A general view of the US Capitol on September 25, 2023

Republicans Demand Answers After Iranian Influence Ops Revealed

Friday, 09/29/2023

The fallout from an investigative report revealing an Iranian government influence operation in the United States continues, demanding answers from the administration.

“I didn’t think the Biden admin’s appeasement of Iran could get worse. Today, I confronted them on allowing an Iranian spy to infiltrate and work at the Pentagon. They defended it. Unbelievable!”

Sen. Joni Ernst wasn’t the first one in the Capitol to pillory the Biden administration over its Iran policy. But she was arguably the most unsparing when she got to it.

Iran International and Semafor simultaneously published a report this weak showing that several individuals with close ties to President Joe Biden's former Iran special envoy Robert Malley were part of an influence network established by Iran's foreign ministry. One of this individuals currently holds a top post at the Pentagon.

The person is Ariane Tabatabai, an Iranian-American with top-level security clearance who has been found out to have been in close contact with high-ranking diplomats in Tehran, working hard to promote the messages and the interests of the Islamic Republic.

“Any Pentagon official engaged in an Iranian misinfo op should have their security clearance removed. No question,” Senator Ernst posted on X, along with short clips of her appearance in a congressional hearing Thursday.

Many prominent Republicans in Washington have railed against the Biden administration since the report exposed the Iran-backed influence operation in Washington.

“The Biden administration’s flat denials of Pentagon officials’ improper contacts with Iran without refuting the reporting raise questions and deserve investigation,” said Sen. Tom Cotton on Thursday.

The Department of Defense has confirmed an ongoing investigation.

In a hearing at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Assistant Secretary of Defense Christopher Maier said his department was looking into “whether all law and policy was properly followed” in granting Tabatabaei “top secret special compartmented information.”

So far, there’s no evidence publicly available to suggest Tabatabai (or any other person named in the revelations) was a ‘spy’, as Senator Ernst seems to allege. There are, however, serious questions to be answered on loyalty and allegiance, even if the emails obtained by Iran International and cited in the report are all that there is to the matter.

Ali Vaez, another Iran analyst named in the report, puts it eloquently in an email to Javad Zarif, then Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic (dated October 2, 2014):

"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 works for Crisis Group. His close relationship with Zarif is, therefore, less problematic than Tabatabaei, who is currently chief of staff for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, a role that requires security clearance.

Those who hired Tabatabai maintain – as they would – that she has been vetted thoroughly and properly. Nonetheless, they will likely struggle to convince the public or the lawmakers that another candidate without the 'baggage' could not have done this job.

And it's hard to imagine the Republicans letting this pass lightly, especially since those named in the report are close associates of Robert Malley, whose security clearance was suspended earlier this year and he is now under investigation by the FBI for mishandling of classified material. Republicans were already demanding clarifications about Malley's case, when now more troubling information has emerged.

This is almost all that’s known about Malley’s case. The State Department has so far managed to keep the details to itself, despite the best efforts of some lawmakers who want to know why Malley lost his security clearance.

But given that he's been the one fostering and promoting Tabatabai, the Republicans will now have more grounds to pressure the Biden administration for information on Malley, as well as his Iran policy generally.

On Wednesday, Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lambasted Biden in a statement. “Every day, the Rob Malley saga gets more alarming,” Sen, McCaul noted, “reports allege an official responsible for supporting his Iran negotiating team was a core member of an Iranian-run influence campaign.”

A day later, it was Ted Cruz’s turn.

“Reports and emails show there is a vast Iranian influence operation that involves officials going to the very top of the Biden administration,” the Senator posted on X. “Sadly, it's paid off, with Biden administration officials enabling Iran to make hundreds of billions of dollars and get within reach of a nuclear arsenal.”

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