US Assistant Secretary of Defense Christopher Maier told a Congressional panel on Thursday that the Defense Department is looking into reports whether his chief of staff had contacts had covert contacts with Iran.
Iran International published a report September 26, detailing information obtained from hundreds of emails by Iranian diplomats showing that three individuals close to US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, were part of a group called the Iran Experts Initiative established by the Iranian foreign ministry to promote Tehran’s interests within the US policy centers. One of this individuals, Ariane Tabatabai is currently the chief of staff of Undersecretary Maier at the defense department.
During a hearing at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Congressman Brian Mast (Rep-Fl) asked Maier to answer candidly if Ms. Tabatabai listed on her security questionnaire that she had had any contacts with the Iranian foreign ministry.
Maier replied, “This is an ongoing personnel matter…We are actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret special compartmented information.”
The undersecretary and the department’s counsel at the hearing said they were not involved in the security clearance decision making, and did not have information about what Tabatabai answered in related questionnaires, but were looking into this matter.
Rep. Mast asked Maier whether Tabatabai had included anyone from the Iranian foreign ministry as her foreign contacts in her national security questionnaire while seeking security clearance. Maier responded that this was part of their current investigation.
Mast noted that in the national security questionnaire, questions about foreign associates have a statute of limitations of seven years. He asked Maier if he could confirm whether it was possible any contact Tabatabai had with Iranian officials was not listed due to this “seven-year time window.”
However, the investigation by Iran International shows that there was only a period of six years and seven months between the time Arian Tabatabai was in contact with a top Iranian official and her appointment at the State Department.
Malley recruited Ariane Tabatabai for his State Department team in February 2021.
In an email dated June 27, 2014, Ariane Tabatabai informed Zahrani that she had met in Turkey Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal – a former ambassador to the US – and he extended an invitation for her to visit Saudi Arabia and showed interest in collaborating. Tabatabai further inquired “I would like to know your opinion; would you be interested in this?”
She also mentioned that Ben-Gurion University in Israel had invited her to a workshop on arms control and Iran’s nuclear program. Ariane Tabatabai asked, ” I would like to ask your opinion too and see if you think I should accept the invitation and go.”
Zahrani replied on the same day: “All things considered, it seems Saudi Arabia is a good case, but the second case [Israel] is better to be avoided.”
Iran International’s report was a joint project with Semafor and has led to intense Congressional questioning as to how individuals so close to the Biden administration’s policy making could have had secret ties with Iran without the knowledge of people who either hired them or had ongoing political ties with them.
Iran Experts Initiative (IEI) is the name of a scheme devised by Iran’s foreign ministry in 2014 to bring together a network of scholars outside Iran to advocate the regime’s foreign policy and nuclear strategy.
“These are troubling allegations about Iran’s attempts to influence US Iran policy,” wrote Sen. Jim Risch, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on X. “Potential involvement of Biden Admin officials with the Iran Experts Initiative must be taken seriously & warrants further review.”
Robert Malley, who initially hired Tabatabai at the State Department, was the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran until late April 2023, when his security clearance was suspended and was then placed on unpaid leave in June 2023 without any explanation from the State Department. It’s not clear if the Iranian influence operation had anything to do with his suspension.
In light of the revelations, Sen. Ted Cruz called on the Biden administration to suspend the clearances of those linked to IEI “until these allegations are fully resolved and accountability is imposed.”
On Wednesday, Republican Senator Bill Hagerty called the story “a complete scandal and outrage”.
In a thread on his X account, the Senator posted a few questions for the Biden administration, including one on Ariane Tabatabaei: “Does Ariane Tabatabai, as current COS to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, have access to Special Access Programs? If so, did DeptofDefense subject her to further vetting or was that somehow waived by a DoD senior official?”
So far, Democratic lawmakers have been silent about the revelations, but Republicans appear determined to continue investigating and asking questions from the administration.