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Lawmakers smear Iranian-American Biden adviser with unsubstantiated conspiracy theory

Offering no evidence, lawmakers are accusing Ariane Tabatabai of dual loyalty and demanding her security clearance be revoked.

Analysis | Reporting | Middle East

A conspiracy theory smearing a State Department official as loyal to Iran has migrated from the internet to a group of Republican congressmen.

Earlier this week, Breitbart News reported that a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R–N.J.) was demanding an investigation into State Department senior adviser Ariane Tabatabai and the revocation of her security clearance.

“There is reason to believe that Ariane and her family have ties and allegiance to the Iranian Regime and pose a security threat to the United States, which is of great concern because she currently holds a security clearance in your administration,” Van Drew wrote in a letter.

Van Drew insinuates that Tabatabai is a security threat, but does not provide evidence. His letter focuses on her academic writings and speeches, which have expressed skepticism about the limits of U.S. power in dealing with the Iranian regime. It also attacks Tabatabai for her family background — her father was a prominent university professor in Iran who has been photographed with government officials at official events — but does not provide any evidence that Tabatabai has been compromised by the relationship.

These talking points had first been circulated by Iranian conspiracy theorists on Twitter, before being laundered by right-wing pro-Israel activist Brian Leib in an article by the Washington Free Beacon, a tabloid that has served as an outlet for baseless smears and conspiracy theories. Since the Breitbart article was published, the claims have also been picked up by Saudi state media.

The dual loyalty smear against Tabatabai echoes the campaign against Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, another State Department official of Iranian heritage who was demoted by the Trump administration after baseless right-wing media attacks against her, which an internal investigation later found was an improper demotion.

Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration has defended Tabatabai, telling the Free Beacon that she is “one of the United States' leading experts on Iranian nuclear policy.” State Department spokesman Ned Price also alluded to the campaign against her in a February 2021 Twitter post.

“We strongly condemn online harassment of [State Department] personnel,” Price wrote. “While we welcome debates on key policy issues, ad hominem attacks on U.S. officials – or anyone – based on ethnic background are unacceptable. We call for civil discourse, diplomacy, and constructive dialogue.”

Tabatabai, an academic with a long CV in Middle Eastern security studies, is fairly moderate in her positions. While skeptical of the possibility of U.S.-led regime change, she has also argued that the United States should be in no rush to return to diplomacy with Iran.

Her father, Javad Tabatabai, is also a famous academic. As a former professor at the University of Tehran, he has promoted a strain of secular nationalism called Iranshahri as an alternative to the “dead” project of “‘political’ and ‘ideological’ Islam.”

He was even dismissed from his post as deputy dean of the law school for criticizing the Iranian government in the 1990s.

Despite his disagreement with the government’s ideology, the elder Tabatabai remains an influential thinker among the Iranian elite, and even received the Farabi Award from the Iranian ministry of science in 2018.

Photos of Javad Tabatabai at the award ceremony — which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other high officials attended — would soon provide ample ammunition for opponents of the Biden administration.

The younger Tabatabai first announced that she had been appointed to the State Department’s bureau of arms control and international security on the morning of February 17, 2021. A few hours later, the U.S.-funded news outlet Voice of America repeated her announcement in Persian, adding that she is the daughter of Javad Tabatabai.

Then the conspiracy theorists dove in.

One Iranian monarchist influencer said that Tabatabai was “among the apologists of the Islamic Republic in America who has consistently advocated for compromise with the Islamic Republic and strongly criticized the actions of the previous [Trump] administration.”

Another pro-Trump influencer called PatriotsPersian claimed that Tabatabai’s father “is well-known for his corporation [sic] with #mullah's regime over decades and is a key figure and a supporter of their ideology.” The post included a photo from the Farabi Award ceremony, as well as another photo of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s grandson shaking hands with University of Tehran faculty members.

Then, an account called Hafezeh Tarikhi posted a clip of Tabatabai pushing back on pro-regime change talking points in academic speeches. The account advertises itself as an archive for the “controversial positions” of Iranian public figures, and often posts out-of-context clips of Iranian-Americans who support diplomacy.

More mainstream voices lent credence to the accusation in the days that followed.

Iranian-American activist Mariam Memarsadeghi shared the Hafezeh Tarikhi post, calling Tabatabai a member of the Iranian foreign ministry’s “disinfo cadre” and her appointment “a big snub to the aspiration for freedom.”

Memarsadeghi used to run the Iran Disinfo Project, which was originally funded by the State Department to counter Iranian propaganda but lost its funding after it attacked domestic critics of the Trump administration’s policies.

Roya Boroumand, co-founder of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, referred to Tabatabai’s “possible conflict of interest when it comes to policy recommendations.”

Iranian-European military historian Babak Taghvaee lamented that the “Islamic Regime achieved ANOTHER victory” against America, along with a photo of Javad Tabatabai with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at the Farabi Award ceremony.

The Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara, a Turkish think tank, even put out an infographic calling Tabatabai the daughter of a “radical Persian nationalist,” along with a photo of Javad Tabatabai and Rouhani at the award ceremony.

A month after the appointment, the Free Beacon ran the story, citing unnamed “Iranian dissidents” who called Tabatabai’s appointment “a signal the Biden administration does not intend to maintain close relations with opponents of the Iranian government.”

The article cited Memarsadeghi’s post, quoted all of Tabatabai’s lines from the Hafezeh Tarikhi clip, and included links to the photos from the PatriotsPersian post. Ironically, one of the photos was hosted on an Islamic news site criticizing Rouhani for meeting with a secularist thinker. The Free Beacon also quoted Leib, who said that his group Iranian Americans for Liberty was pressing the Biden administration not to appoint Tabatabai.

A month after that, Van Drew — along with Reps. Scott Perry (R–Pa.) and Yvette Herrell (R–N.M.) — asked the Biden administration to revoke Tabatabai’s security clearance and investigate her ties. Their letter cites the exact same links as the Free Beacon article, including the Islamic news site criticizing Rouhani.

The Biden administration did not seem to give much weight to these accusations.

“The response was basically, to paraphrase, you’re imagining it, there’s nothing here, everything has been done, there’s been good background checks, and this is just political rhetoric,” Van Drew told Breitbart.

But, the congressman said, he wasn’t going to let the issue go: “We’re gonna keep an eye on it. We’re gonna ring the bell because if you don’t ring the bell and let people know what’s going on, they’re going to assume everything is okay.”

Editor's note: The article originally referred to Javad Tabatabai as a university professor in Iran. He is now retired and lives in the United States.

Ariane Tabatabai (CSPAN/screenshot)
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