Iranian dissidents are organizing against a Biden State Department hire they claim is an Iranian regime sympathizer and whose father allegedly has close ties to the hardline government—ties that they say raise questions about the senior official's qualifications to hold office.
The Biden administration recently hired Ariane Tabatabai to serve as a senior adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, a high-level posting that requires security clearance. News of the hire sent shockwaves through the Iranian dissident community, which launched an online offensive targeted at the State Department calling for Tabatabai's removal over what they say are her and her family's close ties to Iran's anti-American government.
Critics point to multiple public appearances in which Tabatabai echoed Iranian regime talking points, including downplaying the significance of a growing protest movement in Iran that seeks to dismantle the hardline regime. She most recently argued in a December 2020 piece for Foreign Affairs that the United States must acknowledge Iran's presence in Syria and treat its support for militants there as legitimate. "Iran's victory in Syria," Tabatabai wrote in a 2018 post at the Lawfare blog, gave its military and militia forces "significant battlefield experience" and has allowed it to "redirect these trained and experienced fighters to other significant theaters, including Afghanistan and Yemen." Iran "has affirmed its place as a significant regional force," she wrote.
In addition to her writings, Tabatabai's father, Dr. Javad Tabatabai, is a senior faculty member at the state-controlled University of Tehran and is allegedly part of President Hassan Rouhani's inner circle, according to Iranian dissident groups. They point to Javad Tabatabai's public association with Rouhani and pictures of him with the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder and leader of the 1979 revolution that ushered in the regime.
Iranian dissidents who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon said Tabatabai's appointment is a signal the Biden administration does not intend to maintain close relations with opponents of the Iranian government. While the Trump administration worked closely with anti-regime activists across the world, the Biden State Department is sending a message that it is willing to excuse the Iranian government's mass human rights abuses in order to pursue diplomacy aimed at inking a revamped nuclear deal, they said.
Bryan Leib, executive director of Iranian Americans for Liberty, an advocacy group that opposes the Iranian government, told the Free Beacon that Tabatabai's "familial connections to high-ranking regime officials of the Islamic Republic is a source of great conflict of interests, and a matter of significant concern for Americans and, in particular, Iranian Americans with intimate knowledge of Tabatabai's extensive ties to the brutal regime in Tehran."
Leib and his group are pressing the State Department "to reconsider this appointment and to investigate Ms. Tabatabai's ties to the regime."
Prior to her appointment, Tabatabai worked at multiple Washington, D.C., think tanks. She served as a Middle East fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and German Marshall Fund, according to online biographies. She worked as a research scholar at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and also as a national security fellow at both the Truman National Security Project and Council on Foreign Relations. Earlier, Tabatabai was an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a policy think tank that provides research to the U.S. armed forces, among others.
A State Department spokeswoman told the Free Beacon that the administration chose Tabatabai "because she is one of the United States' leading experts on Iranian nuclear policy. The State Department is honored to have her serving in this capacity." She also echoed the sentiments of chief spokesman Ned Price, who compared the concerns expressed by scores of dissidents to online "harassment."
"While we welcome debates on key policy issues, ad hominem attacks on U.S. officials—or anyone—based on ethnic background are unacceptable," Price tweeted in late February, after Tabatabai was hired.
Ellie Cohanim, the State Department's former deputy special envoy to combat anti-Semitism during the Trump administration, quickly criticized Price's tweet. "I was the State [Department's] first Iranian-born Envoy. No one criticized the appointment because my family doesn't have ties to Iranian Regime & I'm not a Regime apologist," she wrote.
During several recent but undated public appearances circulating on social media, Tabatabai downplayed the significance of anti-regime protests in Tehran, which continue to grow as the government spends its limited cash resources funding terrorism in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
"Protests are actually a feature in the Islamic Republic, they are not a departure," Tabatabai said, dismissing predictions that the Iranian regime can be brought down by the unrest. "Actually, there's a joke that goes around in Iranian families, ‘Inshallah [God willing], next year in Tehran.' But, ‘Inshallah, next year in Tehran,' has been sort of kicked down the road for 41 years."
During another televised lecture, Tabatabai repeated Iranian government talking points about its 2020 downing of a Ukrainian airplane. She praised Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for publicly taking "responsibility for that" incident.
Discussing Iran's presence in Iraq, where it has orchestrated multiple attacks on American consulates and personnel, Tabatabai defended the Islamic Republic's intervention in the country: "Iran can't choose to ignore what's going on in Iraq because ISIS actually poses a vital threat to Iranian borders."
She also defended Iran's supposed fatwa, or ban, on using nuclear weapons, which many regional experts view as a discredited talking point pushed by the Iranian regime to distract from its expanding nuclear enrichment work. Tabatabai, however, said every expert she has spoken to on the matter concluded that on the "use [of nuclear weapons], they are positive it is prohibited."
Tabatabai also has praised Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, describing him as "the face of engagement with the West." She additionally condemned the Trump administration's 2019 decision to sanction Zarif.
Kaveh Shahrooz, an Iranian dissident and Toronto-based senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said democracy and human rights activists, including those inside Iran, are "deeply concerned" about Tabatabai's views. "She is on the record as having dismissed mass protests in Iran, indicating that her sympathies likely lie with Iran's brutal regime and not its brave people," Shahrooz said.
"Even more disturbing is that the State Department spokesperson has claimed these legitimate concerns are ‘ad hominem attacks … based on [Tabatabai's] ethnic background.' Smearing activists like that is a deeply dishonest way of dealing with criticism," Shahrooz said.
Cameron Khansarinia, policy director at the National Union for Democracy in Iran, a nonprofit group of Iranian Americans who support democracy in the country, raised similar concerns about Tabatabai and her public statements. "Her attempts to downplay recent nationwide protests against the regime are very troubling, not to mention insulting to millions of Iranians," he said.
"At best," Khansarinia said, "she appears to deeply misunderstand Iranian society today and what the Iranian people want: an end to the state of terror and corruption embodied by the Islamic Republic. A senior government official should certainly know better."