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Updated Feb 2, 2024, 5:31am EST
security

How Iran used its ties to a top global NGO

Al Lucca/Semafor
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The Scoop

In the spring of 2014, Iran’s then-foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was drafting a new proposal to convince the international community to accept Tehran’s advancing nuclear program.

The diplomat — a witty, goateed, 54-year-old at the time with a Ph.D. from the University of Denver — faced an uphill struggle. The Islamic Republic had few friends in the U.S. and Europe following its decades of hostage-taking, Holocaust denial and support for international terrorism. And American diplomats, through whom Zarif was negotiating along with the other members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, could veto his overtures out of hand.

But Zarif had a plan, according to his memoir. He turned to the International Crisis Group, the Brussels-headquartered conflict-resolution organization with deep ties to Washington and other Western capitals. Over two decades, the advocacy group had developed a star-studded roster of former U.S. lawmakers, retired European diplomats, and business executives on its staff and advisory boards. Crisis Group drew millions of dollars in funding from Wall Street financiers, New York-based foundations and foreign governments to advance its mission of anticipating and preventing war and ethnic cleansing.

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“This step was taken to ensure that the International Crisis Group could lay the foundation for publicizing and lobbying the draft’s content,” Zarif wrote in his 2021 Persian-language account of the nuclear talks, The Sealed Secret. “[This] from the viewpoint of the nuclear negotiators, could serve as a stepping stone into the drafting phase.”

Zarif saw his outreach as a success; he wrote that Crisis Group incorporated Iran’s positions into its own reporting: “Utilizing the draft devised by the Iranian delegation, the International Crisis Group unveiled a document on May 9, 2014, titled ‘Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube.”

Crisis Group disputes Zarif’s account, telling Semafor that the organization first shared its draft of the Rubik’s Cube report with Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, or P5+1, “not the other way around,” according to spokesperson Elissa Jobson. She called into question Zarif’s credibility, noting that he lied in a number instances in his memoir, such as claiming that the Islamic Republic never had a nuclear weapons program. “The Iranian government consistently criticized and attacked our work and serves to benefit from Zarif’s account of the situation,” she said.

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Semafor revealed in late September an Iranian influence operation, called the “Iran Experts Initiative” (IEI), which was run by Zarif’s Foreign Ministry starting in the spring of 2014. The program developed ties with Western academics and think tankers to advance Tehran’s positions on the nuclear issue, leading up to the landmark agreement forged between Iran, the U.S. and other global powers in July 2015. Two of the people named as IEI participants, Ali Vaez and Dina Esfandiary, are currently senior members of Crisis Group. Both Vaez and Esfandiary and Crisis Group have disputed Semafor’s description of the IEI, saying it was an informal grouping partially funded by a European government (which they declined to name) and that they weren’t tools of Iranian influence.

But the Zarif memoir, and a cache of leaked Iranian Foreign Ministry documents obtained by Iran International, a Persian-language news channel banned inside Iran, and shared with Semafor, document how useful Zarif and his Foreign Ministry saw Crisis Group as being as a partner for its nuclear diplomacy well beyond the IEI. The ties between Iran’s Foreign Ministry and Crisis Group helped advance Tehran’s strategic aims in numerous other ways over a decade. And in a strange coda, Iran’s current government of President Ebrahim Raisi, which demonizes Zarif, has turned on Crisis Group, too, for its work on the nuclear issue.

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Know More

Tehran, in 2014 through 2015, was managing a range of complex details in the nuclear negotiations with the global powers through the P5+1. Just one dispute could kill an overall agreement. And in a number of cases, Zarif and his team turned towards Crisis Group, and Ali Vaez, in particular, to help navigate the landmines. Vaez was and remains Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director. He did not respond to requests for comment.

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Only in his early 30s at the time, Vaez was seemingly an unlikely partner for the Islamic Republic. Born in Iran, he was a student activist during his college years and took part in mass protests against the regime in 1999. He eventually left for Europe, and then the U.S., to advance his studies and professional life. He hasn’t been able to return to Iran since 2014 due to security concerns, according to Crisis Group.

