The Pentagon is standing by a senior official identified in a Tuesday morning news report as a member of a vast Iranian influence network, telling the Washington Free Beacon the individual was "properly vetted" before being awarded a security clearance.
The report from Semafor, based on emails from senior Iranian officials, detailed a vast communications network, known as the Iran Experts Initiative, linked to the hardline regime in Tehran. That network, the emails suggest, includes the Pentagon official Ariane Tabatabai as well as other "influential overseas academics" who reported to Iran's foreign ministry and helped push Tehran's talking points with American policymakers. The existence of this network was outlined in a cache of Iranian government documents reviewed by Semafor.
A Pentagon spokesman told the Free Beacon that Tabatabai was subjected to a full security screening before being hired.
"Dr. Tabatabai was thoroughly and properly vetted as a condition of her employment with the Department of Defense," the spokesman said. "We are honored to have her serve."
Tabatabai, who obtained security clearance for her Pentagon job, and two others affiliated with the influence campaign also served as aides to Biden administration Iran envoy Robert Malley, who was suspended from his post earlier this year for allegedly mishandling classified information. It is unclear whether Malley's suspension is related to his connection to the Iranian influence network documented in the Semafor report.
While the Pentagon has not addressed the news, 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 would not respond to Washington Free Beacon questions about whether it knew about these ties prior to the public revelations.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby evaded questions about the matter during an interview Tuesday evening on CNN, saying the administration has not "come to any conclusion about the press report or its validity."
The report says that former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, a key player in the Iran Experts Initiative, had unfettered access to "Washington's and Europe's policy circles," particularly during the Obama administration, when the 2015 nuclear deal was first being sculpted.
In a 2014 email, Saeed Khatibzadeh, who later became the spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry, discussed with then-Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif how the experts initiative "consisted of a core group of 6-10 distinguished second-generation Iranians," including Tabatabai, who was then working as an Iran analyst at several think tanks.
Tabatabai "on at least two occasions checked in with Iran's Foreign Ministry before attending policy events," according to the emails cited by Semafor.
Iranian dissidents and Republican lawmakers expressed outrage when the Biden administration in 2021 tapped Tabatabai for a State Department post, arguing that based on her family's ties to the Iranian government and the policy views she has espoused, she should not be granted a top-secret security clearance, the Free Beacon reported. Tabatabai's father, Dr. Javad Tabatabai, is a senior faculty member at the state-controlled University of Tehran and is allegedly part of Rouhani's inner circle, according to information published by Iranian dissident groups.
At the time, the State Department dismissed these claims as racist "smears and slander."
"We will not sit idly by as our employees—dedicated public servants—face personal smears and slander," then-spokesman Ned Price told the Free Beacon at the time. "The administration appointed Ariane Tabatabai to a key role in the State Department 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."
Iranian dissident groups in 2021 also raised questions about Tabatabai, arguing that she was a mouthpiece for the regime.
Miller, the State Department spokesman, said Tuesday that he is not concerned about the links Semafor documented between Tabatabai and the Iranian government and that a "thorough background investigation" was conducted before granting Tabatabai a security clearance. At least two other individuals linked to the Iran Experts Initiative—analysts Ali Vaez and Dina Esfandiary—worked with Malley when he was president of the International Crisis Group, a think tank that advocates for increased U.S. diplomacy with Tehran.
But the revelations about the Iranian influence network and its ties to senior Biden administration officials is turning heads on Capitol Hill. Several Republican lawmakers told the Free Beacon that Tabatabai's security clearance should be revoked pending an investigation. Lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday afternoon sent an investigatory leader to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, questioning why Tabatabai has access to top secret information and saying that she "should not be employed by the Department of Defense."
"A high-level official at the Biden [Defense Department] was briefing Iran's foreign ministry and ghostwriting essays for the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism," Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Free Beacon. "Congress needs to investigate any communications between Ariane Tabatabai and the Iranian regime since Biden took office [and] the Pentagon must review Ms. Tabatatai's security clearance."
Banks and other Republican lawmakers who spoke to the Free Beacon said they are concerned that Tabatabai and others affiliated with the Iran Experts Initiative hid their ties to the hardline regime to land their government gigs.
Banks also raised concerns that Tabatabai may have used her Pentagon position to push U.S. Strategic Command into hosting former top Iranian official Hussein Mousavian at an August conference. Mousavian's appearance at STRATCOM's 2023 Deterrence Symposium, a high-level powwow that brought the former Iranian official shoulder to shoulder with America's top military brass, generated a congressional investigation, the Free Beacon first reported.
"The House Armed Services Committee should see if Ms. Tabatabai was involved in STRATCOM's indefensible decision to host former Iranian nuclear negotiator and propagandist Hossein Mousavian," Banks said.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Biden administration appears to have a knack for granting security clearances to questionable officials.
"First, it was Rob Malley's security clearance and now this," Wilson told the Free Beacon. "The Biden administration owes the American public an explanation on the extent of Iran's influence operations in the United States and whether officials in the Biden administration have been compromised."
Rep. Kevin Hern (R., Okla.), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Congress's largest Republican caucus, also expressed concerns that "multiple people within the Biden administration have ties to the Iranian Regime."
"It's no coincidence that Biden has been so soft on Iran," he said. "Why has this gone on for so long? The world's leading state sponsor of terrorism should have zero friends in the U.S. government."
Update 5:46 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from White House National Security Council spokesman Kirby.
Update 6:19 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from DOD.