Last week The Wall Street Journal fired its chief foreign-affairs correspondent, Jay Solomon, after the Associated Press published a story claiming that Solomon may have gotten too close to one of his sources. The AP story, reported widely, alleges that the Journal reporter may have entered into a business partnership with an Iranian-born U.S. businessman and arms dealer named Farhad Azima. I spoke with Solomon earlier this week in Washington, where we are neighbors. He appeared haggard, worried for his reputation and distraught to leave an institution where he worked for nearly a quarter of a century—“basically my first job after college,” he said sadly. “I loved what I did, which was basically watching the world.”
Solomon’s forlorn mood suggests that Azima is a poor judge of prospective talent for the kind of work that typically requires the sensibility of a cold-eyed sociopath. If Jay Solomon is really in the arms trade, it’s not clear to me why he would be upset about losing a job in a dying industry that pays stars like him less than what a competent weapons smuggler can make on commission for a minor deal.
So, how did Solomon land in this mess? A big part of the answer is Farhad Azima, a man who by all accounts makes friends easily and does lavish favors for them, and who also has no shortage of enemies, mostly his former business partners. A donor to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s political campaigns and a contributor to the Clinton Foundation, Azima has frequently won contracts from the U.S. government, including, he acknowledges, the CIA. He’s believed to have supplied planes that shipped arms as part of the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1991, Azima’s planes ferried arms to Croatia during the middle of the Balkan wars. Other recent contracts involved supporting U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. Azima also appears to have worked with American adversaries, including sanctions-busting businessmen doing the bidding of the Iranian regime. (His standard comment is as he was quoted in the Kansas City Star: “There’s a lot of bullshit in the press,” he said. “If you Google, you see a lot of whatever you want.”)
No doubt it was someone looking to embarrass Azima, maybe an angry business partner, who hacked his electronic communications sometime last fall and posted his files on the internet. Azima’s emails, texts, WhatsApp messages, photographs, videos, etc., reveal his extensive contacts in the interconnected worlds of politics, business, and journalism in the United States and around the world. The hacked Azima dossier has been the talk of Washington journalistic and think-tank circles for several months now, but it wasn’t until last week that it drew blood when it brought down Solomon, who made his own share of enemies abroad and at home with his hard-edged reporting on the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran.
The author of The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret deals that Reshaped the Middle East, a well-received book documenting U.S.-Iran relations, Solomon often portrayed administration figures like Secretary of State John Kerry as witless dupes of an obscurantist regime. Solomon’s article from last year showing that the Obama team sent cash to the Iranians in exchange for several Americans held by the regime left plenty of egg on the outgoing administration’s face. The story helped win The Wall Street Journal a National Press Club award last week for its Iran coverage. The paper has declined the award, and announced that it is reviewing hundreds of Solomon’s articles—presumably those focusing on Iran.
The hacked media, written communications, and photographs, which include correspondence with Solomon, are said to suggest a cozy relationship between a reporter and a source who spent plenty of time together in Europe, where Solomon was often reporting Kerry’s travels through European capitals. Azima owned a yacht, often docked in the south of France or Monaco, where he hosted Solomon a few times. “It’s a nice yacht,” said a source who knows Azima and his milieu. (Like most of the others quoted in this article, the source requested anonymity to speak candidly about a colleague in the business.) “Not really a James Bond scene, not really a harem. Interesting people—Adnan Khashoggi, Manucher Ghorbanifar.” That is, other Middle Eastern arms-dealing Iran-Contra middlemen, like Azima.
“Solomon knew Azima had a murky history,” said a Washington, D.C.-based press colleague who acknowledges that Solomon was not the only journalist who hung around Azima. When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in Vienna in July 2015, Azima was there, too, hosting journalists from lots of major Western press outlets at a big dinner.
