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High-Level Iranian Spy Ring Busted in Washington

The trail that leads from Tehran to D.C. passes directly through the offices of Robert Malley and the International Crisis Group

The Biden administration’s now-suspended Iran envoy Robert Malley helped to fund, support, and direct an Iranian intelligence operation designed to influence the United States and allied governments, according to a trove of purloined Iranian government emails. The emails, which were reported on by veteran Wall Street Journal correspondent Jay Solomon, writing in Semafor, and by Iran International, the London-based émigré opposition outlet which is the most widely read independent news source inside Iran, were published last week after being extensively verified over a period of several months by the two outlets. They showed that Malley had helped to infiltrate an Iranian agent of influence named Ariane Tabatabai into some of the most sensitive positions in the U.S. government—first at the State Department and now the Pentagon, where she has been serving as chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, Christopher Maier.

On Thursday, Maier told a congressional committee that the Defense Department is “actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret special compartmented information.”


The emails, which were exchanged over a period of several years between Iranian regime diplomats and analysts, show that Tabatabai was part of a regime propaganda unit set up in 2014 by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The Iran Experts Initiative (IEI) tasked operatives drawn from Iranian diaspora communities to promote Iranian interests during the clerical regime’s negotiations with the United States over its nuclear weapons program. Though several of the IEI operatives and others named in the emails have sought to portray themselves on social media as having engaged with the regime in their capacity as academic experts, or in order to promote better understanding between the United States and Iran, none has questioned the veracity of the emails.


The contents of the emails are damning, showing a group of Iranian American academics being recruited by the Iranian regime, meeting together in foreign countries to receive instructions from top regime officials, and pledging their personal loyalty to the regime. They also show how these operatives used their Iranian heritage and Western academic positions to influence U.S. policy toward Iran, first as outside “experts” and then from high-level U.S. government posts. Both inside and outside of government, the efforts of members of this circle were repeatedly supported and advanced by Malley, who served as the U.S. government’s chief interlocutor with Iran under both the Obama and the Biden administrations. Malley is also the former head of the International Crisis Group (ICG), which directly paid and credentialed several key members of the regime’s influence operation. Why Iran Is Getting the BombThe ‘moderates’ staffing the Biden administration will move quickly to cement Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy, starting with its most obvious failures BYLEE SMITH

The IEI, according to a 2014 email from one Iranian official to one of Iran’s lead nuclear negotiators, “consisted of a core group of 6-10 distinguished second-generation Iranians who have established affiliation with the leading international think-tanks and academic institutions, mainly in Europe and the US.” The network was funded and supported by an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) official, Mostafa Zahrani, who was the point of contact between IEI operatives, and Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.


According to the correspondence, the IEI recruited several U.S.-based analysts, including Tabatabai, Ali Vaez, and Dina Esfandiary, all of whom willingly accepted Iranian guidance. These Middle East experts were then subsequently hired, credentialed, supported, and funded by Malley and the ICG where he was president from January 2018 until January 2021, when he joined the Biden administration. Malley was also ICG’s program director for Middle East and North Africa before the Obama administration tapped him in February 2014 to run negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal. Vaez joined the ICG in 2012 and served as Malley’s top deputy.

Emails quoted in the stories show that even once in government, Malley directed Vaez’s actions at ICG, sending him to Vienna where the Iranian and U.S. teams held nuclear negotiations. “Following the order of his previous boss Malley, Ali Vaez will come to Vienna,” Zahrani reportedly wrote Zarif in an April 3, 2014, email. “Who from our group do you instruct to have a meeting with him?”


Vaez wrote Zarif directly after the Iranian foreign minister expressed dissatisfaction with an ICG report on Iran. “As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty,” wrote Vaez in an October 2014 email, “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.”


These emails likely explain why Vaez was unable to obtain a security clearance in order to join Malley in the Biden administration. At the same time, they raise the question of why Malley sought to bring Vaez into the State Department in the first place, and why he remained in close operational contact with him even after he was denied a security clearance.


After the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was finalized in July 2015, ICG hired another IEI operative as a consultant—Adnan Tabatabai, not to be confused with Pentagon official Ariane Tabatabai. Like Vaez, Adnan Tabatabai also pledged to dedicate his efforts to the Iranian regime.

In an email from 2014, as the agreement was being negotiated, Adnan Tabatabai wrote to Zarif about the foreign minister’s meeting in Vienna with IEI operatives: “As you will have noticed, we are all very much willing to dedicate our capacities and resources to jointly working on the improvement of Iran’s foreign relations. Iran is our country, so we, too, feel the need and responsibility to contribute our share. When I say “we” I mean the very group you met.”


In early 2021, shortly before he joined the Biden administration, Malley brought a third IEI operative, Dina Esfandiary, into the ICG. ICG did not respond by press time to Tablet’s email requesting comment on its employees’ role in an Iranian spy ring.


In February 2021, Malley hired Ariane Tabatabai to join his Iran team at the State Department. The emails document her cloying determination to prove her worth to the Iranian regime. Shortly after the 2014 meeting in Vienna, Ariane Tabatabai sent Zahrani a link to an article she’d co-authored with Esfandiary. “As I mentioned last week, Dina and I wrote an article about the nuclear fuel of Bushehr [nuclear power plant] for the Bulletin which was published today. Our goal was to show what is said in the West—that Iran does not need more than 1500 centrifuges—is wrong, and that Iran should not be expected to reduce the number of its centrifuges.” Zahrani then forwarded the email to Zarif.


