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Iran’s Influence Operation Pays Off

Iran’s Influence Operation Pays Off


When news comes out that someone has suffered an email breach, my first instinct is to pity them and practice extreme charity. I don’t remember any emails I wrote a decade ago, but I’m sure there’s something in there appalling enough to sour my relationships with every friend, ex, or co-worker I ever had. Give me your email password, and I will ruin your career.

This week, the careers in jeopardy belong to a handful of Americans and Europeans who were, by the looks of their emails, groomed by the Iranian government to promote conciliatory policies toward Tehran. According to reports by Semafor and Iran International, Iranian foreign-policy bigwigs such as Mohammad Javad Zarif identified think-tank staffers of Iranian origin, sponsored meetings with them, and used the group to coordinate and spread messages helpful to Iran. The emails, which date from 2014, suggest that those in their group—the “Iran Experts Initiative”—reacted to Iranian outreach in a range of ways, including cautious engagement and active coordination. The Iranian government then paid expenses related to this group’s internal meetings; cultivated its members with “access to high-ranking officials and extended invitations to visit Tehran,” according to Iran International; and later gloated over how effectively it had used its experts to propagate the Islamic Republic’s positions.

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The government had reason to gloat. It picked excellent prospects, some of whom sucked up to Tehran over email and echoed its negotiating positions publicly. A few of them ended up in and near positions of prominence in the U.S. government through connections to Robert Malley, a veteran Middle East hand in Democratic administrations. Malley, who led Obama teams focusing on the Islamic State, Syria, and Iraq, is known to favor negotiation with unfriendly governments in the region and to scorn the “maximum pressure” approach that replaced nuclear negotiation when Donald Trump entered office. Earlier this year, Malley lost his security clearance for reasons still not explained, and he is on leave from government service. (He did not reply to a request for comment.)

One of Tehran’s targets, Ariane M. Tabatabai, joined the Biden administration’s Iran team with Malley and is now the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations. Another, Ali Vaez, formerly worked as an aide to Malley on Iran issues. That is the disturbing upshot to the reports: Witting participants in an Iranian influence operation have been close colleagues with those setting the Biden administration’s Iran policy, or have even served in government and set it themselves.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s State Department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, dismissed the reports as “an account of things that happened almost a decade ago, most of which involved people that do not currently work for the government.” I assume he meant the U.S. government. Anyway, the accusations are serious and can’t be batted away by the suggestion that 2014 was a long time ago.

One sign of the gravity of these accusations is the unconvincing attempts to minimize them. The commentator Esfandyar Batmanghelidj said opponents of Tehran had smeared the analysts merely because they “maintained dialogue and exchanged views with Iranian officials.” He went on to note Semafor’s links to Qatar and Iran International’s to Iran’s archenemy, Saudi Arabia. The journalist Laura Rozen tweeted that the stories were “McCarthyistic” and targeted blameless analysts “because they try to talk to everybody and because of their Iranian heritage.”

Defending the emails as maintaining “dialogue” so ludicrously misrepresents the accusation that I am forced to conclude that these defenders find the actual accusation indefensible. No one is alarmed that Americans of Iranian descent are talking with Iranian-government officials. What’s alarming is the servile tone of the Iranian American side of that dialogue, and the apparent lack of concern that the Iranian government views them as tools for its political ends. Rozen and Batmanghelidj don’t dispute the emails’ authenticity. Comparing the Iranian influence operation to supposed Qatari and Saudi ones is, in turn, tacit admission that the emails are probably real.

Cultivating a source is fine. But any self-respecting analyst, journalist, or politician wants to be the one cultivating, not the one being cultivated. This mutual back-scratching can erode one’s integrity and independence. That is why the Iranians do it: to turn influential and otherwise smart people into their pets, and eventually condition them to salivate at the issuance of a visa, or an email from Javad Zarif. Responding to these overtures is fine. You can butter up an official (“Your Excellency”), maybe grovel a little for a visa. But the writing itself, and the analysis behind it, must be independent to the point that even the most cynical observer could not accuse you of altering your views to please a subject.

