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In an attachment to an email, Khatibzadeh first proposed a list of 21 Iranian analysts living abroad who he thought should join the IEI. Subsequent exchanges show the number of vetted individuals or those willing to cooperate was reduced to around 10.

Among the IEI top members was Ariane Tabatabai, currently chief of staff for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations at US Department of Defense, and an official advisor to Robert Malley between 2021-2022, the documents show. She attended the nuclear negotiations in Vienna alongside Malley in 2021, according to a photo published by the Russian delegation.

In another email sent on March 11, 2014, Khatibzadeh told Zahrani: “This very idea of Iran Experts Initiative (IEI) was discussed between me and two of the young experts, we (you and me) met in the prague (sic) conference, i.e. Ariane Tabatabei (sic) and Dina Esfandiari (sic). We three agreed to be the core group of the IEI.”

The members of the network wrote articles to explain and defend Iran’s foreign policy and its nuclear and military activities. They also gave interviews to major media outlets, attended panels, and provided advice to Western governments on Iran. In all cases, they introduced themselves as independent analysts.

Another core member was Ali Vaez. He was recruited by Malley to the Crisis Group in 2012.

The Crisis Group said in an article published on its website in 2015 about Vaez and his role in the nuclear agreement that he was “empowered by the trust the parties had in his impartiality” and that “the US, Russia, China, Germany, the UK and France began to invite Vaez to exchange views by telephone, by email and at the negotiations venue.” 

Malley founded and directed the ICG’s Middle East and North Africa Program in 2002. After being appointed in February 2014 to the National Security Council staff in Obama’s administration, he left the ICG, but he maintained his close connections to the institution, continuing to use Vaez as his point of contact with Zarif, and sent him as his envoy to Vienna to meet with Iranian officials, the emails show.

Vaez traveled to Tehran in March 2014, accompanied by three top members of the ICG. They met former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who was also chairman of the Expediency Council, a powerful unelected body. Malley had planned to join the trip, but canceled those plans after he was appointed to the Obama administration, according to an email from Vaez to Zahrani.

A month after the visit, Vaez asked Zahrani for another meeting in Vienna, according to the documents.

“Following the order of his previous boss Malley, Ali Vaez will come to Vienna. Who from our group do you instruct to have a meeting with him,” Zahrani asked Zarif in an email dated April 3, 2014.

The email indicates that Malley knew about the close relationship of some of his aides and advisors with Iranian officials.

Asked about the email, Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief advocacy officer, said the framing of the Iranian government was either mistaken or disinformation. “All of our work is independent. We’re not intermediaries for anyone.”

The IEI simultaneously expanded its reach to European think tanks and established ties with some of their Iran analysts, including Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Rouzbeh Parsi, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (Ui), and Adnan Tabatabai, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), according to the emails.

The European Council on Foreign Relations and the Crisis Group, in separate comments, confirmed the existence of the IEI network, but questioned its affiliation with Tehran.

An ECFR spokesman told Iran International that “during the 2013-2015 nuclear talks, ECFR staff met with officials from Europe, the U.S. and Iran to discuss developments in the ongoing negotiations.”

“To our understanding, the Iran Expert Initiative was a European-government backed initiative that ECFR staff sometimes took part in but did not lead on,” the spokesman said. The spokesperson declined to name the European-government.

ECFR said its staff remained independent and in no way acted on behalf of any government or institutions.

Crisis Group’s Jobson, replying on behalf of Vaez and Esfandiary, said the IEI was an “informal platform” for researchers from different organizations to meet with the IPIS and Iranian officials.

“To spell it out a bit more, it was a means to facilitate research discussions and not a more formal entity where participants could be directed by anyone… At the time, Crisis Group had just one staff member who was invited to these meetings but did not otherwise have any involvement with IEI. Another researcher more involved with IEI later joined our staff,” Jobson said.

She said that the IEI was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

The documents show that the concept of the IEI originated with Iranian officials and that they orchestrated the inaugural and subsequent meetings of the group. The documents also reveal that Iranian officials determined the makeup of the initial group as well as the date and location of the meetings, with invitations dispatched by the IPIS. They also indicate that the Iranian foreign ministry covered the costs for the event venues.

Adnan Tabatabai from CARPO declined to comment, saying the investigation was “based on falsehoods and factually wrong assumptions.” He did not elaborate. He also called the emails fake.

A forensic study of email headers commissioned by Iran International indicated that the communications were genuine. None of the other analysts questioned the authenticity of the emails.

Rouzbeh Parsi from Ui said “It is perfectly normal for analysts and academics to engage officials and experts from various sides in a negotiation/conflict in order to enrich their own analysis.” 

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