GOP Demands Probe into Iranian Influence Operation Linked to Biden Negotiator Robert Malley

Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA (Joi

Republicans in both the House and Senate on Tuesday called for an investigation of the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), an alleged Tehran-backed influence operation believed to have placed several of its protégés in the Biden administration, including officials close to Iran envoy Robert Malley.

The calls were prompted by a report at Semafor on Tuesday that claimed to describe how the Iranian Foreign Ministry created the IEI in the spring of 2014, with an eye towards improving “Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues — particularly its nuclear program.”

Semafor and Iran International, a dissident Iranian media operation headquartered in London, obtained a “large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails” that reportedly showed Iranian officials congratulating each other on the effectiveness of the IEI in influencing U.S. policy. 

“The communications reveal the access Rouhani’s diplomats have had to Washington’s and Europe’s policy circles, particularly during the final years of the Obama administration, through this network,” Semafor alleged. 

In this photo released by the official website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani attends a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Iran has been the hardest hit country by the new coronavirus in the Middle East. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, on March 18, 2020.  (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)

However bad that might sound, the details, if true, were worse, as Iran was accused of pulling the strings of numerous American and European officials under the watchful eye of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — the leader almost universally hailed as a “moderate” and “reformer” by American media outlets friendly to the Obama administration:

The communications reveal the access Rouhani’s diplomats have had to Washington’s and Europe’s policy circles, particularly during the final years of the Obama administration, through this network. One of the German academics in the IEI, according to the emails, offered to ghostwrite op-eds for officials in Tehran. Others would, at times, seek advice from the Foreign Ministry’s staff about attending conferences and hearings in the U.S. and Israel. The IEI participants were prolific writers of op-eds and analyses, and provided insights on television and Twitter, regularly touting the need for a compromise with Tehran on the nuclear issue — a position in line with both the Obama and Rouhani administrations at the time.

Iranian officials in the allegedly obtained documents referred to ten “core” operatives, described as “distinguished second-generation Iranians who have established affiliations with the leading international think-tanks and academic institutions, mainly in Europe and the U.S.” These core members were reportedly tasked with spreading Iran’s influence through associations they joined and organizations they wrote for.

One of the core IEI members named in the alleged Iranian Foreign Ministry emails was a “young academic” named Ariane Tabatabai. Ten years later, Tabatabai is firmly ensconced in the Pentagon as chief of staff for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, she has a U.S. government security clearance, and she worked for Malley when the Biden administration was attempting to revive the Iran nuclear deal in 2021.

Semafor found emails that it claimed revealed Tabatabai “checking in” with an Iranian state-affiliated think tank called IPIS before she attended at least two policy events, and thanking the head of the think tank for his advice.

Semafor pointed out that the IEI was not a cloak-and-dagger spy ring, but rather an influence operation, designed to push Iran’s policy views into think tanks and conference rooms. The emails from Iranian diplomats allegedly reviewed by Semafor and Iran International stressed the importance of introducing Iran’s perspective into media coverage, summit meetings, and policy roundtables.

One of the IEI’s “top objectives” was “publishing opinion pieces and analyses in top-tier media in the U.S. and Europe, specifically targeting policy makers.” 

Many of these pieces stressed the importance of seeing the nuclear controversy from Iran’s point of view and making concessions to Tehran for the sake of de-escalation. Semafor found suggestions that then-Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s lead negotiator on the nuclear deal, reviewed and possibly edited some of these pieces before publication. Readers of these articles were not told they were reading opinions sanctioned by the Iranian government.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a press conference with German Vice Chancellor and Sigmar Gabriel (Unseen) at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on June 27, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images, File)

The IEI revelations, if proven accurate, may help to illuminate the downfall of Robert Malley, President Joe Biden’s catastrophically failed appointment as envoy to Iran. Malley’s security clearance was abruptly suspended by the U.S. State Department in June and he was placed on unpaid leave for reasons that remain unclear. He is evidently also under investigation by the FBI. 

