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Anatomy of a Smear
Flawed reports paint erstwhile Iran negotiator Rob Malley and his colleagues as patsies of Tehran
In the five months since Robert Malley, President Biden’s special envoy for Iran, was stripped of his top secret security clearance and placed on unpaid leave, the Biden administration has refused to answer any questions about his mysterious case.
Both the White House and the State Department, Malley’s nominal employer, have declined comment on Malley’s alleged mishandling of classified material and “temporary” loss of his security clearance. Likewise, the FBI, which has reportedly opened an investigation, also won’t comment. Malley himself, now lecturing on foreign policy at Princeton and Yale, has declined to address his case since issuing an optimistic statement after he was benched in late June.
“I have been informed that my security clearance is under review,” he said then. “I have not been provided any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favorably and soon.”
That’s not happening.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans, long opposed to any nuclear arms deals with Iran, have blasted the State Department’s silence on the case. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said it raised “serious concerns both regarding Malley’s conduct and whether the State Department misled Congress and the American public.”
Now, into this facts-free void comes a troubling investigative report, published Tuesday on the Semafor news site, which describes an Iranian influence operation in the U.S. that enlisted Iranian-American academics to write op-eds and articles aimed at softening American opinion toward Iran’s nuclear program during the Obama administration, which negotiated the 2015 deal that capped Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts.
Semafor’s innuendo-laden report on the operation, which the Iranians secretly dubbed “the Iran Experts Initiative,” or IEI, was built on private emails it obtained showing contacts between Iranian foreign ministry officials and three Iranian-American experts on Iran—Ali Vaez, a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group; Dina Esfandiary, an Iran expert at the Century Foundation during the nuclear negotiations; and Ariane Tabatabai, then with the German Marshall Fund and now a senior official at the Pentagon. Malley, a Middle East expert in the Clinton and Obama administrations, had headed the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that advocates diplomatic solutions to regional conflicts, during the Trump administration.
Malley has long been a controversial figure in Washington’s foreign policy circles. His detractors in pro-Israel groups, the Iranian diaspora and among many Gulf Arab officials hostile to Iran, accuse him of sympathizing with Palestinian militants, pointing in particular to his 2008 meeting with members of the terrorist group Hamas while serving as a Middle East specialist at the International Crisis Group. In its defense, the group cites its mission of conflict resolution and the necessity of meeting with all sides in international disputes.
Others charge Malley isn’t tough enough when dealing with Iran. In what appears to be an effort to smear both Malley and the three experts, the Semafor story says Malley was fully aware of their correspondence with Iranian officials while he served as Obama’s lead negotiator at the nuclear talks.
The Semafor story paints an incriminating portrait of the three experts as willing and useful tools in the Iranian influence operation and, even more damning, of their working as “top aides” to Malley during the Obama and Biden administrations.
In fact, only Tabatabai briefly served as Malley’s aide.
The author of the report is Jay Solomon, who was fired as The Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign correspondent in 2017 over his ethically troubling entanglement with an arms dealer who was also one of his key sources. Solomon then became an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank that echoed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fierce opposition to the Iran nuclear accords.
A similar report also was broadcast and published online Tuesday at Iran International, an anti-regime Persian-language satellite television news channel headquartered in Washington. On Thursday, The Atlantic magazine joined the assault with a story headlined, “Iran’s Influence Operation Pays Off,” written by Graeme Wood, author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.
To be sure, the emails that Tabatabai and Vaez reportedly sent to Iranian foreign ministry officials are ingratiating in their tone. In one exchange, Tabatabai informs the ministry’s Mostafa Zahrani that she’d been invited to conferences in Saudi Arabia and Israel and then asks for his advice on whether to attend. After he advises her to go to Saudi Arabia but to avoid Israel, she thanks him for his guidance. In another email, Vaez sends a draft of an op-ed he wrote to Iranian officials and closes by saying, “I look forward to your comments and feedback.” In a tweet on Tuesday, Vaez defended himself, saying he sent the draft “as a courtesy after [Iranian] officials claimed I had been too harsh on their position in my writing. The piece criticized both sides’ position in a balanced way and was published with no substantive changes.” Nevertheless, the Semafor report unfairly makes all three experts sound like Iranian agents. Moreover, the report also contains some serious inaccuracies.
For example, only one of the three experts cited in the Semafor report—Ariane Tabatabai— worked as a “top aide” to Malley at the State Department in 2021. But she left after only a few months because of reported policy differences with Malley. Worried that his readiness to lift many sanctions on Iran would result in a weak agreement, she took a job at the Pentagon as chief of staff for Christopher P. Maier, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Tabatabai remains in that post today. Initially, DoD firmly pushed back on Soloman’s insinuations, saying “Dr. Tabatabai was thoroughly and properly vetted as a condition of her employment with the Department of Defense,” it said in a statement. “We are honored to have her serve.”
On Thursday, however, her boss Christopher P. Maier appeared before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and announced a probe into Tabatabai.
“We are actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret special compartmented information,” he said in response to questioning from Republican lawmakers, according to Semafor.
Ali Vaez worked with Malley when both were at the International Crisis Group and served as an unofficial adviser during both the negotiations for the Iran nuclear accord and subsequent effort to revive that agreement.
