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An Iranian-born Pentagon aide, who was revealed earlier this year to be part of a years-long, Tehran-backed influence operation, also sought to undermine the leading group resisting the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to a new report delivered to President Biden.
Ariane Tabatabai has retained her security clearance and position as chief of staff to the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict — despite a bombshell Semafor report in September detailing her ties to senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials.
But Tabatabai and founding members of the influence operation, known as the Iran Experts Initiative, were also engaged in a “covert campaign” to smear the nation’s leading opposition group, known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), according to a recent report endorsed by former vice presidential national security adviser Lincoln Bloomfield and written by a University of Baltimore professor.
“By seeking to neutralize favorable impressions of the organization among Washington’s foreign policy elite, Tehran sought to take down an entity capable of aiding Western attempts to curtail the Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons program, malign regional agenda, human rights abuses, and fundamentalist inclinations,” writes Ivan Sascha Sheehan, an associate dean of UB’s College of Public Affairs.
“By brazenly targeting the highly effective dissident organization, the operatives hoped to leave US officials with the false impression that there is no viable alternative to the ayatollahs — and certainly not one with a pro-democracy record that remains committed to toppling clerical rule.”
Sheehan delivered his report to Biden on Monday, according to a copy of a letter obtained by The Post, and is planning a special briefing with members of Congress on Tuesday to underscore the alleged espionage effort.
The professor notes in his missive to the president that a former member of the European Parliament, Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca, has also endorsed the findings of the report — and was almost assassinated in Madrid last week, an attack that Sheehan warned Biden may have been linked to the Iranian regime.
The Iran Experts Initiative — which was founded by Tabatabai, fellow academic Dina Esfandiary and Saeed Khatibzadeh, an Iranian diplomat who now serves as the regime’s deputy minister of foreign affairs — corresponded with the head of a think tank tied to Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Mostafa Zahrani, beginning in March 2014, months after the US began negotiations for a nuclear deal with Tehran.
The academics traded drafts of op-eds with their Iranian associates that advocated for the Obama administration to sign the deal, known as the Joint Plan of Comprehensive Action, in which Iran agreed to reduce its uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief.
According to Sheehan, the Iran Experts Initiative also wrote the op-eds to “smear” the opinions of “the regime’s democratic opponents” and sought “to discourage a shift in the U.S. government toward a realistic regime change policy in Iran.”
“These viewpoints included beliefs such as, ‘According to Khamenei’s fatwa, Nuclear bomb is not Halal in Shiite belief and therefore will not be developed by the theocratic regime’ and ‘the regime has no viable alternative and MEK is disliked in Iran, and therefore this regime has to and will stay despite any discontent,’” he writes.
Tabatabai, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, in her professorial role sought “to reiterate what the regime’s club-wielding hooligans tell students and protesters,” according to Sheehan.
“Protests, discontent, reform efforts are all part of an inherent part of Iranian public life,” Tabatabai told attendees at a January 2020 terrorism panel at Georgetown University, the report notes.
“Now the question to me is, ‘Does the regime manage to control this discontent?’ So far, the answer has been yes,” she said. “If you go back to 2009, and then later in 2012, and then 2017 and 2018, people have been predicting that the Islamic Republic will collapse.”
“And, actually, there is a joke that goes around in Iranian families, which is, you know, ‘Inshallah, next year in Tehran.’ Right, but ‘Inshallah, next year in Tehran’ has been sort of kicked down the road for 41 years,” she added. “And so we shouldn’t be making policies based on what we hope will happen. We should be thinking about the political reality and dealing with that and making policies accordingly.”
Tabatabai briefly worked at the start of the Biden administration for then-Iran special envoy Robert Malley before leaving for the Pentagon.
The FBI is investigating Malley after he had his security clearance revoked in April over his alleged mishandling of classified information — which has received new scrutiny following reports that Iran helped plan and sign off on Hamas’ surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7.
Bloomfield told The Post in a statement that many reports in Western media about the brutal assault, which killed 1,200 Israelis, have tried to “swallow and propagate” the Iranian regime’s narrative that denies their involvement — which he said was another example of how the influence operation works.
House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) is weighing his own subpoena of both Malley and Tabatabai to reveal the extent of their ties to Tehran.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and 30 other Senate Republicans signed onto a September letter urging the Pentagon to revoke Tabatabai’s security clearance and conduct an investigation of her regime ties following Semafor’s report.
A Defense Department official later informed the GOP senators that Tabatabai’s hiring had followed “appropriate laws and policies” and that her security clearance undergoes regular review, according to a copy of an Oct. 13 letter to the members reviewed by The Post.