Among the goals he’s committed to advance, according to his writings: Preventing a conflict between his native and adopted homes. “A U.S. or Israeli military intervention to stop Iran’s dash toward nuclear weapons could also make the regime more determined to acquire them, further securitize and militarize Iran’s domestic space, and destabilize the region as a wounded government strikes back,” Vaez wrote last year in a long first-person account in Foreign Affairs about his experiences with Iran.

And he’d developed a close relationship with Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s former Middle East point man and future president, who’d taken a senior position in the Obama administration’s National Security Council in 2014. Vaez could serve as a backchannel to Malley and the White House.

One issue that troubled Zarif and his Foreign Ministry in 2014, in particular, was the issue of “breakout,” or the time Iran needed to amass enough nuclear material to produce one atomic bomb. American negotiators, and many outside nuclear experts, argued there had to be a clear metric through which to gauge the value of a final nuclear deal. And they ultimately settled on a one-year breakout time, which included significant limitations on the amount of nuclear material Tehran could stockpile and the numbers of centrifuges Iran could deploy.

Zarif and his negotiating team were initially dead set against it. “Breakout is a hysteria, is a hype,” the foreign minister told Charlie Rose in an interview taped during the negotiations. “I don’t think anyone should accept breakout.”

Vaez wrote to Zarif and two other top Iranian Foreign Ministry officials in October 2014 that he’d work with the diplomats to counter the inclusion of the breakout concept in any final nuclear deal. In a long email viewed by Semafor, Vaez stressed that it was Crisis Group’s mission to find a “middle ground” and that its credibility stemmed from all sides seeing it as a neutral party. But he added: “As an Iranian, I considered it my national and patriotic duty to offer His Excellency help to publicly oppose the breakout time concept, and to help your team prepare a report on the practical needs of Iran.”

Vaez challenged the breakout idea in a string of opinion pieces and public presentations throughout that year and into 2015, including debating a top American nuclear expert on its merits. In a March 2015 post on Crisis Group’s website, he wrote: “five common misperceptions make breakout time a misleading gauge of the potential threat.”

Crisis Group’s May 2014 Rubik’s Cube report, which Zarif cited, argued that “the resulting imprecision pushes all parties to adopt worst-case scenarios, rendering breakout estimates unrealistic as a basis for a durable agreement and policy.” Crisis Group says all its reports reflect the view of the organization and not of any single staffer.

David Albright, a nuclear scientist and former United Nations weapons inspector, said he was often surprised by the positions Vaez and Crisis Group took during discussions the Obama administration had with outside experts, which he said tracked closely with Tehran’s. The issue of breakout was perhaps the most important as it was fundamental to the overall deal. “I just knew that people like Vaez were, in a sense, just causing trouble for things that had been settled in the U.S.’s mind,” Albright said. “What the Iranians were looking for was quite clear: They wanted to have no criteria.”

Jobson, the Crisis Group’s spokesperson, said the organization never worked to advance Iran’s position but sought to serve as a “middle ground” to bring together the differing positions of the P5+1 countries. “Though we take the views of all parties to conflict seriously, we do not simply adopt them as our own,” she said.

In the end, the breakout concept was included in the final nuclear deal, with Iran agreeing to limitations that kept it a year away from having enough fissile material for one bomb. Crisis Group acknowledged that it initially opposed the metric as an “artificial concept” and believed Tehran covertly building a bomb was a far greater threat. But Jobson said that once it was clear the concept would be adopted, “we offered parameters to extend it beyond a year.”

Zarif and his diplomats saw Crisis Group as useful in another way.

The Tehran-based Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s in-house think tank, was a world-wide pariah after it staged the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in December 2006. More than 50 European and American research institutions, including Crisis Group, ended their affiliations or engagements with IPIS, saying in a statement in early 2007: “Through its complicity with the deniers of the absolute evil that was the Holocaust, IPIS has now forfeited its status as an acceptable partner.”

