deal, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi referred in a March 2018 email to an “ongoing investigation” that the embassy could not comment on “after consult[ing] with our law enforcement colleagues.”
Azima’s business with the three Iranians went beyond the hotel deal. According to more leaked emails and affidavits contained within them, in October 2011, the Iranians entered into a deal with Azima to buy 40 percent of the shares in HeavyLift, the UAE-based cargo airline owned by Azima and RAK, for $1.5 million. Azima, however, received $500,000 less than what the Iranians had agreed to pay for their share in the airline, and the deal does not appear to have been completed. The emails also show that, in December 2011, Azima agreed to sell Hosseinpour a $600,000 share in his yacht, which was then berthed in the French Mediterranean. (Hosseinpour moved it to a posh marina in Dubai; according to a December 2012 email Azadeh sent to Azima, the Iranians wanted the boat close to the UAE prime minister’s son’s yacht.) Hosseinpour paid for the shipping costs to bring the boat to the UAE, but then appeared to fail to actually buy the boat, though the Iranians continued to use it, according to Azima’s emails and affidavits.
Both Farsoudeh and Hosseinpour, whom Nayebi told me are no longer his partners, were “cheated” by Azima regarding the yacht, Nayebi says. He also says that Azima and RAK, whom he calls “the robbers”—conspired to defraud him on a number of business deals, including for the Sheraton. “All the sides tried to rob us, to take our money,” he told me.
In any case, by early 2012, Azima’s own patience was wearing thin. “You have made certain commitments,” Azima wrote to Hosseinpour and Farsoudeh in February of that year, “yet have not honored any of your words. … You wasted 100 days of my time. … You asked me to get the Airline established in Georgia. … You asked me to buy a privet [sic] Jet. … You formed a company [in the British Virgin Islands, which was at one point supposed to buy the hotel in Georgia] and didn’t pay the legal fees. … Is this the way to do business?” In the email, Azima wrote that he made a half-dozen trips to Georgia, Britain and the UAE to assist with transactions on the Iranians’ behalf, all on his own dime. To add insult to injury, he wrote, the three men still had not paid him for their share of his boat.
After this email, relations between Azima and the three Iranians appear to have entered a deep chill.
It was less than four months later that Azadeh found herself speeding through the streets of Tehran, blindfolded, disoriented and accused of being a spy.
The bright blue light in Azadeh’s tiny concrete cell was never turned off. There was a filthy rug, swarming with biting insects, and nothing else; no toilet, no bed, no chair. The interrogations, Azadeh says in court documents, had already begun. “We have enough documents to keep you here 10 years,” the guard told her. “And if we prove you are a spy, we will execute you.” She claims she was interrogated for up to 12 hours a day, every day, for the first six weeks of her captivity.
Once, she says, they made her sit tied to a chair, facing the wall; if her interrogator was displeased by her answer to their queries, they kicked the chair, slamming her face against the concrete. Another time, they made her stand for hours, whipping her when her knees buckled. She was pushed, blindfolded, down a flight of stairs.