Iran To Undermine Elections in Kurdistan With Help from Ex-Obama Staffers

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The Iraqi elections taking place in May now come with a twist.

Within the last few days, several people in the Jewish social circles in New York have received curious and urgent invitations to go to Iraqi Kurdistan as “journalist-like” election observers. The invitation originated with a group called the Six Point Strategies and read as follows:


Six Point Strategies is excited for the opportunity next month to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan. The trip will be for the purpose of observing Iraqi elections in Kurdistan as well as reaching out and meeting involved groups. We will be flying into Sulimaniyah from either Doha or Jordan, and we will have lots of meetings with foreign policy experts, consulate staff, and travel to Erbil and  Sulimaniyah. On May12th, we will be spending the day observing the elections going on around Northern Iraq/Kurdistan in a journalist-like role. We are excited and grateful that many great people will be joining us for the trip, including some who have previously filmed and  documented across the world with the likes of Vice news, CNN, NBC, Al-Jazeera and Thrive Global. We are also looking forward to many young reporters and students joining us. Since the referendum vote in October, the Kurds have ironically received less autonomy from the Iraqi central government. Wages have been unpaid by both the KDP and the PUK, and there is a lot of anger towards the KRG and Barzani as a result. The trip will present an opportunity to hear from many sides and perspectives, meet with tribal leaders, and really develop a greater understanding of the region and a part of the world that not many people get to experience. Travel to and from, as well as five-star 
accommodations, security and transport in-between Kurdish areas will be covered for those accepted into the trip. Six Point Strategies has been tasked with putting together this group of election observers, and the trip itself is being sponsored by the only independent media station in all of Kurdistan, NRT, which has channels in English, Arabic, and Kurdish. – The dates of the trip are May 7th-13th. – The trip will include airfare, hotel accommodation and transportation.

There is no further information.

Several omissions immediately raise red flags.

There is no explanation who or what Six Point Strategies is.
There are no details about the airline or the hotel.
There are no details about expectations, duties, or locations of the election observers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Erbil, much less all of Kurdistan, would have enough five star hotels to accomodate all the election observers.
There is description of any training process.
No language skills or experience or knowledge of Kurdistan or political science or local regulations seems to be required.
The only requirement seems to be an urgent response and a $250 deposit.
The cultural exchange element is not usually present in election observer duties.
There is no breakdown of participating parties.
There is no point of contact.
There are no details on the “involved groups” – after all, aren’t election observers supposed to be neutral?
The fact that Doha or Amman could be involved did not in itself bode well…. even less clear was where the group would gather and how they would get to either destination. Nor was it clear at what point everyone would be notified about the route. And mentioning that they have worked with Al Jazeera is not necessarily a compliment. It assumes that Al Jazeera is a legitimate and neutral channel, which it is not.
All of that was suspicious enough, but the claim that NRT, organizing the trip, is the “only independent media station” in all of Kurdistan seemed prima facie disingenuous and misleading. Indeed, further investigation yielded the expected outcome: not one of the organizers of this adventure – or adventurist mission – is neutral. The middleman, the Six Point Strategies, is a political consulting agency consisting of a gathering of former Obama staffers, led by the pragmatic Cameron Erickson, who, having seen the errors of Hillary Clinton’s ways, is seeking to embrace the white identitarian populist message in an attempt to take back the part of the Democratic base Donald Trump has wooed away in 2016. The former owner of NRT is a wealthy Kurdish businesman named Shaswar Abdulwahid. Shaswar Abdulwahid was one of the very few public figures in the region who openly came out against the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017. He lobbied against it publicly.

He is also precariously close to Iran, Russia, and Baghdad’s own former PM Al-Maliki, notorious for his rabble-rousing and anti-Kurdish comments. In fact, he praised Iran as the only country effecitvely fighting ISIS. Abdulwahid may be running a candidate in this election. Having divested himself from the stakes in the medium, Abdulwahid founded the New Generational Movement, supposedly critical of KRG and PUK for their undemocratic response to protests that have swept Erbil, Suleimaniya, and other Kurdish cities after the post-referendum crackdown by Baghdad, demanding unpaid wages. The truth is, of course, that the wages were withheld by the government, and the protests aimed at KRG, rather than Baghdad, could not have accomplished anything other than further damaging the weakened authorities, destabilizing the situation, and further playing into the hands of Iran and Baghdad.

