Biden's Suspended Iran Envoy Employed at Least Three Members of Iranian Influence Network: Report

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September 26, 2023

At least three one-time advisers to suspended Biden administration Iran envoy Robert Malley were part of an Iranian Foreign Ministry plot to influence U.S. policy, according to a Tuesday Semafor report based on leaked foreign ministry emails.

Pentagon official Ariane Tabatabai, think-tank adviser Dina Esfandiary, and Malley protégé Ali Vaez were part of the Islamist government's Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), a scheme to recruit experts who would "bolster Tehran's image and positions on global security issues," according to the report.

As part of the IEI, Tabatabai, whom Iranian dissidents pinpointed last year as a pro-regime advocate, "on at least two occasions checked in with Iran's Foreign Ministry before attending policy events," including a congressional hearing, Semafor reported. Vaez communicated with Mostafa Zahrani, one of the two Iranian officials behind the Iran Experts Initiative, saying in one email that he looked forward to Zahrani's "comments and feedback" on an article he wrote. Zahrani forwarded that email to Iran's then-foreign minister. The other official behind the initiative, Saeed Khatibzadeh, in March 2014 described himself, Tabatabai, and Esfandiary as "the core group of the IEI."

Tabatabai, Esfandiary, and Vaez have all "worked closely with Malley over the past decade," Semafor reported, with Esfandiary and Vaez both advising the think tank that Malley headed before he joined the Biden administration in 2021. Tabatabai served on Malley's team before taking her current job as chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations. Malley also attempted to appoint Vaez to a government job, but Vaez "could not obtain the necessary security clearance," Iran International reported.

Malley this year had his credentials and security clearance revoked, the Washington Free Beacon reported in July. Leaked State Department documents revealed in August that Malley faces accusations of mishandling sensitive information, personal misconduct, and misuse of classified networks. The FBI is also investigating Malley, Semafor reported.

The Tehran Times, the Iranian state-run media source that leaked the State Department documents, has claimed that Malley is routinely in contact with "unofficial advisers of Iranian descent," the Free Beacon reported. Republicans last month called for the department to investigate how the propaganda outlet obtained the documents.

Sources who spoke to the Free Beacon in July indicated that Malley might have "leaked classified information to a network of pro-Tehran advocates who supported the Obama administration's Iran deal." In 2015, one year after Iran set up the IEI, Malley served as the Obama administration's lead negotiator for the much-criticized deal.

As Malley negotiated the deal in April 2015, Zahrani and Khatibzadeh "boasted to their superiors in internal emails about the initiative's successes," Semafor reported. Khatibzadeh in one email trumpeted "the media footprint of each IEI academic," including Tabatabai, Vaez, and Esfandiary. The Malley advisers aren't the only IEI affiliates, though: The initiative also established ties with officials in European think tanks, according to Iran International.

While Republicans have demanded a probe into the Malley scandal, the Biden administration has stonewalled those requests. The State Department originally claimed that Malley was on leave for personal reasons and did not inform Congress about its internal investigation into Malley.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller on Tuesday dismissed the story for containing information from "almost a decade ago" and referred further questions to the Pentagon.

The Pentagon has not addressed the story publicly and did not respond to Washington Free Beacon questions about whether it knew about these ties prior to the public revelations.