Although alarming, the depth of Iran’s infiltration into the foreign-policy and media establishments exposed in this week’s reports isn’t surprising.
There is something terribly disturbing about the current state of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment.
Tuesday we were hit with the blockbuster reports by Semafor and Iran International exposing the depth of Iran’s infiltration of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and the Biden administration. The two simultaneously published reports revealed how beginning in 2014, Iran’s Foreign Ministry established a circle of agents in Washington and Europe, which it referred to as the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI). Members of IEI were comprised of Iranian emigres sympathetic to the regime and its nuclear-weapons program.
The experts were seeded in think tanks. The Iranian Foreign Ministry flew them to strategy sessions in various cities in Europe. The experts published a steady stream of articles supporting Iran, justifying its nuclear activities; sponsorship of terrorism; denial of civil and human rights to Iran’s citizenry; and misogyny; among other things.
The experts routinely submitted their drafts to the Iranian Foreign Ministry for comment before publication and generally sought guidance from Iran’s Foreign Ministry in relation to various pro-Iran activities, including providing sympathetic testimony before Congress.
Among a core group of a dozen IEI members, three were close advisers to Robert Malley, U.S. President Joe Biden’s now-suspended Iran negotiations envoy. Malley was suspended from his position in June after his security clearance was suspended. He is under FBI investigation apparently related to allegations that he mishandled classified information.
One of Malley’s three advisors from the IEI is Dr. Ariane Tabatabai. Tabatabai joined Malley at the U.S. State Department in 2021 and served under him as a member of the U.S. negotiations team with Iran. She currently serves as the Chief of Staff to Christopher Maier, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. In both positions, Tabatabai was required to receive top-secret security clearance.
Before joining the Biden administration, as a senior foreign-policy analyst at a host of prestigious think tanks, Tabatabai wrote a steady stream of articles, spoke at prestigious conferences and was interviewed on television on issues related to Iran. Iran International and Semafor revealed that during this period, she repeatedly turned to Iran’s Foreign Ministry for guidance, approval and instructions before submitting articles; accepting speaking invitations; and providing testimony to Congress. That is, they revealed that Tabatabai was an Iranian regime agent.
The revelations simply prove what Iranian regime opponents long suspected. Iranian regime opponents strongly opposed Tabatabai’s appointment to the State Department and tried to prevent her from receiving a security clearance, citing, among other things, her family’s legion ties to the regime. Biden administration spokesmen rejected criticism of Tabatabai and accused her opponents of bigotry.
Malley’s closest adviser over the past 15 years has been Ali Vaez. Vaez served directly under Malley during his two stints at the International Crisis Group—first as director of ICG’s Middle East department; and later, after his service in the Obama administration, as ICG president. Like Tabatabai, Vaez was outed on Tuesday by Semafor and Iran International as a member of IEI and a key agent of Tehran. Iran International quoted a 2014 email from Vaez to Zarif, where Vaez pledged his allegiance to the Iranian regime.
“As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty, I have not hesitated to help you in any way,” Vaez wrote and then set out the various initiatives he had taken to advance Tehran’s nuclear program and economic position.
‘Pave the path for lobbying‘
Last year, Zarif published a book in Farsi about his leadership of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the United States that led to the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iranian human-rights activist Heshmat Alavi translated major portions of Zarif’s book into English and published the excerpts on his Twitter account. Titled The Nuclear Deal: The Untold Story of the JCPOA, Zarif’s book explained how it came to pass that despite bipartisan opposition to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, the Obama administration accepted Iran’s positions on every major aspect of its nuclear program.
Zarif wrote that in 2014, the regime decided to send a copy of its draft agreement to the other negotiating teams through “an individual in contact with the U.S. delegation and an active International Crisis Group member.”
“The goal,” Zarif explained, “was to pave the path for lobbying for our draft agreement.”
Although “that individual” was unnamed, there is no question that it was Vaez.
Vaez, who served as the head of ICG’s Iran desk rewrote the Iranian draft and published it as a policy paper under his name and the ICG banner. Vaez called his laundered Iranian draft, “Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube.”
Malley, Vaez’s former boss at ICG, had recently moved to Obama’s National Security Council, where he served as Special Assistant to the President and the White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region. Malley was also a senior member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran. Malley took Vaez’s paper and adopted it as the U.S. draft agreement.
When Malley returned to government as Biden’s envoy to Iran, he tried to bring Vaez to the State Department with him. But unlike Tabatabai, Vaez couldn’t get a security clearance. All the same, he continued to manage Malley’s Twitter account.
