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October 3, 2023

Tehran’s Shrewd Shadow Play

The Iran Experts Initiative revelations demand utmost transparency and scrutiny.

In 2014, as the world’s gaze bore down relentlessly on Iran’s covert nuclear ambitions, Tehran launched a clandestine influence operation known as the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI). Departing from the garish spectacle of conventional propaganda, the IEI sought to manipulate public perceptions discreetly.

The architects were high-ranking figures of Iran’s Foreign Ministry like Saeed Khatibzadeh. Their mission was to cultivate connections with influential academics worldwide, particularly in the US. They sought to ensure that Iran’s narratives infiltrated the sanctums of global policy and echoed through media outlets.

Their strategy yielded astonishing success.

A recent exposé by Iran International and Semafor has ripped away the layers concealing this clandestine operation. Leaked emails, initially in the hands of Mostafa Zahrani, a former director general of strategic affairs within Iran’s foreign ministry and a trusted advisor to ex-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, show a treasure trove of evidence — passport copies, résumés, conference invitations, and correspondence with foreign ministry officials.

2021 marked a turning point when Robert Malley assumed his role as President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Iran. Astonishingly, Malley chose to bring one of the IEI’s earliest participants, Ariane Tabatabai, into his State Department team, tasking her with helping to shape America’s Iran policy.

The IEI “experts” have a symbiotic relationship with Iranian Foreign Ministry officials. They don’t merely engage in casual discourse; they actively exchange guidance and recommendations to propel Tehran’s foreign policy objectives.

An examination of Tabatabai’s correspondence, for instance, shows discussions revolving around potential collaboration with the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s think tank, obfuscating the distinction between impartial analysis and state-sanctioned influence. She also asked for the regime’s guidance on attending meetings and conferences in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

IEI participants fiercely pushed for concessions to the regime in the context of a nuclear agreement. But at the very core of the IEI’s narrative lays an unwavering fixation on the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the foremost opposition movement within Iran. For decades, the MEK has offered unparalleled, intricate insights into the regime’s nuclear program. And its domestic network remains the most dynamic and organized opposition force within Iran, challenging the status quo with relentless determination.

IEI affiliates systematically depicted the MEK as an unviable alternative in order to diminish international support for the group. Ariane Tabatabai played a central role. Perhaps not coincidentally, around the time she started collaborating with IEI in 2014, her maiden article, “Beware of the MEK,” was crafted to discredit the MEK. She parroted regime claims regarding the group’s purported lack of popular support. Dina Esfandiary, another influential figure within the IEI, leveraged social media platforms to amplify these narratives.

Adnan Tabatabai, who has family ties with the regime’s first Supreme Leader Khomeini, deepened the negative portrayal of the organization in Germany. According to Germany’s Bild, Adnan Tabatabai “has long been criticized for his conspicuous ties to the Islamist mullah regime in Iran.”

Rouzbeh Parsi harmonized with this orchestrated chorus. In a 2011 policy paper, he echoed Tehran’s narrative, labeling the MEK as “neither a viable nor legitimate interlocutor.” He tweeted as recently as September 2023 that the MEK “has no popular support in Iran.”

The IEI operation exposes the regime’s adept use of academics to craft policy and globally target the MEK while posing as impartial analysts, effectively lending credibility to the regime’s propaganda.

Internal documents, uncovered from the Iranian regime’s Foreign Ministry in May 2023, reinforce this calculated strategy aimed at discrediting the MEK. The significance of this strategy becomes all the more apparent as protests continue to escalate within Iran, with many of them being led and organized by the MEK’s highly active Resistance Units.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the IEI is its success in having its narratives infiltrate and taint respected mainstream media outlets. These narratives bear an eerie resemblance to the deceptive commentary emanating from individuals who have previously been identified by law enforcement agencies as intelligence agents of the Iranian regime.

The IEI revelations demand utmost transparency and scrutiny, necessitating an immediate reassessment of the standards governing academic research and policy dissemination.

Mainstream media cannot afford to falter in the face of the insidious spread of regime disinformation, often funneled through self-proclaimed experts. These calculated tactics champion closer engagement with Tehran while systematically undermining its organized opposition, ultimately skewing U.S. policy in favor of the interests of the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.

Congress must undertake a comprehensive examination of the intricate and disturbing web of Iranian influence. This is indeed a call to pursue the unvarnished truth in an era where the boundaries between information, influence, and deception perilously blur. Congress must be swift in its duty to investigate and unveil the Iranian regime’s subversive operation.

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