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How Iran's covert influence is threatening American democracy

Imagine if Russia attempted to infiltrate the U.S. government and prestigious American universities. Imagine that, by developing relationships in such high places, Russian agents facilitated the hostage-taking of U.S. students by the Russian FSB security service.

Were that to happen, there would rightly be an outcry, of course.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening and has happened with Iran. Yet somehow, no one is talking about it, despite the obvious threat to U.S. national security.

In recent years, where Washington has sought to engage, Tehran has sought to exploit. While all the focus has been on the Islamic Republic’s escalation in the Middle East, the threat emanating from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime is much closer to home.  

Recent media investigations by Iran International and Semafor confirm a significant information operation by Iran’s regime on U.S. and Western soil spanning years. The reporting reveals that in 2014, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and veterans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — the Iranian regime’s ideological paramilitary force — at least participated in a coordinated network made up of senior Western-based specialists and academics to influence policy in favor of the hostile clerical regime. This network came to be known as the so-called “Iran Experts Initiative.”

In the years since, these Western-based specialists and others have worked in think tanks, universities and even U.S. government agencies such as the Pentagon, developing close associations with senior U.S. and European officials on Iran. Some of these experts, flattered by the attention, do so unwittingly. Others may be fully aware of what they are doing. There are those even directly connected to the regime, such as Princeton University’s Hossein Mousavian, who was Tehran’s ambassador to Germany during a string of assassinations against Iranian dissidents in that country.

Connect all the dots, from Princeton to the Pentagon, and behind this influence operation is one Iranian so-called think-tank whose activities and affiliates have been overlooked in the West.

The Tehran-based Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) is no ordinary think tank. As an official branch of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, it represents a lethal and hostile regime. It and its members are in close coordination with the regime’s repressive security-intelligence apparatus.

IPIS has longstanding ties to the IRGC. Mostafa Zahrani, an IRGC veteran, was its president at the time of the Iran Experts Initiative’s founding and had direct contact with Iran Experts Initiative members. In fact, Princeton University’s student exchange program with Iran, which resulted in a U.S. student being taken hostage by the Iranian regime, was reportedly an idea initially proposed by Zahrani to a Western-based member of the Iran Experts Initiative who now works for the Pentagon.

Remarkably, in 2015, IPIS even brought a Munich Security Conference core group into contact with the late Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani — a U.S.-designated terrorist with the blood of thousands of American troops on his hands.  

IPIS’s think-tank status and official affiliation with the Iranian Foreign Ministry — rather than any security-intelligence entity — has enabled it to conduct activities beyond Iran’s borders and to host foreign dignitaries without raising suspicion, even though many of its officials are card-carrying members of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC. This is precisely why it is the perfect incubator for Iran’s infiltration activities, such as the Iran Experts Initiative.

Beyond that, IPIS and its affiliates frequently travel to and from the U.S. and Europe, receiving senior policymakers, experts, and academics from both. This includes hosting conferences in Tehran and speaking at prestigious Western policy institutions.

Iran International has additionally discovered a formal but undisclosed agreement between IPIS and the International Crisis Group, whose former CEO Robert Malley later became U.S. special envoy for Iran and whose security clearance has been suspended amid a federal criminal probe.

Upon first glance, the existence of such a forum for dialogue with Islamic Republic officials may seem appropriate on its face. But it is actually a problem, because the Iranian regime does not behave like a normal nation-state. As with all other academic and research centers in Iran, all foreign engagement takes place with the close coordination and involvement of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, an entity subject to sanctions for human rights abuses and terrorism in the U.S., UK, and European Union.

For too long, the Islamic Republic’s infiltration campaigns have operated under the radar in the U.S. IPIS should be sanctioned as a matter of urgency. This is especially so because an IPIS affiliation served as a platform which the Iranian security services exploited to take then-Princeton student Xiyue Wang hostage in 2016.

Authorities such as Executive Order 14078, promulgated to hold hostage-takers accountable, can be used as a basis for sanctioning IPIS.

A congressional investigation could expose further Iranian regime influence operations on American soil. It could also increase public awareness of how enemy regimes seek to limit access to their officials only to those Western voices who report or echo narratives deemed acceptable to them. Such undisclosed connections can form the basis of enemy information operations.

This is a story few in Washington are speaking about publicly, but it needs to be brought to light. It is time to devote the necessary resources to scrutinize and safeguard against this urgent threat to American democracy.

Kasra Aarabi is director of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps research at United Against Nuclear Iran, where Jason M. Brodsky serves as policy director.

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