Thirty Republican U.S. Senators are calling on Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin II to revoke the security clearance of a high-level Pentagon official accused of working for a secret Iranian influence network.
Citing a Semafor report, the Republican senators, including the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Roger Wicker (Miss.), urged Austin “to take immediate action” to ensure that the Department of Defense (DOD) “has not been compromised” by Ariane Tabatabai, “who currently serves as chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC).”
Tabatabai reportedly is part of “an Iranian-backed influence operation, called the Iran Experts Initiative, which sought to build relationships with overseas academics and researchers in the West.”
During a congressional hearing, Chris Maier, assistant secretary of defense for SOLIC, confirmed the Pentagon is “actively looking” into whether Tabatabai was properly vetted.
According to communications that Semafor reviewed, Ms. Tabatabai agreed to join the Iranian government-linked Initiative in early 2014, after meeting a Germany-based Iranian diplomat in Prague. On at least two occasions, Ms. Tabatabai “checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events.”
The report details one occasion in which an Iranian think tank chief, who acted as an apparent liaison to the Iranian Foreign Minister, dissuaded Ms. Tabatabai from participating in a conference in Israel when she asked for his feedback. The report also indicates that Ms. Tabatabai potentially sought the Iranian government’s input on a congressional briefing that she was invited to give in July 2014.
“Concerns about Ms. Tabatabai are not new,” the lawmakers stated. “In March 2021, shortly after Ms. Tabatabai was appointed senior adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Iranian dissidents noted Ms. Tabatabai’s long history of echoing the Iranian regime’s talking points. In April 2021, several House members requested a review of Ms. Tabatabai’s security clearance. In response, the Biden administration dismissed these allegations as ‘smears and slander.'”
Given the Semafor report, the senators fear Tabatabai “may have been engaged in a relationship with the Iranian regime well beyond what even her strongest critics alleged.”
The lawmakers accused the DOD of prioritizing “protecting hiring missteps” over “our national security.”
“The fact that the Department initially responded to these latest allegations by rushing a full-throated defense of Ms. Tabatabai, rather than taking the time to ensure that our national security has not been compromised, suggests that you are protecting hiring missteps rather than prioritizing national security,” they wrote.
“Iran continues to threaten U.S. military personnel in the Middle East and remains intent on assassinating American citizens here in the United States,” they continue. “Given these facts, we find it simply unconscionable that a senior Department official would continue to hold a sensitive position despite her alleged participation in an Iranian government information operation.”
“[W]e urge you to suspend Ms. Tabatabai’s security clearance immediately pending further review, as the State Department did with her former supervisor, Robert Malley,” the senators told Austin.
They also requested the answers to several questions, including, “On what date did the Department of Defense learn that Ms. Tabatabai had served as part of the Iranian government-linked Iran Experts Initiative?”; “Was Ms. Tabatabai subjected to any additional counterintelligence screening, to include a polygraph investigation, as part of her security clearance investigation or any subsequent review of her eligibility to hold a security clearance or access restricted or special access information?”; and “Was Ms. Tabatabai read into any special access programs (SAPs)?”
The Republican coalition gave Austin an October 6 deadline for the department’s response.