International Policy Digest

Business /19 Oct 2019

A Murky Cloud Surrounds the Claims of Farhad Azima

One thing is clear about Iranian-American businessman Farhad Azima: he loves planes.

How else to explain the garden decor of Azima’s home in a wealthy suburb of Kansas City, which until recently featured a Concorde nose encased in a giant glass box?

Planes appear to be the only constant in Azima’s life. Having stumbled across the former big money donor to the Clinton political dynasty while researching Iranian state cyberattacks against U.S. government officials, journalists, and Iran-U.S. dual nationals, it is hard to discern through the murk just where the dual national’s loyalty lies.

Is Azima the good friend to the U.S. government described by former Wall Street Journal correspondent Jay Solomon, the one who helped elucidate a vital sanctions-busting network established by Iranian businessmen Houshang Hosseinpour, Pourya Nayebi, and Houshang Farsoudeh? Or is Azima the crafty middleman who used the three sanctioned Iranians to profit in a series of deals brokered with a man named Khater Massaad, the convicted (in absentia) former head of the Ras-al-Khaimah investment authority?

It is Azima’s relationship with Massaad that has landed the aviation magnate in front of the High Court in the United Kingdom, where Ras-al-Khaimah is seeking to recoup a settlement it gave one of Azima’s companies – HeavyLift International – in the wake of a failed joint venture signed by Massaad. The Emirate says Azima failed to behave responsibly in their dealings, a claim Azima disputes despite a trove of leaked information appearing to confirm the Emirate’s view. Azima says the Emirate is relying on leaked personal information he says was altered (Azima has not provided proof of that claim) and is trying to have the leaked material excluded in court.

The hacking of Azima’s accounts – which occurred during a wave of Iranian cyberattacks in the autumn of 2015, following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the Obama administration and the moderate Rouhani government, has certainly impacted the businessman’s finances. In his court claim, the millionaire Azima claims to have made only $71,000 in the year following the release of his personal information.

A lack of money and the need to fund a court case against a wealthy Emirate could explain why Azima recently sold his beloved Concorde nose cone for $300,000. One certainly imagines Azima’s lawyer, Kirby Behre of the American firm Miller & Chevalier, comes with a hefty retainer. Nor is it the only legal action Azima has funded with Behre and Miller & Chevalier; the firm represented Azima’s employee, Afsaneh Azadeh, in her successful lawsuit against the Iranian regime, who Azadeh claimed was behind her 2012 detention and subsequent torture in the notorious Evin prison. For their part, the Iranians accused Azadeh and Azima’s company, Heavylift, of which Azadeh was an employee, of being a CIA front (a hardly unusual claim in the case of dual Iranian-U.S. nationals detained in Iran).

Regardless, the detention by Iran of a key Azima employee following the souring of business deals between Azima and Hosseinpour, Nayebi, and Farsoudeh – i.e. the three Iranian sanction-busters – is another argument for the Iranian regime to be behind the leak of Azima’s personal information. And yet, Azima persists in saying it was the Emirate and a paltry $2.6 million settlement that is to blame.

According to her court filing, Azadeh was finally able to depart Iran in May 2013 after unexpectedly being granted a passport, a mere month before Azima’s contributions to the reporting of the WSJ’s Solomon landed the three Iranian businessmen on the front pages, reporting that led to the February 2014 decision by the U.S. State Department to place the men on the sanctions list. Action, reaction? Or merely a coincidence?

The back and forth about who is ultimately responsible for the leak of information will not, however, impact the case now before the High Court on the question of fraud. Judge Phillip Kramer has stayed the hacking claim until after the expected 3-week fraud case is resolved between Azima and the Emirate.

Hacks and courts are a long way from the friendly skies. Farhad Azima must only dream of the open blue sky as his businesses continue to struggle in the wake of his long-running legal dispute with a former friend.