Home inSight Made in Tehran: The Iran Experts Who Swayed U.S. Policy

Made in Tehran: The Iran Experts Who Swayed U.S. Policy

Kenneth R. Timmerman
World leaders at a meeting to discuss the Iran nuclear deal agreement in Vienna, Austria in 2015. (Photo: Dragan Tatic)

Editor's Note: Ken Timmerman is the President and CEO of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran. His 12th book of non-fiction, And the Rest is History: Tales of Hostages, Arms Dealers, Dirty Tricks, and Spies (Post Hill Press 2022) was reviewed by inFOCUS Quarterly (Fall 2022). He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and has covered the Middle East for 40 years.

Important reporting by Iran International TV and former Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon, has contributed substantial new facts to a long-brewing controversy over Iranian-regime agents of influence in the United States.

These agents were deeply engaged in negotiating the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (aka: JCPOA), and more recently, in the Biden administration effort to revive the deal as an “understanding” that would not be submitted to a hostile Congress.

John Kerry made three separate last-minute concessions to the Iranian regime in 2015 after he thought he had a deal. And the regime just happened to know that Kerry would cave on each one, so they pressed for more.

It was obvious to many of us who followed the negotiations as they were taking place that the nuclear deal could have been “written in Tehran,” as I pointed out in a column that appeared the day the deal was finalized.

Now it would appear, from the newly released emails, that “written in Tehran” was not hyperbole. It was the literal truth.

And I was not the only one to smell a rat at the time. Former IAEA nuclear inspector David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security and tracks the Iranian nuclear program, recalled the lobbying of the pro-regime agents as well in a recent tweet.

“People often forget that during these negotiations, many of these folks were actively opposing US positions and pushing for Iranian ones. They all shifted to zealous supporters after the deal was finalized, but I remember very well what several were doing during the negotiations to try to weaken US positions and our need at my Institute to fend them off privately and publicly, sometimes in informal coordination with US negotiators.

For years, pro-freedom Iranians have excoriated the role of Swedish-Iranian Trita Parsi and his National Iranian American Council, NIAC, calling them the “Iran Lobby” in Washington, DC.

Several NIAC “graduates” went on to play key roles in the Obama administration. Most notorious among them was Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who was Director for Iran and Iran Nuclear Implementation at the National Security Council from 2014-2015, before burrowing into the State Department’s Policy Planning staff in 2016. She was subsequently demoted during the Trump administration. (Realizing the sensitivity of her post and her NIAC past, NIAC scrubbed its website of her papers and contributions, but not before they had been archived).

But the current revelations are far more serious, as they document what appear to be direct ties between U.S. government officials engaged in making Iran policy, and the Tehran regime.

Already in April 2021, Representatives Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ), Scott Perry (R-PA), and Yvette Herrell (R-NM), wrote to the Biden administration to express “serious concerns” over the administration’s choice of Ariane Tabatabai as a senior advisor to the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

“There is reason to believe that Ariane and her family have ties and allegiance to the Iranian Regime and pose a security threat to the United States,” they wrote.

“Tabatabai, in multiple public appearances, has echoed Iranian regime talking points and has made excuses for Iran’s oppressive government,” they added.

And so, the Biden administration, instead of demoting Ms. Tabatabai, shifted her to the Pentagon, where today she serves as chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

Please pause to let that information sink in.

A woman, whose own emails and actions and public writing and speaking show great sympathy for the Iranian regime, to the extent of asking regime officials whether she should attend academic conferences in Saudi Arabia and Israel, now has her finger on the pulse of ALL US Special operations activities around the world.

Ms. Tabatabai has not, to my knowledge, responded to these allegations, but before she claims that the regime put pressure on her by threatening her father, a respected academic at the University of Tehran, she might want to recall the 2018 ceremony where then-regime president Hassan Rouhani bestowed an award of her father, Javad Tabatabai, for his “contributions” to the field of Iranian studies.

In her current role, Ms. Tabatabai is said to have a Top Secret/SCI clearance, giving her access to code-word intelligence reports from across the U.S. Intelligence Community. Such reports include, for example, information obtained from confidential informants of US law enforcement agencies, code-word intercepts that could identify which Iranian regime communications systems have been compromised by the United States and its allies, as well as clandestine intelligence assets operating abroad, possibly even inside Iran.

Last week, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, questioning how she was hired and how she obtained a security clearance.

“Ms. Tabatabai’s past employment history and close ties to the Iranian regime are alarming and should be disqualifying for anyone seeking such a sensitive position of trust within the United States Department of Defense,” they wrote.

Several fine lines separate what’s legal from what’s not when it comes to public policy debates.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires individuals or lobbying firms advancing the positions of foreign principles to register with the Justice Department (DOJ). There had been few prosecutions for FARA violations until the Trump DOJ went after former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and his business partner Bijan Kian for taking money from a Turkish businessman, in exchange for writing an op-ed urging the incoming Trump administration to expel Fethullah Gulen, a top Erdogan opponent, living on a secluded estate in Pennsylvania.

For FARA prosecution to be successful, the DOJ must prove that an individual or lobbying firm was actually employed by the foreign principal and received money from them. And even then, it’s sketchy. Flynn made a plea agreement he subsequently stated he had been coerced into, while Kian was exonerated at trial.

So far, that has not been alleged in the reporting on the pro-Iranian regime “Iran experts.”

A second line involves command authority: did the individuals in question take orders from Iranian officials, either publicly or covertly? That line may have been crossed in the current case, according to the email exchanges between Ariane Tabatabai and others with Iranian regime officials, although that is a determination a court would ultimately make.

The third line is the blurriest of all as it involves dual loyalty. And this line appears to have been crossed repeatedly by several of the individuals named in these latest reports, most particularly by Ali Vaez.

Vaez was recruited by Robert Malley in 2012 when Malley chaired the International Crisis Group (ICG). When Malley became the lead negotiator for the Iran Nuclear talks in 2014-2015, Vaez went with him. He made an initial trip to Tehran where he presented an ICG report, still available on their website, to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the head of the influential Expediency Council. That report revealed to the Iranians many of the negotiating points the US would later be willing to concede.

Vaez himself was unhappy with the ICG report, which he claimed was too harsh on Iran. In an Oct. 2, 2014 email to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, he wrote:

“As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty, I have not hesitated to help you in any way; from proposing to Your Excellency a public campaign against the notion of [nuclear] breakout, to assisting your team in preparing reports on practical needs of Iran.”

That sounds like loyalty to a foreign sovereign to me.

In his lengthy rebuttal of the Iran International reporting, Vaez sought to distract attention from his pledge of loyalty to the Iranian regime, claiming that the “Iranian correspondence on the IEI is a one-sided and self-congratulatory load of nonsense.”

As the point man for US nuclear negotiator Rob Malley, whose own security clearance was suspended in April, Ali Vaez met repeatedly with Iranian regime officials. But did all those meetings take place during official negotiating sessions, or during the semi-public Track 2 diplomatic events around the world, as Vaez now claims?

Questions that now need to be asked are whether any of the individuals named in the Iran Experts Initiative, especially those who currently or previously worked in sensitive U.S. government positions, met clandestinely with Iranian regime officials, whether they took directives from those officials, and whether they communicated classified or confidential U.S. government information, including negotiating positions, to the Iranians.

It’s time for the FBI to get back to work tracking real counter-intelligence threats to America, not phony Russian collusion plots.