Member of Iranian Influence Network Visited Biden White House Five Times

Meetings indicate alleged members of Iranian gov’t group including former Malley colleague Ali Vaez had access to top Biden officials

Ali Vaez (Ali Vaez/Twitter)
October 3, 2023

An alleged member of a secret Iranian government influence network visited the Biden White House at least five times for high-level meetings with senior U.S. officials, according to visitor logs.

Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, was outed last week as an alleged member of a vast Iranian-government-controlled propaganda network that helped push Tehran’s talking points in Washington, D.C., and influence policy, according to Semafor. Vaez reportedly communicated with senior Iranian government associates as part of the Iran Experts Initiative, an influence operation run by Iran’s foreign ministry.

The meetings are raising questions about whether the Biden administration was aware of Vaez’s alleged participation in the Iranian influence operation and may have given him insider information about the administration’s diplomacy with Tehran. Another alleged member of the Iran Experts Initiative, Ariane Tabatabai, serves as a senior Pentagon official and holds a security clearance, prompting Republican lawmakers to demand her top secret access be revoked.

Vaez is a close associate of U.S. Iran envoy Robert Malley, who was removed from his post earlier this year and stripped of his security clearance amid an investigation into his alleged mishandling of classified information.

Vaez took at least five meetings at the White House between 2022 and 2023, as the Biden administration was engaged in diplomacy with Iran that resulted in a hostage deal last month that freed up some $6 billion in revenue for the hardline regime.

Vaez’s meetings appear to have been with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Brett McGurk, the administration’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. Both Sullivan and McGurk played critical roles in reopening diplomacy with Iran and engaging in talks that led to the $6 billion ransom payment and release of five wrongfully imprisoned Americans.

"The Biden administration must be honest with the American public regarding its relationship with the Iran Experts Initiative," said Alireza Nader, a veteran Iran analyst based in Washington, D.C. "Did Sullivan and McGurk know that Ali Vaez was actively advocating for the Islamic Republic’s interests in Washington, D.C.? If they did know, why did they allow the regime’s influence or lobby network to have such immense influence in U.S. foreign policy?"

On April 13, 2022, Vaez is listed in White House visitor logs as being escorted by Sullivan’s personal assistant, Hazel Castillo. Two months later, Vaez is listed as visiting the West Wing and being escorted by Kimberly Lang, another assistant to Sullivan.

Vaez then visited the White House on Feb. 3 and 8, meeting both times with McGurk.

In March, Vaez made another trip to the White House when he attended a Nowruz holiday event, which celebrates the Persian New Year.

The White House did not respond to a Washington Free Beacon request for further information about these meetings, or if they are being reviewed in light of Vaez’s alleged participation in the Iranian-government propaganda network. Vaez also did not respond to a request for comment about the substance of his sit-downs with Sullivan and McGurk.

A spokesman for the International Crisis Group, where Vaez serves as the director of its Iran Project, said Vaez often meets with government officials in his role as an analyst.

"Over the past decade, Ali Vaez has met with officials from three successive U.S. administrations to discuss Iran policy, just as he's engaged with European diplomats and officials from across the Middle East," the spokesman said. "The topics have often included the threat of an unrestricted Iranian nuclear program and ways to address the regime's regional policy, which poses a key threat to U.S. forces and allies."

The meetings are certain to generate further scrutiny about the Biden administration’s close alliance with several analysts alleged to be part of the Iran Experts Initiative.

"The extent to which [Vaez’s] allegiance to Tehran and his relationships with Iranian officials were known to people in the White House could be a subject for future investigation," said one former senior White House official. "Anybody who’s read Ali Vaez’s writing and seen his advocacy should have already known he had a close relationship with Tehran and favored Tehran’s positions in negotiations."

In leaked Iranian government emails reviewed by Semafor, Vaez is shown to have been in touch with Mostafa Zahrani, who heads a Tehran-based think tank that is close to the regime. Vaez reportedly sent copies of his op-eds to Zahrani for review before publication. In at least one case, Vaez’s writings were forwarded to former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, according to Semafor.

Gabriel Noronha, a former State Department official who worked on the Iran portfolio, said the White House meetings indicate Iran's network of influencers pushed their priorities at the highest levels of government.

"The State Department has claimed they have no reason to believe an Iranian influence operation infiltrated the United States government," said Noronha, who serves as the executive director of the Polaris National Security think tank. "The White House visitor logs reveal that claim to be false. This administration’s refusal to acknowledge the existence or success of Iran’s information operations reveals either extreme naïvety or yet another coverup."

Tabatabai, the senior Pentagon official who worked under Malley, is also reported to have communicated directly with Zarif before attending various policy events.

The disclosure of the Iranian influence network has already fueled speculation in Congress that the administration has been infiltrated by Tehran-linked spies, the Free Beacon reported last week.

A group of 30 senators on Friday also launched an investigation into the Tabatabai matter, calling for her security clearance to be revoked pending an investigation into whether she was subjected to an adequate background check.

"We find it simply unconscionable that a senior Department official would continue to hold a sensitive position despite her alleged participation in an Iranian government information operation," the senators wrote.