KRG may have overreacted to the protests having arrested and briefly imprisoned many people, including Abdulwahid; however, the protests were violent – cars were burned, people were injured, havoc was wreaked, and mass violence had to be subdued. NRT reflects this perspective with articles which do not attempt to address the violence inherent to the protests or the Baghdad led repression.The perspective, which is critical of KRG and PUK, fails to account for contributions of external pressure or other elements to the situation, and further, draws skepticism as to credibility of this perspective by claiming that the KRG government is on the verge of collapse. Failing to address issues with Baghdad or to provide a viable vision for the future which would address the interests of Kurdish nationalists casts further shadow on the supposed independence of this network – and this is just what can be gleaned from the English-language version of one of its sites.

NRT’s platform, even after Abdulwahid’s desparture, seems less than neutral. For instance, recently it has made recommendations about Iraq becoming a peaceful country and cites to its earlier year of cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity, harkening back to the golden years of the 1920s. The only group it conveniently lives out of this idyllic description, is the Jews, which comprised up to 40% of Baghdad around that time, and also had a considerable population inside Kurdistan. They, however, are not mentioned at all in the description of the halcyon era of diversity. Abdulwahid, back in the day when he was still the owner of the station, was often accused of corruption and of failing to pay the workers at Chavi Land, a tourist project that he owns. The aim of NRT was supposedly to provide completely independent neutral, and professional news. However, critics accused NRT of promoting propaganda, that ran counter to Kurdish interests and of spreading fake news against the KRG.

According to some Kurdish sources, NRT is now based in Ankara and is receiving support from the US government. That supports the claim made by the distributors of the above-mentioned “Memo” that the trip is being coordinated with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. It’s unclear why or how DHS would be involved in organizing trips; however, what is not out of the question is that some members of the State Department and other agencies would be lending backing to NRT with this and other members, if they are in general in pursuit of a pro-Iran agenda, that would seek to undermine the independence of the upcoming elections, particularly in Kurdistan, which, with the exception of PUK, is largely suspicious of Iran. Indeed, according to recent assessments, most pro-Iran officials are still haunting the State Department.

Indeed, in light of some of these questionable aspects of the station, the description of the trip appears to be at best deceptive. The real agenda of the trip is hiding in plain sight, yet the recruiters appear to be counting on the naivete, inexperience, and ignorance of the target audience, which largely consists of young, Jewish men and women with good intentions and curiosity about the world, many with elite education, but also a bubble mentality, failure to do due diligence in light of the excitement of the “free lunch” trip, and no real access to Kurds who could have given them a briefing on the issues on the ground. Indeed, anyone who agrees to join this trip without doing basic research (and thus finding out that the trip has an obvious agenda) is likely the type of person the recruiters are seeking: a follower, who fails to be skeptical about important issues (such as going to a foreign country with no language skills or deep knowledge of that country, all based on rumors about the alleged US government backing and a vague but exciting description).

Likewise, the organizers are counting on such people knowing next to nothing about Kurdistan, much less about the quality of other media networks. Indeed, how many of the recruits will actually take the time to verify whether all of the other media conglomerates in Kurdistan are government affiliated, and whether NRT is truly independent? The ideal recruit will speak no Kurdish dialects and no Arabic, and will not take a look even at the English language articles that are available, or fail to derive meaning from reading them even if prompted. The ideal candidate will ask no questions about the examples of the channel’s (and the middleman’s) previous work, such as Al Jazeera, nor seek to examine those specific episodes. The ideal candidate will not ask about sources of funding for this channel, security during the trip, or the value of this work. The candidate will not have experience or background in civil society training, but will be longing for a free trip, and an adventure with a moral twist. In other words, the ideal candidate for such a task is a feel-good virtue signaler who wishes to make the world a better place at no cost to himself.

The fact that every person who appears to be targeted by this campaign seems to fit this profile – a well-meaning but gullible, perhaps deliberately so – person suggests that profiling was a large part of this approach, and that the consultants hired to do the job had long since figured out the correct approach to finding the ideal people. There is something sinister about designing a scheme, which sounds increasingly more like an elaborate con to draw in assets. Indeed, if it walks like a duck, it just might be a dog. This entire experiment sounds like nothing more or less than the work of a foreign intelligence entity seeking easy pawns to spread its ideological line through propaganda. This approach is nothing new. The Soviet Union, and indeed, most other professional intelligence agencies, particularly those adversarial to U S interests, use deceptive elaborately set up approach to draw in easy bait.

