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Semafor: ‘Iran Experts Initiative’ included top aides to suspended US diplomat

A U.S. State Department spokesman dismissed the report as something that happened almost a decade ago.

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley speaks to VOA Persian at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 2021. Credit: VOA Persian via Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley speaks to VOA Persian at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 2021. Credit: VOA Persian via Wikimedia Commons.

Newly released documents show that at least three people who were or became top aides to suspended U.S. diplomat Robert Malley were part of Tehran’s 2014 Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), intended to burnish the country’s and its nuclear program’s global image, per a Semafor report.

In June, Malley was placed on leave, and his security clearance has been revoked. The FBI is reportedly investigating the diplomat for mishandling classified information.

Semafor and Iran International, which reported separate stories, obtained “a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails,” according to Semafor.

“The documents offer deep and unprecedented new insights into the thinking and inner workings of Iran’s Foreign Ministry at a crucial time in the nuclear diplomacy—even as Tehran’s portrayal of events is questioned, if not flatly denied, by others involved in the IEI,” it reported. “They show how Iran was capable of the kind of influence operations that the U.S. and its allies in the region often conduct.”

More specifically, a German professor in the IEI offered to ghostwrite opinion pieces for Tehran officials and others in the network sought Iranian Foreign Ministry staff advice about U.S. and Israeli conferences and hearings, per Semafor.

“The IEI participants were prolific writers of op-eds and analyses, and provided insights on television and Twitter, regularly touting the need for a compromise with Tehran on the nuclear issue—a position in line with both the Obama and Rouhani administrations at the time,” it reported.

The IEI had particular access during the final years of former President Barack Obama’s administration; Hassan Rouhani was then the Iranian president. “The Iran Experts Initiative was born from a Rouhani administration eager to end Tehran’s pariah status following eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in which he courted Holocaust denial and promoted the eradication of Israel,” Semafor reported.

“This initiative which we call ‘Iran Experts Initiative (IEI)’ is consisted of a core group of 6-10 distinguished second-generation Iranians who have established affiliations with the leading international think tanks and academic institutions, mainly in Europe and the U.S.,” an Iranian diplomat, who later became spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry, wrote to the head of the ministry’s think tank in 2014, according to Semafor.

Ariane Tabatabai, whom the Iranian diplomat identified as part of the IEI network, holds the Pentagon post of chief of staff to the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, “a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance,” per Semafor. “She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021.”

Tabatabai asked the Iranian Foreign Ministry if she should visit Saudi Arabia, following an invitation from a Saudi prince and former ambassador in Washington, and whether she should attend a workshop at Ben-Gurion University on Iran’s nuclear program.

“I am not interested in going, but then I thought maybe it would be better that I go and talk, rather than an Israeli like Emily Landau who goes and disseminates disinformation,” she wrote to the Iranian official of the university event, per Semafor. “I would like to ask your opinion, too, and see if you think I should accept the invitation and go.”

Zahrani replied the same day: “All things considered, it seems Saudi Arabia is a good case, but the second case is better to be avoided. Thanks,” the Iranian official wrote back that day, referring to the Israel trip. “There’s no evidence Tabatabai went to the conference in Israel, though her books and research reports suggest she’s interviewed a number of senior Israeli officials,” per Semafor.

The International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley ran from 2018 to 2021, told Semafor that the IEI isn’t run by the Iranian government. (A former IEI academic is now senior senior adviser on the Middle East and North Africa at ICG.)

“From my read of if it, it looked like an account of things that happened almost a decade ago, most of which involved people that do not currently work for the government,” Matthew Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesman, said when asked about it at department’s press briefing on Tuesday.

“The one current U.S. government official I did see mentioned in that story has written critically of Iran on a number of occasions before joining the government and underwent a thorough background investigation to obtain a security clearance before joining the State Department,” he said. “She now works at the Defense Department. I’ll refer to them any specific comment about her status.”

“Most importantly,” he added, “any official who comes to work on sensitive issues and has to obtain a security clearance undergoes a full background check that is conducted by career officials. That’s what happened in this case.”

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