Republicans Probe Rob Malley's Ties to Tehran Influence Network

Lawmakers want to know if suspended Iran envoy was compromised by the Iran Experts Initiative

Rob Malley (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
October 11, 2023

Republican leaders on the Senate and House foreign affairs committees have opened a joint investigation into Biden administration Iran envoy Robert Malley's links to a secret Iranian government influence network that reportedly includes several of his closest associates, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas)—the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively—are asking the State Department for information on whether Malley was compromised by the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), a vast Iranian government-controlled propaganda operation that allegedly includes at least three of the diplomat's close associates, including one who works at the Pentagon and has a security clearance.

Malley had his security clearance pulled earlier this year and was suspended from his post at the State Department amid an FBI investigation into his alleged mishandling of classified information. The disclosure of the Iranian influence operation, first reported by Semafor, is raising questions about Malley's suspension.

"On its own, the discovery of the IEI would represent an important step in unraveling a broader Iranian malign influence network," the lawmakers write, according to a copy of a letter sent Friday and obtained by the Free Beacon. "However, the involvement of the IEI in influencing Mr. Malley's confidants, when Mr. Malley himself is the subject of an ongoing security clearance investigation, raises serious questions about whether this Iranian influence operation succeeded in penetrating the U.S. government and influenced the policies of this administration."

The lawmakers raise particular concerns that "several of those allegedly involved in the IEI had direct, and in some cases continuing, communications with members of the Iranian regime." Those allegedly involved include "at least three current or former associates of Mr. Malley."

Several committees in the House and Senate are conducting investigations into the influence network, particularly as it relates to Ariane Tabatabai, a senior Pentagon official who worked with Malley at the State Department. Parallel investigations have been opened into Malley's security situation. The State Department, however, has refused to comply with lawmakers' requests for full disclosure in each case.

"The State Department's continued obstruction and ongoing refusal to provide the basic information that we have requested substantially increases these concerns, and effectively blocks congressional oversight over the State Department and U.S.-Iran policy," the lawmakers write.

The foreign policy leaders are also requesting that the State Department detail the role Malley and his associates, including Tabatabai, played in the Biden administration's ongoing diplomacy with Iran, including a recent hostage deal that freed up $6 billion for the hardline regime.

"We seek immediate clarity on whether, and the extent to which, Mr. Malley's actions and the actions of his team have impacted or otherwise influenced U.S.-Iran policy, including reported proximity talks with the Iranian regime in Oman, or the conduct of the Department during negotiations for the United States to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action," the lawmakers write.

The committee leaders want the State Department to clearly disclose if Malley's security clearance was revoked due to his relationship with members of the Iranian influence network.

"Was it related to the passing of sensitive or classified information to members of the IEI network, such as Ali Vaez?" the senators ask, referring to a former Malley colleague who works as the Iran Project director at the International Crisis Group, where Malley worked before entering government.

Vaez was identified by Semafor as a member of the Iran Experts Initiative and is said to have communicated directly with senior Iranian government officials. In addition to his relationship with Malley, Vaez has visited the White House at least five times for meetings with Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, and Brett McGurk, who works on Middle East issues related to Iran.

The lawmakers also want to know if the State Department's internal security service was aware of Tabatabai's alleged affiliation with the influence network when she was working alongside Malley. Following Semafor's initial report on the matter, the Pentagon confirmed that it is conducting an internal review into whether all guidelines were followed when granting Tabatabai a security clearance.

A Pentagon spokesman told the Free Beacon that everyone who obtains a security clearance goes through "appropriate vetting processes" but said it is "not going to comment further on any individual's security clearance status."

The lawmakers are also asking the State Department to tell Congress when it became "aware of Mr. Malley's connections to individuals with direct contact with the Iranian regime."