A group of U.S. Senators are demanding the Department of Defense (DoD) suspend the security clearance of an official who allegedly participated in an information operation that benefitted the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
“We are concerned that an individual who previously served as part of an Iranian Foreign Ministry information operation is currently serving in a senior Department of Defense position,” the senators wrote in a Sept. 29 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “We urge you to take immediate action to ensure that the Department has not been compromised.”
The senators referenced a recent Semafor report explaining how Iranian Foreign Ministry officials built ties with influential overseas academics and researchers to facilitate influence operations to bolster Tehran’s positions on global security issues.
A cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails provided confirmation, Semafor states, that “at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.”
The project was called the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI) and comprised “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.,” according to email correspondence from Saeed Khatibzadeh, a Berlin-based Iranian diplomat and future Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The email was sent to Mostafa Zahrani, the head of the IPIS think tank in Tehran, on March 5, 2014, showing that Iran’s efforts to leverage U.S. human assets began during the Obama administration.
A week later, Khatibzadeh sent other correspondence saying he had gained support from two young academics, Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary.
Tabatabai is currently the chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), a position that requires a security clearance. She is a former researcher of the RAND Corporation, was a professor at the University of Tehran, and was an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
Esfandiary is a senior advisor at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018-2021.
The senators have questioned why the Biden administration brushed aside concerns about Tabatabai’s Iranian ties, calling them smears and slander:
Concerns about Ms. Tabatabai are not new. In March 2021, shortly after Ms. Tabatabai was appointed senior adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Iranian dissidents noted Ms. Tabatabai’s long history of echoing the Iranian regime’s talking points. In April 2021, several House members requested a review of Ms. Tabatabai’s security clearance. In response, the Biden administration dismissed these allegations as “smears and slander.”
The latest allegations reported in Semafor, however, indicate that Ms. Tabatabai may have been engaged in a relationship with the Iranian regime well beyond what even her strongest critics alleged. The fact that the Department initially responded to these latest allegations by rushing a full-throated defense of Ms. Tabatabai, rather than taking the time to ensure that our national security has not been compromised, suggests that you are protecting hiring missteps rather than prioritizing national security.
According to the emails obtained by Semafor, on a least two occasions, Tabatabai checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry prior to attending policy events.
The senators requested more information from the DoD about its process of vetting Tabatabai, including whether she disclosed her ties to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other prominent Iranian officials in her security clearance disclosures.