Iranian Influence Cell ‘Operating at the Biden Administration’s Highest Levels,’ Legal Watchdog Says

Robert Malley (VOA Persian/ Wikimedia Commons)
October 25, 2023

A pro-Iran influence cell appears to be "operating at the Biden administration’s highest levels," endangering U.S. national security, according to a legal watchdog group that seeks to determine if senior U.S. officials were compromised by Tehran’s hardline government.

America First Legal, a group of conservative lawyers, initiated on Tuesday a probe into Biden administration Iran envoy Robert Malley, who had his security clearance yanked earlier this year amid allegations he mishandled classified information, and senior Pentagon official Ariane Tabatabai, a Malley associate identified in recent reports as a member of an Iranian-government influence operation.

The organization filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the State Department and Pentagon seeking records relating to communications both Malley and Tabatabai may have had with the Iranian regime, according to copies of the documents obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon. American First Legal also petitioned the Justice Department to determine if Tabatabai should register as a foreign agent, alleging her role "in a covert Iranian influence campaign" indicates she may have lobbied U.S. policy makers on Tehran’s behalf without disclosing this work.

The legal group’s investigation could unearth documents related to the United States’ secret diplomacy with Tehran, which includes last month’s ransom deal that freed up $6 billion for the hardline regime. Iran's funding of Hamas has taken on renewed significance in light of the group’s terror attack last month which killed 1,500 Israelis.

"It is of paramount importance that the truth about the role that Iranian assets may have played, and may continue to be playing, in formulating U.S. policy be brought to light," Reed Rubinstein, America First Legal’s senior counselor and director of oversight and investigations, said in a statement to the Free Beacon. "The horrific events on October 7, 2023, cannot be fairly detached from the Biden administration’s decision to empower and fund the brutal mullahs running Iran and to pour billions of U.S. taxpayer funds into Gaza and the West Bank, predictably strengthening the savages who tortured, murdered, raped, mutilated, and kidnapped innocent thousands of Israeli civilians."

America First Legal is pressing the State Department to disclose all "text messages and messages sent through encrypted messaging applications" between Malley and Tabatabai, who worked at the State Department and held a security clearance before moving over to the Pentagon.

The FOIA request could also shine light on a series of leaks from within the State Department that made their way into Iranian state-controlled media. That matter is also under investigation in Congress where Republicans say Iran either breached State Department networks or was handed internal documents by a human source.

America First Legal is attempting to discern if Malley’s security clearance was yanked earlier this year as a result of leaks that may have made their way back to members of the Iran Experts Initiative, a vast influence network created by Iran’s government and alleged to include at least three of Malley’s associates, according to Semafor. Tabatabai, the Pentagon official who worked with Malley at the State Department, was identified as a member of this network and is alleged to have communicated directly with senior Iranian government officials.

A separate FOIA request sent to the Pentagon seeks any communications Tabatabai had with Malley about Iran diplomacy, as well as his later suspension from the State Department amid an FBI investigation into his handling of classified information.

America First Legal is also asking the Justice Department to determine if Tabatabai should be forced to register as "an agent of the Islamic Republic."

The organization says that Tabatabai’s alleged relationship with Iranian government officials amounts to lobbying work that falls under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires those working with foreign governments to disclose their ties.

Emails between Tabatabai and Iranian government officials cited by Semafor provide "clear evidence that she was (and may remain) an active participant in a covert Iranian influence campaign designed to shape U.S. government policy to serve the interests of the Iranian regime," the organization says. "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 Iranian objectives, raise obvious Foreign Agents Registration Act concerns."

The Pentagon has been under pressure to revoke Tabatabai’s security clearance pending an investigation but informed Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) last week that the official’s "employment and clearance processes were carried out in accordance with all appropriate laws and policies."

The State Department has been stonewalling congressional investigations into Malley and the circumstances surrounding his suspension.