Administration officials address Iran influence scandal, hostage deal, terror proxies

The Department of Defense is investigating the background check and security clearance process for Ariane Tabatabai, named in recent reporting on Iranian influence operations

Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (C) gives the opening speech while Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (L) sits next to him during Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in the old Iranian Parliament building in Tehran, September 26, 2023.

The Department of Defense is reviewing the background check and security clearance process for Ariane Tabatabai, a former State Department and current Pentagon official who was named in recent reporting alleging that the Iranian government built a network of influential allies in the U.S. and Europe, including current and former administration officials.

The investigation was revealed during congressional hearings on Thursday, where high-level administration officials testified on the alleged influence operation, the authorities necessary to counter Iran and the recent deal to free U.S. hostages from Iranian custody.

Christopher Maier, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, for whom Tabatabai serves as chief of staff, testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that she currently remains in her role and that he could not speak to the vetting that had been conducted before her hiring or her alleged involvement with the Iranian government and its affiliates.

Maier said however, in response to a House Armed Services Committee inquiry, the Defense Department is “actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff” a security clearance and access to sensitive classified information.

He noted that he was not involved in the security clearance vetting process, but said the Defense Department is looking into whether Tabatabai properly listed her contacts with foreign individuals, as required in the security clearance application. 

Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), who questioned Maier on the subject, noted that Tabatabai’s alleged contacts with the Iranian government may have taken place far enough in the past that she was not required to disclose them in her vetting process. Maier said that the investigation has “discretion” to look into Tabatabai’s foreign contacts further back, beyond what was required on her security clearance operation.

Separately on Thursday, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin raising concerns about Tabatabai and demanding answers on the situation by Oct. 6, Jewish Insider has learned.

“Ms. Tabatabai’s relationship with Iranian government representatives, along with her malicious comments regarding our ally, Israel, as a representative of the U.S. Department of Defense is undeniably unacceptable,” Blackburn wrote.

The Foreign Affairs hearing was convened for the purpose of discussing efforts to repeal and replace the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force that have undergirded many of the U.S.’s efforts to combat global terrorism for the past two decades. The committee aims to vote on a new AUMF next month.

Some lawmakers have raised concerns that repealing the authorization would send a signal of weakness to adversaries in the Middle East, particularly Iran, and have argued that specific authorities should be provided to allow the U.S. to target Iran-backed Shia militant groups.

The administration officials who testified argued that such authorities are not necessary. They suggested that the Taliban should also not be included in the new authorization, instead focusing on al-Qaida and ISIS and their affiliates.

“I have to say I have some concerns with that,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) said, characterizing the Iran question as one of three major debates to be addressed in the process. “Iran-backed militias have attacked U.S. personnel in the Middle East more than 80 times since the start of the administration.”

Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said that, while the administration sees Iran as the most significant state sponsor of terrorism, the administration has the self-defense authorities it needs under Article II of the Constitution to respond to Iranian-backed attacks without additional congressional authorization.

“President [Joe] Biden has repeatedly warned Iran that we will hold them to account for any role in attacks against U.S. personnel,” Nuland said. “And the president, again, has done just that using his Article II authorities most recently, in March in Syria. And he’s not going to hesitate to do that again.”

As of March, the administration had only launched four “major responses” to Iranian-backed attacks, according to Austin. Nuland said she believes that the March retaliatory attack had restored deterrence toward Iran. 

Committee Ranking Member Greg Meeks (D-NY) said he agreed with Nuland that the administration had shown it had all the authorities it needed to address the Iranian threat, indicating some partisan division on this issue.

Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) questioned whether the administration wanted to avoid naming Iranian-backed groups to preserve possibilities for a nuclear deal with the regime.

“I’m not really going to disagree with you on the president’s Article II powers, but I think it would be wise, given the fact that these are groups that are killing U.S. service members, that Congress authorize the president and give him maximum authority and flexibility with respect to responding to those attacks.”

In another potential area of conflict between Congress and the administration, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that the new war powers should be time-limited, requiring any administration to return to Congress periodically to review and renew the authorities. 

Nuland countered that such limitations would signal to enemies that they could outlast the U.S. and to partners that they could not rely on the Americans’ long-term commitment.

At a separate hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Derek Chollet, the nominee to be the undersecretary of defense for policy who currently serves in the State Department, also argued that U.S. deterrence toward Iran is working.

“One of the foremost responsibilities I would have for this position is ensuring that we do whatever we can to deter Iran and push back from its malign behavior,” Chollet said. “I think we have restored some degree of deterrence over the last several months… Every day we need to wake up and make sure that we’re doing what we can to deter Iran.”

Chollet also noted that there had not been an attack on U.S. forces in Syria since March, or in Iraq since last year. 

He additionally described the Abraham Accords as “the most positive thing to happen in the Middle East in quite some time” and said he had personally worked on expanding and deepening the agreements. “It’s something I would certainly carry forward and make a priority in the Defense Department.”

At the Foreign Affairs hearing, Nuland sparred with lawmakers over the administration’s recent deal to free U.S. hostages from Iran in exchange for $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds  — earmarked for humanitarian purposes — and the release of Iranians imprisoned in the U.S.

Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) argued that the deal showed that U.S. sanctions “mean absolutely nothing,” and called it “idiotic” to think that the funds would not allow the Iranian government to spend more elsewhere in its budget on malign activities.

Nuland pushed back on this argument, arguing that “they have not been spending money on food or medicine for their own people” prior to the deal.

She also responded to arguments that the deal would incentivize future hostage-taking.

“We obviously made clear… that this deal needed to be the end of this kind of practice,” Nuland said. “When you look at the balance here, getting our Americans back who’ve been wrongfully detained… was extremely important to do to underscore to Iran this kind of behavior doesn’t, in fact, pay and makes everything else from their international reputation to the relationship they say they want with the international community harder.”

Separately yesterday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced a resolution with 27 other Republicans seeking to block the sanctions relief under the deal and demanding the administration submit the text of the deal to Congress.
Also, Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), with Reps. Kevin Hern (R-OK) and Joe Wilson (R-SC), sent a letter to President Joe Biden seeking answers on how the Tehran Times, an outlet affiliated with the Iranian regime, had obtained purported sensitive documents and recordings relating to Iran envoy Rob Malley’s suspension.

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