After a week of silence following Iran International’s report on Tehran’s influence network in the US, the Iranian foreign ministry was forced to react.
During a press briefing on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani was asked about the joint report by Iran International and Semafor revealing that several individuals closely connected to President Joe Biden’s former Iran special envoy, Robert Malley, were part of an influence network established by Iran’s foreign ministry.
Kanaani dodged a direct answer but attempted to portray the issue as part of domestic US politics, saying, “We do not wish to comment on issues that are raised in the competition between political parties in the United States, and we leave these matters to the internal parties in the United States.”
He claimed that the revelation is playing an “Iran card” in the domestic politics of the US,” without further explanation. It took a week for Iran’s foreign ministry to come up with this response. However, the investigative report did not involve US domestic politics and was about its foreign policy issues, directly relating to Iran.
Media in Iran have also started to analyze the repercussions of the compromised network of the Islamic Republic’s “Soft War” which has revealed deep holes in the regime’s so-called watertight secrecy.
Faraz Daily, an online pro-reform newspaper based, raised a series of questions, such as who leaked the correspondence between the Iran analysts and Iran’s Foreign Ministry officials. Iran International’s Bozorgmehr Sharafedin combed through thousands of emails from Iranian diplomats to reveal the Islamic Republic’s network of academics and journalists under the aegis of the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), established by the Iranian foreign ministry in 2014.
The IEI members simultaneously worked for top Western think tanks and gave advice to the US and Europe. At least three individuals, namely Ariane Tabatabai, Ali Vaez, and Dina Esfandiari, were, or later became, key aides to Robert Malley, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.
Out of the individuals exposed in the report, only one, Ariane Tabatabai, is still a US government employee. She holds the position of Chief of Staff for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, a high-ranking role with access to top-secret information. Dozens of US senators have demanded her security clearance be revoked.
Faraz Daily also claimed that the revelation was also welcomed by Iranian hardliners who seek to tarnish the efforts by [former Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif, a figure in Iran’s political sphere known as an advocate of diplomacy with the US. “They (hardliners) have always been pursuing the elimination of Zarif and diminishing his influence,” the outlet stated.
Faraz Daily also highlighted the timing of the report that came out amid rumors of negotiations between Iran and the United States, implying that it was aimed at stifling the efforts of diplomatic ties between the two. Sharafedin, the writer of the investigative report, has said in several interviews that the data was available to them for months but the fact-checking process delayed the publication of the report.
Conservative online magazine Tablet published an article Monday titled “High-Level Iranian Spy Ring Busted in Washington,” opening with how the Biden administration’s now-suspended Iran envoy “helped to fund, support, and direct an Iranian intelligence operation designed to influence the United States and allied governments.”
Even at home, Iranian reformist newspaper Ham-Mihan described the report as an effort to smother secret Iran-US talks and tried to whitewash the analysts exposed in the report as well as all other Iranian-American individuals who are trying to promote relations between the US and the Islamic Republic. The daily cited several pundits to justify that “lobbying” for Iran is different from “infiltration.”
Quoting Jahanbakhsh Izadi, a university professor in Iran, Ham-Mihan said, “Direct negotiations between Iran and the United States have always existed since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, but this issue has often been hidden.”
Another pundit, Mehdi Zakerian, said that if a country seeks to exert influence in another country and impact its policymaking to secure greater gains using influential individuals, “we no longer call this infiltration, we refer to it as lobbying,” which he said could be done by figures “from athletes, artists, and journalists to university professors and researchers”.
Izadi underlined that “Lobbying is a widely accepted principle in international politics… and is considered legal in many countries, including the United States.” He apparently ignored the fact that to be a lobbyist in the US, one must be registered as one and have a contract for it, not like the analysts exposed in the report who claimed neutrality and independence.
London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat said in an article Sunday that the report provided details and evidence for an “open secret” that “the Iranian lobby is real and has been operating in Washington since the Obama years.”
“The experts were the liaison between the US and Iran when the nuclear negotiations kicked off. Their role was to bolster Iran’s image and drown out critical voices in Washington,” read the article, adding: “The question now is, has the network succeeded? Has the IEI succeeded in deceiving American and European officials? I believe the Democrats, especially those affiliated to Obama, wanted to be deceived.”
Iran International continues to be stonewalled, declined comments from key figures and institutions in the unraveling web including Iran’s Foreign Ministry, its in-house think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), and former foreign minister Javad Zarif who was the mastermind of the network. Others approached include Mostafa Zahrani, a former director general of strategic affairs in the foreign ministry and an advisor to Zarif, and Saeed Khatibzadeh, a diplomat and an IPIS member.