Suspected Iranian Agent Working for Pentagon While U.S. Coordinated Defense of Israel

Frustration is swirling on Capitol Hill following a top Defense Department official’s revelation that a suspected Iranian influence agent remained on the job at the Pentagon last week while U.S. national security officials were coordinating international efforts to defend Israel from a coming Iranian attack.

Sparks flew during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week when Assistant Secretary of Defense Christopher Maier told lawmakers that Ariane Tabatabai remained at work in an office overseeing special operations and irregular warfare despite concerns from lawmakers that she has operated at the behest of the Iranian regime.

Suspicion among lawmakers about Ms. Tabatabai’s potential participation in a hidden effort directed by the Iranian regime first came to the fore last year when alleged details about her appeared in a trove of emails from Iranian diplomats spanning from 2003 to 2021 that were published by news outlets.

In September, a group of 31 Republican senators wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, pressing him for answers about Ms. Tabatabai‘s work at the Pentagon.

Concerns about Ms. Tabatabai boiled anew on Capitol Hill last week, with Sen. Tom Cotton asserting that the Department of Defense has only assured lawmakers that protocols were followed regarding Ms. Tabatabai’s work and Congress did not get more information.

The Arkansas Republican questioned Ms. Tabatabai’s boss, Assistant Secretary of Defense Christopher Maier, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

“I’m sure protocols were followed for Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen as well,” Mr. Cotton said to Mr. Maier at the hearing. “I think it’s a basic function of our oversight responsibility for us to have more information about Ms. Tabatabai and how someone with these ties to well-known Iranian influence operation ended up working for you.”

Ames and Hanssen are former CIA and FBI employees convicted in U.S. federal court of spying for Russia. Mr. Cotton made clear that Mr. Maier, who oversees special operations and low-intensity conflict, was not responsible for Ms. Tabatabai’s hiring, but also said she served as chief of staff for his office.

Mr. Maier told lawmakers that Ms. Tabatabai still works in the office.

“Senator Cotton, Ms. Tabatabai still is employed in my office,” he said at the Wednesday hearing. “She is part, like all the other civilians, military, contractors in the department, subject to continuous vetting that’s done by the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency. That’s about all that I can provide you in this forum and that’s what I’ve been provided by the folks that are really responsible for security in our department, sir.”

Pressed by Mr. Cotton to give additional details in a closed-door hearing, Mr. Maier said he would provide a bit more in the classified session with senators. A Senate Armed Services Committee spokesman declined to comment when asked if senators were satisfied with the additional testimony from Mr. Maier.

Whether Ms. Tabatabai had any visibility into the Pentagon efforts to stop the attack that Iran carried out against Israel over the weekend is not clear.

National security officials began briefing President Biden about threats that Iran was making toward Israel more than ten days ago, according to a senior U.S. official. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Iranian threats kickstarted an extraordinary level of U.S. military planning to defend the Jewish state.

Things moved quickly for the Pentagon and White House where the threat took on a top priority. For example, the Secretary of Defense pulled Mr. Biden aside during the Japanese prime minister’s visit last week to get the president’s authorization for additional military deployments to assist Israel, the senior official said on Sunday.

The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, which employs Ms. Tabatabai, manages secret programs and has knowledge of American forces operating in close proximity to Iranian proxies, according to Hudson Institute adjunct fellow Garrett Exner.

Mr. Exner wrote for the Hudson Institute last year that he served as a special operations policy adviser to that office for three years and believed an Iranian operative’s presence would put special operations forces in extreme danger.

A suspected Iranian operative’s presence could also jeopardize good diplomatic relations with America’s allies.

Jewish Institute for National Security of America fellow Gabriel Noronha claims that Pentagon officials have told him that European counterparts have refused to take meetings when Ms. Tabatabai participates, citing concerns about leaks of sensitive information.

Mr. Noronha told The Washington Times the Pentagon needs to reevaluate its approach to security investigations.

“In Ms. Tabatabai’s case, the public evidence alone is clear: she has close family connections and professional association with the regime’s senior leadership that should disqualify her from receiving a security clearance, which is a privilege and not a right,” Mr. Noronha said.

Details of Ms. Tabatabai’s alleged connections to Iran were published last year by the U.K.-based Iran International media outlet. The publication said Ms. Tabatabai participated in a network of academics and researchers privately working with the Iranian foreign ministry.

Iran International said it obtained the communications of Mostafa Zahrani, a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, that showed Ms. Tabatabai seeking Tehran’s advice on matters such as trips to Israel and participation in various conferences.

Ms. Tabatabai also served between 2021 and 2022 as an advisor to Robert Malley, a Biden administration official on leave from the State Department following the suspension of his security clearance, according to Iran International. The publication said she accompanied Mr. Malley to nuclear negotiations in Vienna in 2021.

Biden administration officials have previously dismissed concerns about Ms. Tabatabai. A Pentagon official told The Times in September that she was thoroughly and properly vetted and that the U.S. government was “honored to have her serve.”

Tension between Israel and Iran remains extremely high and could grow worse. Institute for Global Economic Growth chairman Richard W. Rahn wrote for The Times in February that intelligence estimates suggest Iran could soon have nuclear weapons and he estimated they may have as many as a dozen by May.

Originally published in The Washington Times.