A report based on internal emails of senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials involved in an influence operation known as the Iran Experts Initiative claims that a Pentagon staff member contributed to the initiative.
Emails obtained by Semafor and Iran International suggest that Iranian Foreign Ministry officials conducted a secret influence operation, starting in 2014, to strengthen Iran’s position on global security matters, especially in relation to its nuclear program.
The Iran Experts Initiative is reported to have operated by establishing a network of influential researchers and academics throughout the United States and Europe.
Based on the emails obtained by Semafor, the Iran Experts Initiative, which is believed to have provided diplomats working for Iranian president Hassan Rouhani with access to influential policy circles during former President Barack Obama’s administration, used the Institute for Political and International Studies think tank to promote positive messages surrounding discussions of a nuclear between Iran and the United States.
Email correspondence for the Iran Experts Initiative reveals an exchange where an Iranian official noted that he had gained the support of Ariane Tabatabai, an academic he met with in Prague. Tabatabai reportedly agreed to be part of the “core group of the IEI,” according to the emails.
According to Semafor, Tabatabai is the Pentagon’s current chief of staff for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, which is a position that requires a U.S. security clearance. Tabatabai also worked on the Iran nuclear negotiation team under the Biden administration.
Emails from the Iran Experts Initiative indicate that Tabatabai contacted Iran’s Foreign Ministry at least twice before attending policy events.
Tabatabai emailed Mostafa Zahrani, head of the Institute for Political and International Studies think tank, in June of 2014, explaining that she had met Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal, a former ambassador to the United States, and requesting Zahrani’s opinion on whether she should accept his invitation to Saudi Arabia.
Tabatabai also asked Zahrani whether she should attend a workshop at Ben-Gurion University in Israel centered around Iran’s nuclear program.
“I am not interested in going, but then I thought maybe it would be better that I go and talk rather than an Israeli like Emily Landau who goes and disseminates disinformation,” she said. “I would like to ask your opinion, too, and see if you think I should accept the invitation and go.”
An email reply from Zahrani stated, “All things considered, it seems Saudi Arabia is a good case, but the second case [Israel] is better to be avoided. Thanks.” In response to Zahrani’s email message, Tabatabai indicated that she would “take action” with regard to Saudi Arabia and would keep Zahrani “updated on the progress.”
Another email between Tabatabai and Zahrani indicates that Tabatabai told Zahrani about her scheduled Congressional testimony pertaining to the Iran Nuclear Deal. In an email dated July of 2014, Tabatabai shared that she would be appearing before congressional committees along with William Tobey and Gary Samore, both Harvard academics.
“I will bother you in the coming days,” she wrote. “It will be a little difficult since both Will and Gary do not have favorable views on Iran.”
While neither the Pentagon nor the State Department commented on the substance of the Iran Experts Initiative email correspondence, Semafor reported that the Pentagon remained supportive of Tabatabai.
“Dr. Tabatabai was thoroughly and properly vetted as a condition of her employment with the Department of Defense,” the Pentagon stated. “We are honored to have her serve.”