By this standard, some of the reported exchanges between the Iran Experts and their convenor are mortifying. After the report, Vaez, a deputy to Malley, admitted on X (formerly Twitter) that he’d sent a full draft of an op-ed to the Iranian government. “I look forward to your comments and feedback,” his email to the Iranians read. If I sent a source a draft of a story, I would be fired. (I asked The National Interest, where the article appeared, if its policy also forbids sharing drafts. The editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, did not reply.) Sending questions is laudable. Checking facts is standard practice. But a magazine article is not a Wiki whose contributors are also its subjects. Sharing a full draft of an article, whether for approval or just improvement, makes the recipient an unacknowledged co-author.

Vaez later pledged to the Iranian foreign minister to “help you in any way,” by proposing “a public campaign” to promote Iran’s views on its nuclear program. He offered these services “as an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty.” Vaez, like his former boss Malley, has written widely about Iran and U.S.-Iran relations, for magazines including this one. (Attempts to reach Vaez through his employer to verify the authenticity of the emails and their context were not answered by the time of publication.)

According to the same reports, Adnan Tabatabai, CEO and founder of the German think tank CARPO, “offered to prepare articles for Iran’s foreign ministry.” “We as a group [could] work on an essay,” he suggested. “It could, for example, be published under a former official’s name.” Tabatabai, the report says, worked as a contractor for Malley’s International Crisis Group. (He did not respond to a request for comment.)

Ariane Tabatabai (who is not related to Adnan) wrote to her contact at the Iranian foreign ministry and asked his advice on whether to work with officials in Saudi Arabia and attend a meeting in Israel. “I would like to ask your opinion too and see if you think I should accept the invitation and go,” she asked Mostafa Zahrani of the foreign ministry. She made clear that she personally “had no inclination to go” to a workshop at Ben-Gurion University, but she thought it might be better if she went, rather than “some Israeli,” such as Emily Landau of Tel Aviv University. Zahrani told Tabatabai to look into Saudi Arabia and avoid Israel. She thanked him for the guidance, and she went to Tehran herself in 2014. In another email to the Iranians, she noted that she had recently published an article arguing that Tehran should be given more leeway to spin up centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

These emails look bad. So would mine, if they came out in a selective leak, and so would yours. But I’m not sure that they would look this bad, or that my excuses would be so weak.

Vaez tweeted that he “shared the draft as a courtesy after [Iranian] officials claimed I had been too harsh on their position in my writing.” Even if sharing a draft were permissible, would he extend the courtesy to Trump officials? “[ICG’s Iran] work has always been informed by the perspectives of all relevant stakeholders,” he claims. I am confident that if you plumbed his inbox, you would find no fan mail addressed to “Your Excellency” Mike Pompeo, offering his devoted and patriotic service. Nor would he soften the blow of criticism of Trump officials (whose Iran policy was built on sanctions and drone strikes) by giving them a “courtesy” peek at his next work.

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For once, the Iranians themselves are blameless. As conspiracies go, the one alleged here is mild. They found Westerners of Iranian extraction who did not despise their religious government, as so many Iranian expatriates do. They made a list. They flattered its members and waited to see who welcomed the flattery and reciprocated with offers of service. These techniques paid off splendidly when the Biden administration started appointing the very people Tehran had been grooming. (Vaez was poised to join Malley at State, but the appointment was never made.)

The emails do not demonstrate or suggest that Ariane Tabatabai, now in the Defense Department, or others not in government, became agents of Tehran. The Pentagon says that Tabatabai was “thoroughly and properly vetted” for her current job but refuses to say whether her emails were accurately and fairly quoted. Even if they do not show that she is a security risk, they do show that she and others responded to Tehran’s blandishments and sought its approval. The administration should find staff who know Iran and its leaders, ideally well enough to recognize Zarif by the smell of his cologne or the sound of his footfall. To get that close takes some ingratiation. The method of ingratiation matters, though, and in this case, it stinks.





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