In June 2014, Ariane Tabatabai emailed Zahrani to say she’d been invited to conferences in Saudi Arabia and Israel and asked for his prior approval of her trips. “I would like to ask your opinion too and see if you think I should accept the invitation and go,” she wrote. Zahrani replied that “Saudi Arabia is a good case, but the second case [Israel] is better to be avoided.” She responded: “Thank you very much for your advice. I will take action regarding Saudi Arabia and will keep you updated on the progress.” There is no record of Tabatabai traveling to Israel.


A month later, she again wrote Zahrani asking for additional instructions. She’d been invited to join academic experts Gary Samore and William Tobey to brief House members on the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Intelligence committees. “I am scheduled to go to the Congress to give a talk about the nuclear program,” she wrote the IRGC official. “I will bother you in the coming days. It will be a little difficult since both Will and Gary do not have favorable views on Iran.” Zahrani forwarded the email to Zarif.


Ariane Tabatabai’s correspondence with Zahrani offers clear evidence that Malley’s protégé was an active participant in a covert Iranian influence campaign designed to shape U.S. government policy in order to serve the interests of the Iranian regime. Her requests for guidance from top Iranian officials, which she appears to have faithfully followed, and her desire to harmonize her own words and actions with regime objectives, are hardly the behavior of an impartial academic, or a U.S. public servant. Tabatabai’s emails show her enthusiastically submitting to the control of top Iranian officials, who then guided her efforts to propagandize and collect intelligence on U.S. and allied officials in order to advance the interests of the Islamic Republic.

“I know what a spy network looks like,” says Peter Theroux, a veteran Mideast analyst who is now retired from the CIA, where he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal for his service. During his 25 years at the agency, Theroux was frequently called on to analyze the Iranian regime and its foreign spying and terror networks. “This is how recruited assets speak to their handling officers. There’s lots of the mood music around that correspondence saying, let me know what you need me to collect. It seems clear who’s the subordinate here—what you’d call responsive to tasking.”


In response to a Tablet email requesting comment on Malley’s and Tabatabai’s role in an Iranian spy ring, a State Department spokesman wrote: “We have seen the Semafor article, which does not presume it was a ‘spy ring,’ and we reject that characterization. Rob Malley remains on leave and we have no further comment due to privacy considerations. The Biden-Harris administration appointed Ariane Tabatabai to serve various roles in the U.S. government because of her expertise on nuclear and other foreign policy issues.” The Defense Department did not respond by press time to Tablet’s email requesting comment on Ariane Tabatabai’s role in an Iranian spy ring.


Whether the IEI is best characterized as an Iranian “spy ring” or as a “regime-directed influence operation” is a semantic question that beggars the larger question of how any responsible U.S. security official in possession of Tabatabai’s correspondence could have cleared her to enter the State Department building or the Pentagon—let alone cleared her to work as a chief of staff in the Defense Department, with direct access to the most sensitive real-time details of U.S. special forces operations.


It seems likely that by the time of her appointment to the Pentagon’s special operations office, Tabatabai’s covert activities on behalf of the Iranian regime were well known in Biden administration and intelligence circles. “The hoops you have to jump through to get a bare-bones top secret clearance even without compartments or special access programs are enormous,” says Theroux. “They grill you on your foreign contacts. Contacts with any foreign government raise more red flags than Bernie Sanders’ honeymoon. Contacts with senior officials from enemy governments, classified as non-frat governments like Russia, China, Cuba, as well as Iran, are in a different category altogether—what would normally be totally disqualifying.”


There is also the fact that, as early as 2014, as Tablet has reported, the Obama administration was spying on Israeli officials and their contacts within the United States, including U.S. lawmakers and pro-Israel activists. The fact that U.S. intelligence services routinely disobeyed guidelines preventing them from unmasking the identities of U.S. persons recorded in transcripts of foreign intelligence intercepts has been exhaustively demonstrated in a long series of U.S. government reports, Congressional investigations, and other reporting. Since Zarif’s communications and the IRGC’s communications were also collected, U.S. officials would have known about the IEI—and about the names of those working on behalf of Iran, such as Vaez and Tabatabai.


Theroux suggests that a range of U.S. authorities would have likely known about Malley’s involvement with the IEI as well—and that Malley would have been well aware of what they knew. “When I was on the National Security Council, the National Security Agency would call to alert me when my name had popped up in a conversation among bad actors,” Theroux recalls.


The facts of Malley’s involvement with the IEI and its agents are likely to have been old news within the Biden administration; the impending publication of the IEI emails is likely the reason why Malley was put on leave in April and had his security clearances suspended. As news of emails and their impending publication circulated in Washington, the administration moved him to the sidelines before Republican officials had the chance to demand his head on a spike.


Why an Iranian operative is still at the Pentagon, especially in a job which gives her daily access to classified information that puts the country’s most sensitive military operations at risk, is another matter entirely. “The optimistic reading,” says Theroux, “is that they were watching her to see what she does and the FBI has her apartment all teched up. But to be an optimist you have to believe the FBI is clean, rather than see this as a huge counterintelligence failure. Though, of course, it’s not a failure if they were complicit.”


So far, however, the evidence points to a less optimistic reading: The Biden administration allowed Malley to push an Iranian agent into sensitive national security positions because she was best equipped to carry out the administration’s own policy—to appease a terror regime with American blood on its hands. Because the number of American officials who want to be responsible for protecting Iran’s nuclear weapons program is limited, the White House went outside the federal bureaucracy for someone who was well-connected to the regime, and would relish the job of advancing its interests—an Iranian spy.


Congress needs to demand the Biden White House make Malley and Tabatabai available to testify immediately. It must also press to interview the security officials who buried evidence of Tabatabai’s covert activities, putting her in a position to endanger the lives of American civilians and special forces operators. It’s time to find out why the interests—and now the personnel—of the Iranian “death to America” regime intersect so frequently with those of America’s own ruling party.


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