The Biden administration has attempted to conceal every detail of Malley’s professional disappearance, even giving false information to Congress about him; the American public knows about his problems only because a few details were leaked to the media.

The alleged Iranian emails mentioned another key figure linked to Malley, his aide Ali Vaez. Iran International quoted an October 2014 message he allegedly wrote to Zarif in which he described himself as a loyal and patriotic Iranian, not an American, and placed himself at Zarif’s disposal:

As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty, I have not hesitated to help you in any way; from proposing to Your Excellency a public campaign against the notion of [nuclear] breakout, to assisting your team in preparing reports on practical needs of Iran. 

According to Iran International, Malley’s attempt to bring Vaez into the Biden administration was thwarted when Vaez “could not obtain the necessary security clearance,” but Malley continued to consult with Vaez as an informal adviser. In fact, two sources told Iran International that Vaez “drafted Malley’s tweets” until recently.

Semafor suggested Malley, who is linked to several alleged alumni of the IEI, might have run afoul of a factional struggle in Iran after hardliner and human rights abuse Ebrahim Raisi took over as president in 2021: 

Raisi’s government has turned on Robert Malley and some IEI members in recent weeks, accusing them in state media of seeking to incite racial and ethnic unrest in the country. The Tehran Times, an English-language media outlet associated with Raisi’s office, has reveled in Malley’s suspension: It’s claimed in a string of columns that the diplomat’s disciplinary action is tied to the very types of outreach to Iran he and some of his colleagues pursued.

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In other words, Malley might have suddenly found himself in hot water because the Raisi government decided to strategically leak damaging information about his interactions with the IEI influence network, which Raisi mistrusts because it was loyal to the more “moderate” wing of the Iranian regime.

Semafor duly quoted some defenders of the IEI who said it was not terribly unusual for governments to sponsor think tanks that promote their points of view and, in Iran, such think tanks would inevitably become embroiled in factional struggles, as the IEI appears to have been. Some Western organizations insisted they vetted everything submitted by the IEI operation and were aware of its nature.

The Pentagon, one of the few organizations mentioned in the article that responded to Semafor’s requests for comment, insisted that Tabatabai “was thoroughly and properly vetted as a condition of her employment with the Department of Defense.”

Several congressional Republicans nevertheless insisted that a thorough investigation was in order, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Cruz said in a statement Tuesday:

These reports and the emails they expose are indescribably troubling. When Joe Biden was elected, the Iranian regime’s nuclear program was in a box, their economy was on the brink of collapse, and their oil exports had cratered. President Biden and Biden officials have allowed the regime to get within reach of a nuclear arsenal, restore their economy, and export millions of barrels per day of oil worth hundreds of billions of dollars.


Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks on Title 42 immigration policy on May 03, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“Americans have rightly been asking why the Biden administration is so friendly with the Iranian regime, and why Biden administration officials have so single-mindedly enabled Iranian nuclear progress and terrorism. These reports and emails suggest a vast Iranian influence operation that goes to the very top of the administration,” he said.

Reps. Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jack Bergman (R-MI), heads of the House Armed Services Committee and House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations respectively, wrote to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Tuesday expressing “deep concern” about Tabatabai’s Pentagon position.

“Ms. Tabatabai’s past employment history and close ties to the Iranian regime are alarming and should be disqualifying for anyone seeking such a sensitive position of trust within the United States Department of Defense,” they wrote.

Rogers and Bergman demanded details about Tabatabai’s employment, her security clearance, her qualifications, and the exact nature of her duties.

“Are you aware of any instances of Ms. Tabatabai communicating with the Iranian regime, either in her official capacity or unofficially?” they asked Austin. “Was the Department aware of Ms. Tabatabai’s participation in Iranian government-sponsored influence networks, such as the Iran Experts Initiative?”


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