National Review | By DAVID ZIMMERMANN | November 14, 2023
Iran has been conducting covert influence operations for years in the U.S. and abroad as part of a concerted disinformation campaign that is suspected to be espionage, a congressional briefing and corresponding report revealed Tuesday.
The 82-page report, titled “Iran: The Ayatollah’s Hidden Hand,” details how supreme leader Ali Khamenei and the Iranian regime use operatives in the Biden administration to influence U.S. policy involving the Islamic Republic, building on a Semafor article that was published in September. At the time, it was reported that at least three Iranian agents transitioned from soliciting Tehran’s talking points to working directly on policy under the purview of U.S. special representative for Iran, Rob Malley. In April, Malley’s security clearance was suspended over his alleged mishandling of classified documents.
“Having been provided with top-level security clearances, these Iranian agents had access to highly classified and sensitive information available only to senior U.S. officials, placing them in a unique position to mislead American policymakers while undermining policy toward Iran’s theocratic regime,” the newly published report states. “The actors allegedly collaborated with and took direction from senior Iranian officials while maintaining the appearance of working on behalf of the U.S. government.”
In addition to swaying foreign policy in favor of Iranian interests, the operatives also worked to subvert favorable opinions of the Middle Eastern nation’s leading opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), from Washington, D.C. Iran continues to demonize the MEK to this day, accusing the political group of terrorism primarily for its defiance of Ayatollah Khamenei.
“By brazenly targeting the highly effective dissident organization, the operatives hoped to leave U.S. officials with the false impression that there is no viable alternative to the ayatollahs — and certainly not one with a pro-democracy record that remains committed to toppling clerical rule,” the report adds.
Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, associate dean at the University of Baltimore who authored the report, presented an overview of his findings to select congressmen, foreign policy experts, and the media on Capitol Hill, where he called on both chambers of Congress to organize investigations and hearings into the matter.
“The Iranian regime poses a direct national security threat to U.S. citizens and U.S. security interests,” Sheehan said. “The fact of the matter is that no organization who aligns themselves with a hostile state or serves as a foreign agent should wield influence over U.S. policy or have access to sensitive national security information.”
Representatives Tom McClintock (R., Calif.), Randy Weber (R., Texas), and ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., the former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs during the George W. Bush administration, introduced the professor’s research at the briefing.
While lauding the House’s actions to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Sheehan advocated for Congress and decision-makers in Washington to be aware of the tactics that Tehran employs to “advance their broader, geopolitical agenda.” Early this month, the House passed a bipartisan resolution that declares a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable under U.S. policy.
Intimidation of U.S. officials is one of the many tactics listed in the book, Sheehan said, noting one of the key endorsers of his report was shot in Madrid, Spain, just five days prior to the Tuesday briefing. Professor and European statesman Alejo Vidal-Quadras, who fortunately survived, has reason to believe the Iranian regime was behind the failed assassination attempt. The Spanish police’s special terrorism unit is currently investigating the matter.
Sheehan posed questions to the audience, wondering whether the Iranian influence operations have officially become efforts of espionage and how much damage the covert campaign has caused.