But after Zarif became foreign minister in 2013, he sought to rebuild IPIS’s international position and brand, reappointing Mostafa Zahrani as the think tank’s director general, and promoting nuclear diplomacy. Zahrani was educated in Texas and close to Iran’s top diplomat, serving alongside him in New York when Zarif served as Tehran’s ambassador to the UN in the early 2000s. More than a dozen European, Asian and Mideast institutions — including Crisis Group, the Polish Institute of International Affairs, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the now-defunct EastWest Institute — formally reengaged with IPIS soon after.

The Munich Security Conference staged a Core Group meeting with IPIS in October 2015 in Tehran; among those on the guest list, according to an invitation list seen by Semafor, were a number of top European business executives, as well as Major General Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian paramilitary leader designated by the U.S. as an international terrorist. The Trump administration assassinated the general in January 2020.

As part of this remake, Zahrani and IPIS sponsored an international conference, called the World Against Violence and Extremism, or WAVE, in which they invited foreign academics and diplomats to ostensibly discuss conflict resolution. Crisis Group’s then-President Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former UN Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, was among a group of think tanks heads and former European diplomats who attended the inaugural — and only — two-day WAVE conference in December 2014 in Tehran. The foreign ministers of Syria, Nicaragua and Iraq also attended, according to Iranian state media, as well as the U.K.’s former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and one-time French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

“As the head of IPIS, removing sanctions was very important to me,” Zahrani wrote in one text reviewed by Semafor. “I insisted on [the WAVE] conference, so the sanctions are removed from IPIS.” It’s unclear which sanctions Zahrani is referencing, as the U.S. never formally blacklisted IPIS. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned a separate Iranian think tank, New Horizon Organization, in 2019 for allegedly helping Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stage conferences “to recruit and collect intelligence from attendees.”

In April 2016, Guéhenno signed a formal research-cooperation agreement with IPIS through a memorandum of understanding. Swedish, Polish, Jordanian, Chinese and Pakistani institutions forged similar agreements with IPIS.

But a half-dozen U.S. think tank leaders in Washington told Semafor that their institutions were wary of any partnerships with foreign governments, given that they might limit their ability to write freely about those countries. And they said IPIS, with its history of promoting Holocaust denialism for Tehran’s authoritarian regime, was particularly troublesome.

“If Iran were a Western democracy, this MOU would be understandable, although likely not necessary,” said David Albright, the former UN weapons inspector, who now serves as president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “This MOU leaves Crisis Group vulnerable to exploitation and creates a pathway of disinformation into U.S. and European decision making and advisory channels.”

Crisis Group says its mission often requires it to deal with regimes that others may consider odious. “We endeavor to talk to all sides and in doing so to build on our role as a trusted source of field-centered information, fresh perspectives and advice for conflict parties and external actors,” it notes on its website.

Jobson declined to say whether Crisis Group’s MOU with IPIS remains in place but stressed that no funding from Tehran has been involved. The original agreement states that it can be automatically renewed for four years at a time. “Generally, our MOUs are intended to protect the security of our staff in conflict zones or in countries that engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions,” she said.

Jobson added: “Potentially sensitive MOUs and other agreements involving funding from governments are reviewed by in-house and outside counsel to ensure that they are compliant with U.S. law.”

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The View From Tehran

Iran’s Foreign Ministry and IPIS were fixated in 2014 and 2015 on securing the nuclear deal with the P5+1 and lifting crushing international sanctions. But they were also intent, at a broader level, on attempting to end the pariah status placed on Tehran by many Western countries during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight-year tenure, which ended in 2013. Not only did IPIS promote Holocaust denialism under Ahmadinejad’s leadership, but the president himself aggressively questioned Nazi war crimes during his foreign travels, including to the United Nations.

IPIS’s director general, Zahrani, sought to essentially rebrand the think tank once he was reappointed to his position by Foreign Minister Zarif in 2014, according to the correspondence reviewed by Semafor.

IPIS also sought to forge formal partnerships with foreign think tanks, such as the one signed with Crisis Group in 2006, to better integrate Tehran internationally. The MOU calls for regular exchanges of IPIS and Crisis Group academics and quarterly visits to Tehran by Crisis Group’s top Iran analyst, according to the agreement seen by Semafor. Crisis Group also committed to staging an annual conference for IPIS in either Brussels or Istanbul, though Jobson said these never took place.