“Azima was with some really rich Austrian guy we all just assumed was Austrian intelligence,” the press colleague remembers. “As a journalist, the most interesting characters are the guys who have murky histories. You think it’s fun to go talk to Dennis Ross every day? I mean, he’s a smart guy, but you can go read his book or his tens of thousands of articles. As a journalist, you’re interested in people who understand both sides.”
Azima has a history of playing—or appearing to play—both sides. Solomon first encountered him in 2012 when he contacted him for a story he was writing about how the Iranians were using business deals and middlemen in the former Soviet republic of Georgia to evade sanctions. Colleagues of Solomon say it was this story that drew him into Azima’s orbit, once he helped illuminate the enormous infrastructure that Iran had built to escape sanctions.
For the story, Solomon cold-called Azima about a deal for a hotel in Tblisi, which three Iranian nationals had tried to buy in 2011 from Ras al Khaima, one of the United Arab Emirates. Azima was brokering the deal until, as Azima tells it, the Treasury Department gave him information that made him “feel uncomfortable” about his Iranian partners. However, it’s nearly certain it was Azima who sold out the Iranians—Houshang Hosseinpour, Pourya Nayebi, and Houshang Farsoudeh—to the United States and, according to sources, likely to Israel, too.
“Azima is a problematic guy,” said one Washington, D.C., Middle East analyst, “but no one ever waved Solomon off him on this story. In fact, the idea was that he was working with the U.S. to roll up the three Iranians.” And indeed in 2014, the Treasury Department designated Azima’s former partners for helping Iran evade sanctions. “They never sanctioned Azima,” said the analyst. “He wasn’t part of the target.”
Azima knew lots of bad Iranians, though. “He’s from there,” said one Washington, D.C., foreign-affairs journalist. “He moved to the U.S. in the 1960s for college and married a Midwestern woman. He’s got one daughter in New York and another in Kansas City, where he lives. It’s a strange life going back and forth between Kansas and then Monaco and Cannes. And where do you think rich Iranians spend their summers? In the south of France, Geneva. Lots of Iranians, regime guys, keep their money parked in Geneva. These are some of the people who Azima hangs around with—rich, cosmopolitan, suave, cultured. The guys in Georgia are the Iranians in shitty Italian suits. They’re fronts for someone else’s money—these guys are the real money people.”
The hacked communications show that Azima offered Solomon a 10 percent stake in one of his companies. Emails from Azima requested Solomon’s Social Security number for tax purposes—suggesting that Azima or one of his companies was preparing to pay Solomon for some service. In another email, Azima asked Solomon to relay to a United Arab Emirates official a $725 million proposal for a spying operation against Iran. “We all wish best of luck to Jay on his first defense sale,” Azima wrote to Solomon and two of Azima’s business partners. In a different context, Solomon writes to the arms dealer, “Our business opportunities are so promising.”
In a statement released after he was fired, Solomon said that he never entered a business partnership with Azima, and never had any intention of doing so. The AP says there is no evidence that Solomon signed any agreement with Azima, filled out a Social Security form for his enterprise, or ever received any money from the businessman.
Solomon may indeed, as the insinuating coverage wants us to believe, have tried to seize the main chance and sign on with Azima, but I don’t buy it. “Jay is like a little kid,” said one Washington hostess who knows Solomon well. “He’s easily distracted.”
That’s my impression as well. Solomon has the typical habits of the Washington set, like breaking off mid-conversation with an interlocutor to scroll through his smartphone no matter how trivial the communication might be. He has a reputation for being meticulous in his work, especially in sourcing his stories, but often spacey when it comes to relations outside the office. Like most journalists in town, he’s primarily interested in the stories he’s working on—sports is one of the few exceptions, especially basketball. He’s also a lifelong fan of Steve Kerr, former NBA guard and the Golden State Warriors’ coach, who coached Solomon’s youth-league team in California.
