A new report claims that senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials executed a secret influence operation in 2014 to strengthen Iran’s position on global security matters, especially its nuclear program, by establishing a network of influential researchers and academics in the United States and Europe.
According to emails obtained by Semafor and Iran International, the influence operation, known as the Iran Experts Initiative, provided diplomats working for President Hassan Rouhani with access to influential policy circles during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Semafor reported at least three people in the operation were either serving as aides or later became aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy to Iran, whose security clearance was suspended earlier this year.
According to Semafor, participants in the Iran Experts Initiative were high-profile op-ed and analysis writers, who routinely shared information on social media and television, urging for a nuclear compromise between Iran and the United States.
The emails obtained by Semafor and Iran International indicate that the Iran Experts Initiative was launched after Rouhani’s 2013 election. At the time, Rouhani was attempting to press for a nuclear agreement deal with western nations.
The emails claim that Iran’s Foreign Ministry used the Institute for Political and International Studies think tank to connect with 10 “core” members of the Iran Experts Initiative in order to promote the potential for a nuclear deal between Iran and the United States, which was eventually reached in 2015.
“This initiative which we call ‘Iran Experts Initiative (IEI)’ is consisted of a core group of 6-10 distinguished second-generation Iranians who have established affiliations with the leading international think-tanks and academic institutions, mainly in Europe and the US,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, an Iranian diplomat and future Foreign Ministry spokesman, wrote in a 2014 email to Mostafa Zahrani, head of the Institute for Political and International Studies think tank.
Additional emails obtained by Semafor and Iran International reveal another correspondence just one week later, where Khatibzadeh explained that he had gained the support of Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary, both academics he had met with in Prague. “We three agreed to be the core group of the IEI,” Khatibzadeh wrote.
Tabatabai is the Pentagon’s chief of staff for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, which is a position that requires a U.S. security clearance. According to Semafor, Tabatabai previously worked on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiation team under the Biden administration.
Esfandiary currently serves as a senior advisor to the International Crisis Group think tank, which Malley led from 2018-2021, on North Africa and the Middle East.
Zahrani and Khatibzadeh touted the success of the Iran Experts Initiative in an internal email correspondence with their superiors.
“Following our phone conversation, I attached here for your review only a few of the most significant works some of our friends published during the week after the Lausanne framework agreement was reached,” Khatibzadeh wrote in Farsi. “We were in constant contact and worked vigorously around the clock. Some friends performed as resourceful as a media outlet all by themselves.”
This was a breaking news story. The details were periodically updated as more information became available.