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September 26 2023

Policy Briefs

The Islamic Republic’s Western “Lobby” Gets Exposed

Andrew Ghalili

SENIOR POLICY ANALYST

In the wake of Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley having his security clearance suspended and being investigated by the FBI, new reporting has revealed the existence of a vast network of Iranian policy analysts, academics and researchers, some who were Malley’s aides, who were secretly part of an Islamic Republic regime network called the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI). It’s imperative that the United States and its Western partners investigate the IEI and its members to expose the depths of this treachery. 


The Bottom Line

  • Iran International and Semafor jointly reported, based on thousands of emails, the existence of the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), a network of influential Western academics and researchers at top Western think tanks who advised the United States and some European governments but were secretly working directly with the Islamic Republic to increase the regime’s influence on the global stage. 
  • Iranian Foreign Ministry officials reportedly initiated the effort in the spring of 2014.
  • Three aides to Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy for Iran, were part of the Iranian government network: Ariane Tabatabai, Ali Vaez, and Dina Estfandiary. While Ms. Tabatabai worked directly for Mr. Malley in the State Department for 15 months after he recruited her in 2021, Mr. Vaez and Ms. Esfandiary advised him at the International Crisis Group (ICG), an influential think tank for which Mr. Malley previously served as President and CEO. 
  • The Iranian diaspora, and many Iranians inside the country as well, have warned for years about the existence of what’s been dubbed the “Iran Lobby”, a network of so-called Iran experts advising for Western governments who were actually advocating for policies to help the Islamic Republic. The existence of the IEI proves that the diaspora was not making up paranoid conspiracies, as defenders and friends of the regime apologists regularly accused them of. 

What did the Iran Experts Initiative Do?

  • The reporting indicates that the IEI was thought of by Saeed Khatibzadeh, a Berlin-based Iranian diplomat, who proposed the initiative to Iranian officials Majid Takht-Ravanchi and Mostafa Zahrani. Zahrani, the head of the Iranian think tank the Institute for Political and International Studies and a Revolutionary Guards member and veteran diplomat, “was instrumental in supporting the network and securing its funding, while acting as the main point of contact between the IEI members and [then-Iranian foreign minister Javad] Zarif.” 
  • Zahrani communicated directly with “almost a dozen Iranian analysts in Western think tanks between 2014 and 2021.” The six named in the reporting thus far are Mr. Vaez, Ms. Tabatabai, Ms. Esfandiary, senior policy fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations Ellie Geranmayeh, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (and brother of NIAC founder Trita Parsi) Rouzbeh Parsi, and German academic Adnan Tabatabi
  • The activities of the IEI members include defending and justifying Iran’s foreign policy and its nuclear and military activities through: writing and ghostwriting articles, giving interviews to major media outlets, participating in panels, and directly advising Western governments.
    • One of the Iranian agents who was just released in the U.S.-Iran hostage deal, Kaveh Afrasiabi, was charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), secretly writing op-eds for the regime and lobbying Congress. It’s plausible that members of the IEI could have similarly violated FARA and be charged with similar crimes. 
  • According to ICG’s chief advocacy officer, the IEI “was supported financially by European institutions and one European government.” 

The Connection to Rob Malley and the U.S. Government

  • Robert Malley, the lead negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Biden administration’s Special Envoy for Iran who is currently on unpaid leave as his security clearance is under review and he is under FBI investigation for allegedly mishandling classified information, was closely associated with members of the IEI.
  • The emails suggest that suspended Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley was aware of the close relationship between his aides and Iranian officials. One month after Mr. Vaez traveled to Tehran in March 2014 with other ICG members, Vaez emailed the former director general of strategic affairs in the foreign ministry requesting another meeting in Vienna. An email from Zahrani to his boss, former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, reads, “Following the order of his previous boss Malley, Ali Vaez will come to Vienna.” 
    • Mr. Vaez, in an email to Mr. Zarif, expressed his loyalty to the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, writing, “As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty, I have not hesitated to help you in any way; from proposing to Your Excellency a public campaign against the notion of breakout, to assisting your team in preparing reports on practical needs of Iran.” 
  • One IEI member, Ariane Tabatabai, currently works at the Pentagon as a senior policy advisor to the United States Department of Defense

The United States Must Get to the Bottom of This 

  • The United State Congress, Law Enforcement, and Justice Department must work with its European partners to investigate the IEI and find out:
    • Which Western academics and researchers were members of the IEI 
    • Which European institutions and European government funded the IEI
    • How members of the IEI were able to obtain and maintain high level security clearances
      • In a statement, the Pentagon said of Ariane Tabatabai: “Dr. Tabatabai was thoroughly and properly vetted as a condition of her employment with the Department of Defense.” This suggests that the DoD’s vetting and security clearance process has major flaws that need to be immediately addressed.
    • The full extent of the Islamic Republic’s influence operations in the United States and Europe
  • Considering the substantial influence that IEI members and their close affiliates have had over the U.S. government, the writings and influence of the members should be retroactively reviewed, in depth, to expose and reconsider any policies that were enacted based on IEI advice. 
  • The institutions who employed IEI members, such as International Crisis Group, should come clean about its involvement with the IEI. All Western think tanks, especially those who work closely with the U.S. government and/or claim to represent the Iranian diaspora, must disclose if any of its members were members of or worked with the IEI or a similar network. 
  • The United States Congress and Justice Department should investigate the activities of American members of the IEI to determine if they violated the FARA by pitching themselves to Congress, journalists, and the American public as a neutral and objective expert on Iran while actually secretly working on behalf of the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. 
    • The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Michael McCaul told Jewish Insider that the reporting on the IEI “is shocking and incredibly troubling. I’m looking into this as we speak to figure out the extent of this reported operation by the Iranian regime and how many Obama and Biden officials were ensnared in it.”
  • IEI members with security clearances such as Ariane Tabatabai should have their clearances placed under review and be subject to law enforcement investigations. 
  • In a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers and Rep. Jack Bergman wrote, “Let me be clear, anyone who openly works on behalf of U.S. adversaries, particularly Iran, should not be employed by the Department of Defense,” and requested answers to several questions regarding Ms. Tabatabai’s employment at the DoD.

Image courtesy of NUFDI.