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Lankford Wants Accountability on Iran-Linked DoD Official 

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) joined Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who led a letter signed by 30 Senate Republican colleagues to demand a full accounting of actions taken by a senior Pentagon official who has close links to the Iranian government. 

Ariane Tabatabai, the chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, was reportedly engaged in an Iranian government-linked initiative to bolster the Iranian government’s image and reinforce Tehran’s national security views. Leaked emails show Tabatabai asking the Iranian government for input on her speaking engagements and offering to consult with the Iranian government on a congressional briefing that she was invited to give. 

In the letter, the senators suggested that it is “unconscionable” for Tabatabai to continue holding a sensitive national defense-related position and called for the immediate suspension of her security clearance. 

“Iran continues to threaten US military personnel in the Middle East and remains intent on assassinating American citizens here in the United States. 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,” the Senators wrote. “While we note that Assistant Secretary of Defense for SOLIC Christopher Maier, who is Ms. Tabatabai’s current supervisor, testified before the House on Thursday that the Department is “actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret special compartmented information,” we 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 also posed a range of questions related to the nature and extent of Tabatabai’s involvement with the Iran-backed initiative, demanding answers within a week of transmitting the letter. 

Senators Deb Fischer (R-NE), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Rick Scott (R-FL), Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Ted Budd (R-NC), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC, Katie Britt (R-AL), John Barrasso (R-WY), Jim Risch (R-ID), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Todd Young (R-IN), Ted Cruz (R-TX), John Kennedy (R-LA), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), Mike Crapo (R-ID), John Cornyn (R-TX), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Pete Ricketts (R-NE), Eric Schmitt (R-MO), and John Thune (R-SD) joined the letter.

Read the full letter here or below. 

 Dear Mr. Secretary:  

We are concerned that an individual who allegedly served as part of an Iranian Foreign Ministry information operation is currently serving in a senior Department of Defense position. We urge you to take immediate action to ensure that the Department has not been compromised.  

On Tuesday, September 26, Semafor reported that Ariane Tabatabai, who currently serves as chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), was part of a so-called Iran Experts Initiative that “senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated [in] a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues – particularly its nuclear program.”  

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. 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.”  

The latest allegations reported in Semafor, however, indicate that Ms. Tabatabai may have been engaged in a relationship with the Iranian regime well beyond what even her strongest critics alleged. 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. 

Iran continues to threaten US military personnel in the Middle East and remains intent on assassinating American citizens here in the United States. 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. While we note that Assistant Secretary of Defense for SOLIC Christopher Maier, who is Ms. Tabatabai’s current supervisor, testified before the House on Thursday that the Department is “actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret special compartmented information,” we urge you to suspend Ms. Tabatabai’s security clearance immediately pending further review, as the State Department did with her former supervisor, Robert Malley. 

In addition, we ask that you provide answers to the following questions no later than October 6: 

1. On what date did the Department of Defense learn that Ms. Tabatabai had served as part of the Iranian government-linked Iran Experts Initiative? 

2. On what date was Ms. Tabatabai granted a security clearance, and what was the sponsoring agency that made the determination to grant Ms. Tabatabai a security clearance? 

3. Has Ms. Tabatabai’s security clearance been subjected to a periodic reinvestigation and, if so, on what date was Ms. Tabatabai’s most recent periodic reinvestigation completed? 

4. 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? 

5. On her Standard Form-86, did Ms. Tabatabai list her contacts with: 

a. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif; 

b. Academic Adnan Tabatabai; 

c. Mostafa Zahrani, the head of the Iran think tank IPIS; and/or 

d. Former Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh? 

6. Was Ms. Tabatabai read into any special access programs (SAPs)? 

a. If so, was she subjected to enhanced security vetting, per SAP security policy, or was she granted a waiver? 

b. If she was granted a waiver to be read into SAPs, which DoD official approved the waiver? 

Thank you in advance for your attention to this urgent matter. 

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