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Is This What You Did, Rob Malley?
Filed under: INFLUENCE
Rob Malley, who led diplomatic efforts in Iran under the Obama administration as well as the Biden administration, worked closely with three members of what is being described as an Iranian influence network from 2014 until his suspension this April.
Details of the ‘Iran Experts Initiative’ (IEI), a project of the Iranian foreign ministry, and its personnel links to Malley were revealed this week in a joint investigation by websites Semafor and Iran International.
In painstaking detail, Iran International shows how the regime in Tehran recruited people for IEI and used it to massage the nuclear negotiations that led to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the ‘Iran nuclear deal.’
The emails, spanning from 2003 to 2021, were part of a trove of thousands belonging to Mostafa Zahrani, former director general of strategic affairs in the foreign ministry and advisor to former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The emails included passport copies, resumes, invitations to conferences, airplane tickets, visa applications, payment receipts, academic articles, and extensive correspondence with foreign ministry officials, university staff, and students, all of which helped in verifying their authenticity.
An Iranian foreign ministry office called IPIS (Institute for Political and International Studies) recruited the three people linked to Malley for the IEI, according to Semafor. Semafor was also the first outlet to report that Malley is under FBI investigation for mishandling classified documents.
Malley allegedly ‘overshared’ classified documents, leading to his suspension for personal conduct, mishandling protected information, and improper use of information technology. It is unclear whether the IEI associations led directly to his suspension, or indirectly, or whether they simply represent a disturbing pattern of poor vetting based on wishful thinking that led to Malley’s epic fall.
That same ‘oversharing’ would explain how Malley’s suspension notice appeared in the Tehran Times, which is widely understood to serve hardliners in the Iranian government.
Republicans have expressed their displeasure that Iranian newspapers are giving them more and better information about Malley’s suspension than the Biden administration.
Now they are demanding answers about Ariane Tabatabai, one of Malley’s IEI associates, and why she holds a security clearance and a position at the Pentagon. If Iran cannot have its moles in American national security, they can at least inspire a witch hunt.
Reps. Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jack Bergman (R-MI) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin yesterday with specific questions about the Chief of Staff for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD/SOLIC).
Rogers chairs the House Armed Services Committee while Bergman chairs the intelligence subcommittee. They want answers no later than 3 October.
“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.
Sen. Ted Cruz opined that “a vast Iranian influence operation that goes to the very top of the administration” has been driving White House Iran policy.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller defended Tabatabai’s hiring in a press briefing, while Ali Vaez, another of the three people named in the IEI reporting, took issue with the outlet’s characterization of certain emails between Iranian contacts.
Iran International reports that Malley tried to appoint Vaez to a government post, but he was disqualified from holding a security clearance. Still, “until recently, according to two people familiar with the situation, Vaez drafted Malley’s tweets.”
Malley hired the third IEI associate, Dina Esfandiary, to work for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a well-known think tank where he had served as CEO and president during the Trump administration.
ICG “has a significantly different understanding of the IEI and Tehran’s role in it” than Tehran had, according to Semafor.
Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.
“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,” she said. “The fact that participants were from a host of different think tanks demonstrates that it was merely an informal platform.” ICG also notes that all the work its staff publishes is vetted and agreed upon in-house; they dispute that Iran — or any government — could have directed any members of their team to take a position at odds with the organization’s official view.
Another European think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, confirmed that one of its senior fellows, Ellie Geranmayeh, also took part in the Iran Experts Initiative.
All of this began after the 2013 elections put a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, into what passes for a presidency in the Islamic Republic. Like the Obama administration, he was eager to reach an historic deal and end nuclear tensions. The IEI was part of that effort.
But the clerics are less in charge all the time in Iran, while the power of generals increases. Donald Trump spiked JCPOA. Yesterday’s peacemakers are being punished for their sins. Joe Biden’s effort to revive the deal using the same point man has become a political embarrassment, a gift that keeps on giving to Republicans.
Of course, none of this means that any of the three named individuals had anything to do with Rob Malley’s suspension. As noted above, these new stories tell us something instead about his vulnerabilities and blind spots.
Diplomatic personnel normally have very wide latitude about what they share in discussion with foreign interlocutors. This is why the US State Department maintains its own systems of reporting and analysis. Bureaucratic information barriers with other agencies, such as DoD and FBI and CIA, also exist for this very reason. Whatever Malley did, it had to be egregious.
There are two ways in which Malley increased his risk of ‘egregious oversharing’ with the government of a hostile foreign power. One was human, the other technical. Per the suspension memorandum, Malley seems to have made classified documents available to the wrong parties, likely by email, i.e. technical violations. We do not know which contacts received those materials.
A second way Malley increased his risk of ‘egregious oversharing’ was by referring at least one person, Ali Vaez, for a job in the United States government who could not pass the background check and security clearance process. This is not an aspersion on Mr. Vaez in particular, as a person can barred from working with classified material for any number of reasons. Tabatabai has apparently passed the same scrutiny. That suggests the system has been working, but we already see how Malley has put all three individuals under new suspicion.
Are there others? This is the question a counterintelligence investigation must answer. It is not the sort of question that needs to be aired out in public as politics. A classic ‘mole’ is far less certain than ‘email overshare’ as an explanation for Rob Malley’s suspension, and that charge is far too easily abused.
Revolutionary Shi’a Islam does not have the same ideological appeal outside of Iran that global communism had for the Washington intelligentsia of the 1940s. A broader McCarthyism is unwarranted. Whatever he did, let Rob Malley’s crimes belong to Rob Malley.
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