Crisis Group’s leadership “shall give presentations on their fields of expertise at Iranian think tanks and universities upon request by IPIS,” the MOU states.

One thing hasn’t changed at IPIS after it reconnected with Crisis Group and others: It’s maintained its deep hostility towards Israel. The think tank’s current head, Mohammad Hasan Sheikholeslami, congratulated the Palestinian militant group Hamas for its October 7 terrorist attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 Israelis, referencing it as a “glorious victory.” The operation “disintegrated the fake concept of Israel” and showed “normalization of ties with Israel was stillborn and was a failed project from the start,” according to an October 19 interview with Sheikholeslami posted on IPIS’s website.

Iranian state media has also turned on Crisis Group and Vaez since Zarif’s departure and the election of Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi in August 2021. In a string of recent articles and documentaries, English-language publications including the Tehran Times and Iran Daily have accused Crisis Group of stealthily promoting the West’s positions on the nuclear issue and attempting to stoke political instability inside Iran. In an August cover story, Iran Daily wrote: “By identifying contentious issues, it [Crisis Group] provides fodder for Western Intelligence services and the Zionist regime to exploit in their efforts to foment violent crises in target countries.”

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The View From Crisis Group

Crisis Group remains proud of its efforts to promote the international nuclear deal with Iran as among the nearly 30-year-old organization’s most important work. It’s highlighted in public postings the efforts by Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East director from 2002 to 2014, to initiate studies to find a settlement and avoid conflict between Washington and Tehran. “In those early papers, at a time when nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the international community were at a standoff, Crisis Group was a lonely voice that laid the analytical base for the eventual core compromise,” Crisis Group wrote in a September 2015 posting.

Crisis Group has also praised Ali Vaez for the critical role he played in bridging the differences between Tehran and the rest of the P5+1. Crisis Group noted that both Tehran and the Obama administration thanked the organization in 2015 for its work after the nuclear deal was completed. “Iran’s foreign minister sent a private message to Crisis Group acknowledging our significant contribution, and a senior U.S. official wrote: ‘I am sure you recognize your language in the final text,’” Crisis Group wrote.

Crisis Group hasn’t made its MOU with IPIS public after it was signed in 2016. “Speaking generally, these types of MOUs are common and common knowledge,” Crisis Group said in a written statement. “We are also transparent about our interactions with governments in our discussions with interlocutors in the U.S. and elsewhere, in citations in our reports, and in other publications and communications.”

Vaez, in his Foreign Affairs piece, described the difficulty in negotiating with Iran’s revolutionary government. He said diplomacy remained critical to trying to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But he acknowledged hardliners were now fully in power in Iran and likely less willing to make compromises. Recent attacks by hardline Iranian media on Crisis Group could be evidence of this.

“The Iranian people have changed over the past 44 years. But the Islamic Republic has not kept up,” Vaez wrote. “It is incapable of admitting its mistakes and rectifying itself because it fears that conceding under pressure will only invite more pressure—both from the bottom up and from the outside.”

Crisis Group has characterized Semafor’s and Iran International’s recent articles on the Iran Experts Initiative as a disinformation campaign aimed at undermining its ability to engage with countries like Iran and prevent conflict. “We have only one constituency: local communities at risk of or affected by deadly conflict, which we aim to prevent, mitigate and resolve,” Jobson said.

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Jay’s view

Crisis Group has developed a vast network of analysts and researchers around the world over the past three decades to advance its efforts to prevent conflicts. During my years as a foreign correspondent, I often sought out their views and reports on issues ranging from international terrorism to nuclear proliferation. In Indonesia, Crisis Group’s then-Southeast Asia analyst, Sidney Jones, literally mapped out Al-Qaida’s entire regional network after September 11, 2001 — ahead, I suspected, of Western intelligence agencies. Crisis Group’s Pakistan analyst, Samina Ahmed, bravely confronted the country’s generals about the threats they posed to democracy and the fight against extremism in South Asia.

