Iranian officials seeking to enhance Tehran's image globally depended on influential overseas academics and researchers, including top aides to President Joe Biden's special envoy Robert Malley, Semafor reported.
Malley, the Biden administration's special envoy for Iran, was put on unpaid leave June 29 and his security clearance was under review.
Before his leave, Malley led administration efforts to revive the faltering Iran nuclear deal and to resolve issues related to detained Americans in Iran.
Semafor reported Tuesday that the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), which began in 2014 under moderate then-President Hassan Rouhani, was an effort by Foreign Ministry officials to bolster Tehran's image and positions on global security issues, particularly its nuclear program, by building ties influential overseas academics and researchers.
A large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails, exposed by Semafor and Iran International, shows that at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry's list were, or became, top aides to Malley.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, a Berlin-based Iranian diplomat and future foreign ministry spokesman, wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, head of the Foreign Ministry's in-house think tank, that he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics, Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary, following a meeting with them in Prague.
"We three agreed to be the core group of the IEI," Khatibzadeh wrote to Zahrani.
Tabatabai currently serves at the U.S. Defense Department as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served on Malley's Iran nuclear negotiating team.
Esfandiary is a senior adviser on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank Malley headed from 2018-2021.
In late spring or early summer 2014, the IEI pushed ahead with a primary objective of publishing opinion pieces and analyses in top-tier media in the U.S. and Europe, specifically targeting policy makers, Semafor reported.
ICG's Ali Vaez, a close protégé of Malley and listed as part of the IEI, sent an article on defusing the nuclear crisis to Zahrani ahead of publication.
"I look forward to your comments and feedback," Vaez wrote to Zahrani.
ICG's Chief of Advocacy Elissa Jobson insisted the IEI was an "informal platform" that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with Iranian officials. She added IEI was supported financially by European institutions and one European government, but she declined to name them.
Semafor's Jay Solomon wrote that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's government has turned on Malley and some IEI members in recent weeks, accusing them in state media of seeking to incite racial and ethnic unrest in the country.
"Malley's suspicious interactions with his aides of Iranian descent contributed to his downfall," the Tehran Times wrote in a column published last month.
Semafor said the FBI also is investigating Malley, suggesting his actions may be more serious than just the mishandling of classified information.
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Charlie McCarthy, a writer/editor at Newsmax, has nearly 40 years of experience covering news, sports, and politics.
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