Esfandiary never worked with Malley at all. She joined the International Crisis Group in February 2021 after Malley had decamped to be Biden’s special envoy on Iran. She also declined to comment for this story.
On Tuesday, 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 [U.S.] government.”
Notwithstanding the facts-challenged story, McCaul doubled down on Semafor’s insinuations, tweeting that “Every day the Rob Malley saga gets more alarming.”
Malley’s allies struck back at the attacks on his associates.
“Apparently any association with Malley is supposed to be suspicious, in the eyes of his detractors,“ tweeted Mark Fitzpatrick, a 26-year veteran of the State Department who served in senior positions dealing with nuclear non-proliferation.
Vaez, however, penned a lengthy rebuttal on X (formerly Twitter) to the Semafor and Iran International reports.
“Over the past decade, I've been called an American agent, an Iranian regime sympathizer and a British stooge,” he said. “I usually choose to dismiss such defamatory nonsense. But on this occasion, I'm going to respond, because this is straight up hatchet journalism.”
Vaez called the Iranian emails dealing with the Iran Experts Initiative a “one-sided and self-congratulatory load of nonsense. They either did not know, or were spinning beyond recognition, an initiative by European think-tankers, with support by a major European govt, to hold occasional policy discussions.”
Ironically, Vaez added, the journalists who wrote the Semafor and Iran International reports, “who often dismiss what Iran says as propaganda, have then doubled the [official Iranian] exaggerations with their own characterization of this being some orchestrated network, operating in the shadows, at Tehran's behest—because the regime said so!”
“The real question, of course, is why and how email exchanges from nearly a decade ago are emerging—and what agenda those who obtained them, and are publishing them, have,” Vaez said.
The leak of the email exchanges appears to be a third shot at Malley by hardliners who want him removed from any further Iran diplomacy. The first shot was fired in July, when the Iranian regime-affiliated Tehran Times mischievously asserted that “Malley's overly close proximity to his non-official Iranian assistants and advisers created the ground for the fall of this experienced diplomat.” In August the paper was back with a “sensitive but unclassified" State Department memorandum to Malley it had obtained informing him that his top secret security clearance had been suspended pending an investigation into possible violations of U.S. national security protocols. The memorandum cited three reasons for the suspension: “Personal Conduct,” “Handling of Protected Information,” and “Use of Information Technology.” The memorandum underscored that Malley's “continued national security eligibility is not clearly consistent with the interests of national security."
Tracing the Leak
How the Tehran Times obtained the memo has prompted several theories. A State Department official told SpyTalk that the Chinese have penetrated SIPRnet, a communications system used by the State and Defense departments to transmit classified information up to and including the “Secret” level. Beijing's cyber spies, said the official, who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the subject, may have seen the memo and passed it along to the Tehran Times. But a former CIA official said Iran doesn’t need China’s help; its own skilled hackers likely retrieved the memo themselves from Malley’s email account.
While Vaez didn’t speculate over who obtained the email exchanges dealing with the influence operation, he left no doubt that it was hardliners in both Tehran and Washington who hope the leak will halt any further diplomatic moves between the two governments.
“All in all, the venom is coming out of frustration that opponents of diplomacy have failed, both when they were in charge of maximum pressure, which was a disaster, and now that the Biden administration has managed to de-escalate tensions,” he said.
“Regardless of how much these people spin reality,” Vaez added, “the only thing that has/will stop Iranian centrifuges from spinning is diplomacy.”
Not surprisingly, the Semafor report has triggered renewed denunciations from Republicans and other hardline opponents of Biden’s efforts to reduce tensions with Iran and possibly revive the 2015 nuclear deal in some form. They knocked the secret talks between the administration and Iran that recently resulted in a prisoner swap in which five Americans unlawfully detained by the regime were set free in exchange for the release of five Iranians jailed in the United States. The deal also included the release of $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues, frozen by the Trump administration in 2018 and held by South Korea’s central bank, to a bank in Qatar, where Iran may withdraw the funds only for humanitarian purposes.
“Americans have rightly been asking why the current administration is so friendly with the Iranian regime,” Texas Republican Ted Cruz, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a press release, “and why Biden administration officials have so single-mindedly enabled Iranian nuclear progress and terrorism.” (In fact, Iran accelerated its nuclear enrichment after Trump withdrew from the 2015 deal.) Cruz also maintained, without evidence, that the reports “suggest a vast Iranian influence operation that goes to the very top of the administration.”
The Republicans also went after Tabatabai at the Pentagon.
Red Baiting Redux
Congressmen Mike Rogers and Jack Bergman, respectively the Republican chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee and its subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urging him to review Tabatabaii’s security clearance.
“Was the Department aware of Ms. Tabatabai’s participation in Iranian government-sponsored influence networks, such as the Iran Experts Initiative?” the lawmakers asked. They gave the Pentagon one week to respond.
But Fitzpatrick, the former non-proliferation official at the State Department, argues there was no downside to the experts’ contacts with Iranian officials.
“When Western-based researchers interact with Iranian officials, both sides naturally seek to understand and to influence the other,” he said. “Twisting such conversations to imply collusion is a form of McCarthyism.”
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