The approach gets increasingly sophisticated when the bait is expected to perform increasingly complex tasks on the part of the handlers. But at the starting level, inviting future assets to foreign countries for free trips with vaguely defined responsibilities and broad promises is quite sufficient. The recruits will likely be people with large egos, and perhaps, financial problems or other personal issues. They will either be out of jobs or students, free to travel on a short notice. Some will be retired, or free lancing with flexibility. But all of them will feel excited to be offered such an opportunity, which is designed to seem meaningful, important, and most importantly unique. It is designed to appear to their egos, as well as pockets.

These people, lacking basic knowledge of Kurdistan, are suddenly being invited into the inner circles, to mingle with party officials and candidates informally, and get to know all the important actors – all for free, and in the course of doing very little, while saving the world and democracy! Now, one may ask oneself, why would people with no real credentials – completely random young men and women – be asked out of the blue to be election observers? The truth is, somebody had already profiled them, however, vaguely to be the type of person interested in such an opportunity. In turn, the job of the new recruits is to find others. The key to a successful recruit of gullible bait is to make it sound urgent and important and to put pressure on the would-be assets to make a decision quickly.

That way, they have no time to rethink and furthermore, feel guilty about refusing or changing their minds. Upon arriving at their destination (if it even happens the way the expect), the recruits may find themselves being courted with mild and politely worded “asks” to spin the trip a certain way, for instance, or to target other people for future events and missions. They will not make much of it; such a development will seem natural, and they will even want to help out more than what they are asked, out of a feeling of obligation from being presented with such an opportunity all for free, and for having their talents be recognized, and now having bragging rights about an unusual and meaningful experience that their peers, who might otherwise be more successful, don’t get to have. The fact that they are actually spreading foreign government propaganda may never occur to them. Indeed, what can be expected from youths when far more senior people have fallen for the same – or substantially similar trick – very recently.

If anything about this scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it was done before – by Qatar, and again with Jews. Doha targeted largely conservative pro-Israel and mostly Orthodox Jewish community leaders in an influence campaign designed to grant Qatar badly needed social and political validation, influence the Trump administration’s reception of its claims, and to damage its regional rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE. Respected figures such as Alan Dershowitz, had accepted free trips to Doha (here’s the financial perk), with access to high level officials including the Emir (made to feel important), and also an element of exclusivity (other similarly situated social influences were pointedly not invited). They then because media cause celebre for a while, getting to pen articles about their important experience and paradigmatic shifts, while also venting against the eye-opening meetings that suddenly made them realize how Qatar is wonderful and its enemies are terrible.

Some even got additional perks later. Dershowitz, for instance, is now teaching at a university in Doha, fully assured that he is doing it out of the best of intentions, and therefore, there is nothing wrong with it. Having gotten close to President Trump, he may even be advising him on some of these very issues. In short, the current recruitment operation is a junior varsity version of the influence campaign aimed at the far more influential Jews, which had worked spectacularly in Qatar’s favor, causing a significant rift within the Jewish community, and also leaving Qatar’s regional rivals in the dust. In this case, the would-be victims of the upcoming attacks are not Saudi Arabia and UAE, but KRG and PUK, Kurdish parties.

It is clearly that part of the trip is intended to bad-mouth them. The description of the event sets them up for one-sided criticism from the start. Who is the beneficiary of this effort? Not the Kurdish people, but all of their enemies. An average Kurd, may, if pressured, admit to dissatisfaction with various issues with the government, but will still choose it any day of the week over Baghdad or assorted foreign entities. However, the do-gooders are likely not interested in such nuance. The playbook is all too familiar, and the fact that Jews are being seen as either bait, is disturbing on too many levels to count. Indeed, the Six Point Strategies personnel is overwhelmingly Jewish or seen as pro-Israel, just as Nick Muzin and other Jewish actors connected to the Qatar outreach effort are. That makes the whole thing even more cynical and deplorable.

But if something worked once, why should it not work again? As for Qatar, it may not be directly involved in the majority of the heavily lifting here, but the references here indicate that it is likely supportive of this effort, and may even be cooperating and coordinating on a certain level. Not one mind out of the ones who had already agreed to partake in the trip is likely to be changed by this missive, for the simple reason that people are stubborn, do not likely to admit to being wrong, and likely do not want to part with the fantasy of going on this amazing vacation. However, those who have not yet been taken in or even approached may benefit from the age-old adage: “Forewarned is forearmed’. And they should be forewarned that instead of saving the elections in Kurdistan, they will likely be undermining them.

Acerca de Irina Tsukerman

Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.

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