The Beirut-born Kerr was, in a sense, Solomon’s introduction to the Middle East, where Kerr’s father, Malcolm, was head of the American University of Beirut. In 1984, the elder Kerr was assassinated on the AUB campus by Hezbollah, an arm of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which would become one of Solomon’s main subjects. Had Solomon forgotten how dangerous the Iranians are, and got too close to people affiliated with the same regime?
Speaking to Solomon, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t have visited Azima on the yacht. I recalled that I’d been to Adnan Khashoggi’s spectacular Manhattan apartment for a party in the mid-1990s that ended for me when I overzealously clapped the Saudi arms dealer on the back, to the consternation of his bodyguards. Would I have gone back had I been invited? There were interesting people at that apartment, with lots of good stories to tell.
Was Solomon too attracted to shiny things? A yacht, a powerful source who became a friend, and women on a yacht in bikinis? Sure. But that seems to be more a theme for his shrink than it is a question of journalistic ethics. The son of the late diplomat Richard Solomon, a China specialist who was chosen by Henry Kissinger to lead America’s ping-pong diplomacy in Nixon’s 1972 opening with Beijing, Solomon was surely intrigued by Azima and knew exactly what he had to offer. However, the theory that holds Solomon crossed the line and joined forces with the arms merchant takes it further. Azima, in this reading, was the younger Solomon’s escort, taking him to his proper seat on the international stage, not as an observer and recorder of great events but as a mover himself, a baller—with money, women, power, and good suits.
So is that why The Wall Street Journal fired him? When I contacted the Journal for comment, spokesman Steve Severinghaus emailed me the statement the paper released the day it fired Solomon. “We are dismayed by the actions and poor judgment of Jay Solomon,” the release stated. “While our own investigation continues, we have concluded that Mr. Solomon violated his ethical obligations as a reporter, as well as our standards.”
A source familiar with the Journal’s deliberations told me that the paper has known since at least December of the correspondence between Azima and Solomon. According to the source, Solomon told management at the time that he had never signed any agreement with Azima and was not in business with him.
So why did the Journal cashier Solomon last week? If the paper was dismayed by its employee’s actions, why didn’t it get rid of him six months ago? There is as yet no evidence that Solomon was really in business with Azima, or wouldn’t the AP have published proof of its allegations? The Journal’s spokesman did not reply to a request that he confirm or deny that the newspaper has known for several months or more that Solomon’s name and communications appeared in the Azima dossier.
Absent any proof of actual wrongdoing, Solomon’s firing looks less like the juicy arms-running scandal that the AP touted and more like further evidence of a press in free-fall. It’s a story not just about a reporter who may have gotten too friendly with a source, but also about a wire service that didn’t have the goods, or sat on them, before it published a story toppling another journalist’s career—and then published the story anyway. And then there’s the problems at Solomon’s former home. As one senior D.C. reporter told me recently, “lots of Journal reporters want to join the anti-Trump resistance but they can’t do that because the editorial board thinks the Trump Russia narrative is absurd, as does the readership.” Solomon’s firing leaves the wobbling paper with a big hole to fill.
Plenty of Solomon’s colleagues in the media and think-tank community, many of whom also know Azima, are convinced that while lines taken from the journalist’s hacked communications may make him look bad, Solomon’s emails would stack up quite well against the private communications of the usual Beltway media crowd, which would show them as shameless supplicants who print press releases from people in power—without getting invited on anyone’s yacht. “Solomon was punished for what journalists are supposed to do,” said one foreign-policy hand. “And that’s cultivate sources in strange places, which means some of them are going to be unpleasant or even dangerous people.”
The policy analyst compares Solomon’s shoe-leather ethos to that of the “echo chamber”—the national-security and foreign-affairs cohort that sat at their desks and effectively served as an amplifier and validator for the Obama administration’s foreign policy. “These journalists didn’t have to cultivate actual sources because they were being spoon-fed stories from the West Wing of the White House,” says the policy analyst. “And that’s why Solomon’s reporting stood out. Because it was real.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.