High-Level Iranian Spy Ring Busted in Washington

The trail that leads from Tehran to D.C. passes directly through the offices of Robert Malley and the International Crisis Group

by Lee Smith TABLET        October 01, 2023

The Biden administration’s now-suspended Iran envoy Robert Malley helped to fund, support, and direct an Iranian intelligence operation designed to influence the United States and allied governments, according to a trove of purloined Iranian government emails. The emails, which were reported on by veteran Wall Street Journal correspondent Jay Solomon, writing in Semafor, and by Iran International, the London-based émigré opposition outlet which is the most widely read independent news source inside Iran, were published last week after being extensively verified over a period of several months by the two outlets. They showed that Malley had helped to infiltrate an Iranian agent of influence named Ariane Tabatabai into some of the most sensitive positions in the U.S. government—first at the State Department and now the Pentagon, where she has been serving as chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, Christopher Maier.


On Thursday, Maier told a congressional committee that the Defense Department is “actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret special compartmented information.”


The emails, which were exchanged over a period of several years between Iranian regime diplomats and analysts, show that Tabatabai was part of a regime propaganda unit set up in 2014 by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The Iran Experts Initiative (IEI) tasked operatives drawn from Iranian diaspora communities to promote Iranian interests during the clerical regime’s negotiations with the United States over its nuclear weapons program. Though several of the IEI operatives and others named in the emails have sought to portray themselves on social media as having engaged with the regime in their capacity as academic experts, or in order to promote better understanding between the United States and Iran, none has questioned the veracity of the emails.


The contents of the emails are damning, showing a group of Iranian American academics being recruited by the Iranian regime, meeting together in foreign countries to receive instructions from top regime officials, and pledging their personal loyalty to the regime. They also show how these operatives used their Iranian heritage and Western academic positions to influence U.S. policy toward Iran, first as outside “experts” and then from high-level U.S. government posts. Both inside and outside of government, the efforts of members of this circle were repeatedly supported and advanced by Malley, who served as the U.S. government’s chief interlocutor with Iran under both the Obama and the Biden administrations. Malley is also the former head of the International Crisis Group (ICG), which directly paid and credentialed several key members of the regime’s influence operation.

The IEI, according to a 2014 email from one Iranian official to one of Iran’s lead nuclear negotiators, “consisted of a core group of 6-10 distinguished second-generation Iranians who have established affiliation with the leading international think-tanks and academic institutions, mainly in Europe and the US.” The network was funded and supported by an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) official, Mostafa Zahrani, who was the point of contact between IEI operatives, and Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.


According to the correspondence, the IEI recruited several U.S.-based analysts, including Tabatabai, Ali Vaez, and Dina Esfandiary, all of whom willingly accepted Iranian guidance. These Middle East experts were then subsequently hired, credentialed, supported, and funded by Malley and the ICG where he was president from January 2018 until January 2021, when he joined the Biden administration. Malley was also ICG’s program director for Middle East and North Africa before the Obama administration tapped him in February 2014 to run negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal. Vaez joined the ICG in 2012 and served as Malley’s top deputy.


Emails quoted in the stories show that even once in government, Malley directed Vaez’s actions at ICG, sending him to Vienna where the Iranian and U.S. teams held nuclear negotiations. “Following the order of his previous boss Malley, Ali Vaez will come to Vienna,” Zahrani reportedly wrote Zarif in an April 3, 2014, email. “Who from our group do you instruct to have a meeting with him?”


Vaez wrote Zarif directly after the Iranian foreign minister expressed dissatisfaction with an ICG report on Iran. “As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty,” wrote Vaez in an October 2014 email, “I have not hesitated to help you in any way; from proposing to Your Excellency a public campaign against the notion of [nuclear] breakout, to assisting your team in preparing reports on practical needs of Iran.”


These emails likely explain why Vaez was unable to obtain a security clearance in order to join Malley in the Biden administration. At the same time, they raise the question of why Malley sought to bring Vaez into the State Department in the first place, and why he remained in close operational contact with him even after he was denied a security clearance.


After the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was finalized in July 2015, ICG hired another IEI operative as a consultant—Adnan Tabatabai, not to be confused with Pentagon official Ariane Tabatabai. Like Vaez, Adnan Tabatabai also pledged to dedicate his efforts to the Iranian regime.


In an email from 2014, as the agreement was being negotiated, Adnan Tabatabai wrote to Zarif about the foreign minister’s meeting in Vienna with IEI operatives: “As you will have noticed, we are all very much willing to dedicate our capacities and resources to jointly working on the improvement of Iran’s foreign relations. Iran is our country, so we, too, feel the need and responsibility to contribute our share. When I say “we” I mean the very group you met.”



October 6, 2023 | Comments »

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