The revelations regarding the IEI struck Washington like a thunderbolt. Republican senators and congressmen are demanding an accounting. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is leading the call for Tabatabai’s security clearance to be revoked and for her to be fired from her position.
So far, the administration is refusing to take any action against her. The administration is also maintaining its policy of refusing congressional and media requests for information regarding the circumstances surrounding Malley’s removal from office in June.
Although alarming, the depth and breadth of Iran’s infiltration of Washington’s foreign-policy and media establishments exposed in this week’s reports isn’t surprising. Over the past two decades, reports of Iranian infiltration of Washington policymaking circles have come out in a near continuous stream. But rather than clean house, the Washington establishment has castigated those warning of Iran’s penetration as bigoted, and not infrequently, as pro-Israel agents.
‘Operated as an undeclared lobby‘
The prime example of this practice is the treatment of Iran’s unofficial lobby, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). NIAC was formed in 2002, ostensibly to serve as a lobby for the million Iranian émigrés living in the United States. But early on, it became apparent that NIAC had no interest in representing that community, which is overwhelmingly comprised of regime opponents. Instead, from the very outset, NIAC served as an advocate for the regime.
Statements by former Iranian officials and others have long claimed that NIAC was Zarif’s brainchild during his tenure as Iran’s U.N. ambassador. Its purpose was to serve the regime’s interests in Washington and thus undermine the influence of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.
In 2008, Iranian-American criticism of NIAC caused NIAC and its leader, Trita Parsi, to sue one of their prominent accusers of defamation. In the discovery process, NIAC was compelled to produce internal documents that attested to its role as the regime’s lobby.
As The Washington Times reported in 2009, “emails between Mr. Parsi and … Zarif … offer evidence that the group has operated as an undeclared lobby and may be guilty of violating tax laws, the Foreign Agents Registration Act and lobbying disclosure laws.”
Following the disclosures, then-Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) asked then-Attorney General Eric Holder to open an investigation against NIAC. But due to the Obama administration’s determination to realign U.S. Middle East policy towards Iran—and away from Israel and the Sunni Arab states—the administration refused. It didn’t merely refuse, Parsi was a regular visitor to the Obama White House. NIAC officials were given senior positions in the Obama administration. Today, they serve as senior advisers to powerful Democratic senators and congressmen, as senior Iran experts at prestigious think tanks and as senior administration officials.
Reporters, Republican lawmakers, Iran policy experts and other NIAC critics are routinely attacked as McCarthyites, nativists and racists.
Consider the case of former NIAC official Sahar Nowrouzzadeh. Nowrouzzadeh served as director of Iran affairs in Obama’s National Security Council. She was considered one of Obama’s closest advisers on Iranian affairs, including the nuclear negotiations, and worked under Malley. In the closing days of the Obama administration, she was appointed director of Iran and the Persian Gulf region on the State Department’s policy planning staff.
After conservative media organs reported her position in early 2017, then-President Donald Trump’s Iran envoy Brian Hook demoted her. Nowrouzzadeh eventually left government.
Rather than accept Hook’s move as the proper response to Obama’s 11th-hour effort to seed his officials in Trump’s administration and undermine Trump’s ability to pursue his own policies, the media establishment pilloried Hook for refusing to accept Obama’s closest Iran aide as the senior professional staffer responsible for crafting Trump’s Iran policy. Hook was accused by the media of nativism and bigotry for taking this routine action.
Perhaps it was the Washington establishment’s hatred for all things Trump, or perhaps it was the success of Iran’s propaganda efforts executed by members of the IEI and NIAC. But whatever the reason, the fact is that over the past decade and a half, the Washington establishment has embraced Iran regime agents and struck out against anyone who points out their disloyalty to the United States.
And that brings us to the most alarming aspect of the story of Iran’s massive footprint in official Washington: its acceptability.
Whether the Washington establishment wants to admit it or not, the fact is that Iran is America’s enemy. It has been in a state of war with the United States since 1979. It waged—and won—terror wars against the United States through its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the largest state sponsor of terrorism and designated as such by the State Department. It is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles to attack America with its incipient nuclear arsenal. The Iranian regime may want to cut a deal with Washington, but it doesn’t want to bury the hatchet. It wants to make a deal with Washington to build a more powerful hatchet.
The Washington establishment’s refusal to acknowledge this reality—let alone support policies aimed at weakening Iran or preventing it from becoming a regional hegemon and nuclear-armed state—indicates something horrible about the state of that establishment. It has become so mesmerized by its ideology and its partisan biases that it refuses to see the danger.
This state of affairs is dangerous for the security of the United States. And it sends a clear message to Israel and other U.S. allies threatened by Iran. Unless Washington cleans its house, it must be considered compromised.