Biden administration has some explaining to do about Iranian-influence operation

The Biden administration’s now-sidelined Iran envoy Robert Malley compromised America’s national security, and new bombshell reporting about an Iranian-influence operation proves it.

In the wake of news earlier this year that Malley is under FBI investigation and has been suspended from his State Department role, Team Biden has shielded him from scrutiny by the media and Congress. That’s an increasingly untenable position, and has been a disgrace since news of the Malley probe first broke.

Now, according to reports that ran in Semafor and Iran International on Tuesday, some of his acolytes are linked to a pro–Iranian regime echo chamber. It’s not clear if this is what triggered the Malley suspension, but this is more evidence of how unfit he was for the job in the first place.

Emails that the outlets obtained show that Iranian government officials internally claimed credit for cultivating a network of Western scholars whom the country’s foreign ministry leaned on to promote its message internationally during its nuclear negotiations with the Obama administration. The program was called the Iran Experts Initiative.

The IEI members allegedly laundered the regime’s talking points, publishing op-eds, giving interviews with news outlets, and seeking the input of regime officials on their public engagements.

Two of the scholars involved in the program, Ali Vaez and Ariane Tabatabai, have close ties to Malley. He hired Tabatabai to join his office at the start of the Biden administration; she subsequently moved to a role within the Pentagon.

Vaez, meanwhile, is a longtime expert on Iran policy at the International Crisis Group think tank. Malley, who worked with him at ICG, tried to bring him on board at State — but was blocked from doing so when Vaez failed to obtain a security clearance for the role, according to Iran International. Yet even after he was denied clearance, Vaez continued to write Malley’s tweets from his perch outside of government.

Why that’s a problem should be self-evident after the new reports. Throughout the talks surrounding the 2015 accord, Tabatabai and Vaez were in constant contact with officials on the Iranian foreign ministry’s payroll, not only asking them their views on potential speaking opportunities, but also giving them the chance to review and suggest changes to their writing on the Iran negotiations. According to the documents reviewed by the two outlets, some of these communications were forwarded to then–foreign minister Javad Zarif for his input.

Even if, for the sake of argument, there is some innocent interpretation of these interactions, the views expressed in the messages were disqualifying on their own merits.

The Iran International report described one email exchange between Vaez and Zarif in 2014, after the foreign minister had expressed disapproval of a report that Vaez’s organization had published regarding Iran. Vaez responded to Zarif, saying that he was eager to assist Iran.

“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 [nuclear] breakout, to assisting your team in preparing reports on practical needs of Iran,” Vaez wrote.

Washington’s pro-Iran engagement machinery has already cranked into overdrive, calling the reports wrong or, as one of its members put it, a “depressing, McCarthyistic campaign.” But none of the reporting has been refuted, even by its targets. Vaez posted a 32-tweet thread defending his conduct yesterday, yet he neither directly addressed his message to Zarif nor questioned the authenticity of any of the emails. The real smears are coming from the people in Malley’s corner.

The State Department and the Pentagon, meanwhile, defended Tabatabai and said the clearance process had been properly conducted. While she has at times written critically about the regime and left Malley’s team, reportedly over concerns that his approach was too accommodating, that she requested the Iranian foreign ministry’s input on whether to attend events in Israel and Saudi Arabia is disqualifying.

During a press briefing yesterday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller went on the offensive, implying that the reporting was irrelevant because the events described took place nearly a decade ago. He also declined to give an update on Malley’s status. Yet earlier this month, the Biden administration freed up $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds as part of a prisoner swap with hopes it would help pave the way toward a revival of Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal. Questions surrounding Malley and the broader Iranian-influence campaign are as relevant as ever.

The State Department needs to give Congress a full accounting of Malley’s rocky tenure in the administration. Under the glare of scrutiny, Foggy Bottom’s efforts to obfuscate, misdirect, and stonewall can’t hold up forever.

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