TEHRAN â€" Iranian legislators questioned Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about why he had shaken hands last month with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The gesture was viewed by many as another positive sign of Iran's thawing relations with the West, but has irritated the country's conservatives opposed to improved ties with the United States. Indeed, after decades between Tehran and Washington, some hardliners have called for Zarif's resignation in the wake of the Obama handshake.
But in the Tuesday hearing, Zarif told the chamber's national security committee that his handshake hadn't really been meant for him, because President Obama had actually sought to shake hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the reformist daily Aftab-e Yazd reported, citing the semi-official ISNA agency.
Zarif was being questioned Tuesday, ahead of parliament's preliminary approval of Iran's nuclear pact with the West, against the bitter opposition of a conservative minority.
The country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently declared that beyond the accord, Iran should not negotiate anything with the Americans, effectively fueling conservative opposition to any rapprochement.
Zarif said President Obama "seemed to be planning to shake hands not with me, but with President Rouhani," following a General Assembly session in late September.
"So my shaking hands with the U.S. president was coincidental, but the Americans had plans to face the Iranian president, which of course didn't happen," the foreign minister said. "What I did was in keeping with Islamic courtesy. Mr Obama came toward me and extended his hand, and it all took about a minute."
Al Monitor has reported that the Iranian delegation specifically avoided having Rouhani anywhere near Obama during the UN meetings to be sure no presidential greeting might occur.
The questioning of Zarif was relatively mild compared to the rowdy parliamentary session on Oct. 11, when one MP hardliner threatened to kill one of Iran's nuclear negotiators and head of the Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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