In Washington, too, I’ve looked over the years to Crisis Group’s staff, including Rob Malley and Ali Vaez, for their views on global conflicts. Malley’s contacts in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian authorities, and his insights into militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, were at times invaluable in trying to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict in a city consumed by it, but generally not informed by all sides. Vaez, too, with his contacts in Tehran, offered analysis on the U.S.-Iran conflict that many Western analysts couldn’t. As a journalist, I completely understood the Crisis Group’s mission of seeking to speak to all sides, regardless of what you personally thought of a particular government or leader.

Al Lucca/Semafor

But in reviewing the large cache of leaked Iranian Foreign Ministry correspondence, and Tehran’s interactions with Western organizations, I was startled, not only by its depth, but the lack of transparency involved. In our reporting on the Iran Experts Initiative, we tracked how Tehran built ties with at least 10 Western analysts and academics to promote its positions on the nuclear issue; these ties weren’t ever disclosed in their numerous writings and media appearances. Members of the IEI, such as Vaez and Esfandiary, have disputed that they were taking their lead from Tehran. But they never publicly mentioned their involvement in the initiative until after the publication of our initial story.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry’s correspondence and the IEI reminded me of the final round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 that I covered in Austria during the summer of 2015. At the time, I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal documenting the curious mix of American analysts and former U.S. officials who’d descended on Vienna to essentially back Tehran’s position in the talks. This episode now looks entirely different to me in light of what we learned about the IEI.

Crisis Group explains on its own website how it became a major player in the Iran nuclear negotiations and worked to lobby Washington, Tehran, and Europe behind the original deal. “Well before these final agreements, International Crisis Group had already turned its focus to the next stage: convincing Iran’s Majles and the U.S. Congress that the deal was a good one,” it wrote in 2015.

It’s not clear — and I’ve seen no evidence — that Crisis Group ever disclosed to Congress or the media its MOU with IPIS during the course of its campaign in Washington. Crisis Group stressed to me that everyone knew its analysts were talking to Iran, and Jobson said that the organization didn’t receive funding from Tehran, which it would have made public. “We disclose all of our government funding on our website and through our publicly available financial statements,” she said.

But these arrangements are even more notable given that Crisis Group’s former president, Robert Malley, joined the White House in January 2021 to become its chief negotiator with Tehran on the nuclear issue. The diplomat went from leading an organization that Tehran saw as a critical interlocutor with the world to representing America’s interests against it, in just a matter of months.

In April, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service revoked Malley’s security clearance, and the Biden administration then formally suspended him from his job in June. Semafor has since reported that the FBI is investigating Malley for his alleged mishandling of classified information. It’s unclear if his ties to Tehran, developed over decades through Crisis Group and his government posts, are part of the FBI’s probe.

In the course of our correspondence, Crisis Group pointed out Semafor’s own potential partnerships with two Chinese government entities for a prospective business conference in China. It should be noted that Semafor proactively disclosed the arrangements even before they were finalized. These included postings by Semafor CEO Justin Smith and Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, which resulted in a fair amount of public debate.

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Notable

  • A number of former U.S. diplomats and military leaders have praised Crisis Group for its work to defuse international conflicts, including over Iran’s nuclear program. The late general and secretary of state, Colin Powell, called the organization “a mirror for the conscience of the world.”
  • In 2013, Crisis Group presented an annual peace award to Myanmar’s then-President Thein Sein, even though Human Rights Watch accused him of being complicit in the ethnic cleansing of his country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. “The ICG’s granting this award for Thein Sein is thus unconscionable,” wrote Guy Horton of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London that year. “It has endorsed a military controlled government which now, and in its former guises, was, and is, allegedly responsible for crimes against humanity and genocide.”
  • Ali Vaez and three co-authors recently published a book, “How Sanctions Work,” which questions the utility of successive U.S. administrations using financial warfare against Iran. He also appeared in a January episode of Pod Save the World (hosted by former Obama administration national security staffers) and argued Iran couldn’t be deterred militarily and that the U.S. needed to return to diplomacy with Tehran.
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