Iran’s Influence Operation Over Nuclear Negotiations

Robert Malley, the former Biden administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the JCPOA during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on May 25, 2022. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid ongoing talks in October 2014 that would bring about the Iran nuclear deal nine months later, an associate of then-Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reached out to assure him of his commitment to the Islamic Republic’s cause.

“As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty, I have not hesitated to help you in any way,” the email to Zarif reads, “from proposing to Your Excellency a public campaign against the notion of [nuclear] breakout, to assisting your team in preparing reports on practical needs of Iran.” 

The email didn’t come from an Iranian negotiator or government official. It came from Ali Vaez, an Iranian American analyst at the Crisis Group who, according to the group’s website, led its efforts “to bridge the gap between Iran” and the other countries negotiating the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. Vaez continues to shape Iran policy in Washington today through his academic ventures and contact with U.S. government officials. But he’s not alone in furthering the Iranian government’s positions under the guise of independent research. Recent investigations by Iran International and Semafor, based on thousands of emails between Iranian officials and analysts, reveal that Vaez is one in a network of U.S.-based academics hand-selected by Tehran to boost its image abroad and covertly lobby U.S. officials on behalf of its preferred policies.

Former U.S. officials tell The Dispatch that the Obama and Biden administrations’ focus on engagement with Iran, particularly on its nuclear program, may have made it more susceptible to the influence operation. At least three members of the information campaign have been deeply engaged in formulating the Biden administration’s Iran policy, two as government employees and one, Vaez, as an informal adviser. 

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