The Pentagon has launched an investigation into a top-secret security clearance approved for a U.S. defense official who took part in an Iranian government-backed initiative, beginning a decade ago, which sought to promote Tehran’s positions on national security issues in the U.S. and other Western countries.
Semafor and Iran International published articles on Tuesday about this project, called the Iran Experts Initiative, based on access to hundreds of leaked internal Iranian Foreign Ministry documents. Among the participants in the IEI, according to the correspondence, was Ariane Tabatabai, an Iranian-American academic who currently serves in the Pentagon as chief of staff for Christopher Maier, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.
Maier appeared Thursday before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and announced the probe into Tabatabai. “We are actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret special compartmented information,” he said in response to questioning from Republican lawmakers.
The U.S. government classifies compartmented information as coming from highly sensitive intelligence, sources, or analytic processes.
Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican, specifically asked whether the investigation would go back more than seven years, which is traditionally the timeframe through which background checks are conducted. Tabatabai first engaged with the Iran Experts Initiative in 2014, according to the Iranian government documents. “I understand that they [the investigators] have discretion to look beyond that timeline, as is required,” Maier said.
The Pentagon’s public affairs office initially told Semafor that it stood by the vetting process that approved Tabatabai’s top-secret clearance. Tatababai initially joined the Biden administration’s State Department in 2021 for a position on the U.S.’s nuclear negotiating team with Iran, headed by Special Envoy Robert Malley. She then shifted to the Pentagon in 2022.
Malley had his security clearance revoked in April and is currently under an FBI investigation looking into his handling of classified materials.
In Semafor’s initial story on Tuesday, the Pentagon said: “Dr. Tabatabai was thoroughly and properly vetted as a condition of her employment with the Department of Defense. We are honored to have her serve.”
Room for Disagreement
Members named as part of the Iran Experts Initiative, as well as organizations whose members participated in it, have denied it was overseen or managed by Iran’s Foreign Ministry. They’ve described it as an informal forum financially backed by a European government and some European institutions but declined to name which ones.
“The Iranian correspondence on the IEI is a one-sided and self-congratulatory load of nonsense,” tweeted Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, who was named as part of the initiative. “They either did not know or were spinning beyond recognition, an initiative by European think tankers, with support by a major European govt, to hold occasional policy discussions.”