Countering foreign interference: Tracing Iran’s web of influence in European Politics

11.00-12.30 hrs, 23 January -Javier Zarzalejos MEP

Room 128 – 6th floor Library


Can I thank Javier Zarzalejos for arranging this meeting. With the next EU elections due in June, I think it is important to examine closely the increasingly virulent attempts by the theocratic regime in Iran to interfere in western democracy and influence decision-making in institutions like the European Parliament. Can I also thank FoFI for publishing this excellent booklet which lifts the veil on the mullahs’ intensive campaign to subvert the democratic process.

In September last year, the London-based TV station ‘Iran International’ and the news website ‘Semafor’, sent shockwaves through Europe and America when they revealed that an influential organization known as the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), which had consistently lobbied and advised the Biden administration, EU governments and the European Parliament, was in fact set up and controlled by Tehran, stirring profound implications for global diplomacy and security. Based on an avalanche of leaked emails translated from Farsi into English by Iran International and Semafor, the two news organizations showed how the so-called ‘Experts Network’ had been created by the mullahs’ regime in 2014 “to improve Tehran’s image abroad”. ‘Experts from the network had consistently peddled misleading information designed by the mullahs, while also demonizing the main democratic opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and its primary component the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). 

The leaked emails exposed how the theocratic regime sought to use the Experts Network to build international ties with influential academics and researchers, penetrating governments, think tanks and advisory groups at the highest level and spreading the regime’s propaganda in Western media. They revealed the disturbing fact that European governments and institutions were relying on analyses and recommendations for their policy on Iran provided by these so-called experts. The emails unmasked the Iranian regime's covert initiative to advance Tehran's interests, including its nuclear programme, while diverting attention from its appalling human rights record. 

Emails dating back to the formation of the Experts Network in 2014 showed how Saeed Khatibzadeh, a senior advisor and spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran, worked to meticulously cultivate relationships with European and American academics, scholars and researchers. 

Khatibzadeh detailed his plans in a March 2014 email where he wrote: “This initiative which we call ‘Iran Experts Initiative (IEI)’ consists of a core group of 6-10 distinguished second-generation Iranians who have established affiliation with the leading international think-tanks and academic institutions, mainly in Europe and the US.” Other email exchanges with several of the so-called experts show how they even expressed their “unrequited loyalty without reservation” to the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, who at that time was Javad Zarif, and often asked for the regime’s senior officials to pre-review articles they were preparing to publish in western media. Others would, at times, seek advice from the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s staff about attending conferences and hearings in the U.S. and Israel.

At least two of the people on the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s experts’ list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran and chief negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal under President Obama. Malley was placed on leave without pay in June last year following the suspension of his security clearance. A third expert, allegedly working for the Iranian regime, was hired by the think tank Malley ran just before he took up his post at the State Department.

Khatibzadeh’s success was a victory for the mullahs’ strategy of spreading propaganda and disinformation. At the forefront of his Experts Network operation in the EU was a guy called Adnan Tabatabai. He was from Germany and co-founder and CEO of an organisation called the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). Tabatabai's advocacy for the Iranian regime, has featured in leading German media publications since 2016. He has also had direct involvement in European Parliament events, blatantly manipulating public opinion and policymaking. He spoke at a meeting on "EU Engagement and Human Rights in Iran," (hosted by MEP Jytte Guteland) on March 6, 2018. He addressed the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iran on July 16, 2020, and he also appeared at a Public Hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee entitled "Strategic Partnership with the Gulf", on March 22, 2022. 

Tabatabai is well known for disseminating misleading information and fabricating positive data to enhance the regime's popularity. Under the guise of cultural exchanges, he promotes close relations with the regime, downplaying its repressive policies that have faced international condemnation. He lobbied hard for Western restraint during the nationwide protests in Iran that followed the death in custody of Mahsa Amini. While he was calling for Western restraint, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their Basij paramilitary thugs, gunned down 750 peaceful protesters and arrested more than 30,000, many of whom have been tortured and hanged.

Rouzbeh Parsi, another member of the Experts Network, is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm. His work echoes the Iranian regime's narratives across prominent European platforms, including the European Parliament, media outlets, and influential think tanks. Parsi's presence in the European Parliament have included high-profile appearances as a guest speaker. In his role as a Senior Analyst for the European Union Institute for Security Studies he promoted the Iranian regime in no less than 61 policy papers. His colleague in the Experts Network is Ellie Geranmayeh, Deputy Director of the same Middle East and North Africa programme in Stockholm. She has played a key role in shaping Europe's approach to Iran for the past ten years, with over 140 published articles, policy papers, interviews, podcasts, and media contributions. Together with Rouzbeh Parsi she has participated as a key expert in public hearing sessions of the Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Detailed examination of the leaked emails has further revealed how the Experts Network members were also vigorously engaged in attacking the Iranian opposition NCRI and MEK, claiming that they have no support within Iran and slandering the movement with a range of absurd allegations originating from Tehran. They parroted the traditional rhetoric from the mullahs arguing that the NCRI and MEK should not be seen as a viable democratic alternative to the current regime in Iran, declaring that the only realistic way forward was to resurrect the nuclear deal, lift sanctions and maintain dialogue and diplomacy with the mullahs’ regime. 

It was also interesting that following the Qatargate scandal, the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament suspended one of its most senior political advisers, Eldar Mamedov, and referred him to the Belgian authorities. Mamedov, a Latvian national, had been serving as an S&D adviser to the Parliament's foreign affairs committee for more than a decade. 

In his interactions with members of Parliament, Mamedov routinely echoed Tehran's anti-MEK propaganda and authored numerous articles demonizing the MEK while downplaying the regime's crimes and aggressive, warmongering regional conduct. He consistently adopted pro-Iranian regime positions, raising suspicions that he was an alleged clandestine spokesman for the mullahs. 

The Iranian regime has spent billions backing Bashar al-Assad’s bloody civil war in Syria. They have trained, armed and financed the Houthi rebels in Yemen and are directly involved in the on-going missile and drone attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The mullahs have also trained and financed the Shi’ia militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, playing a key role in their 7th October invasion of Israel and the butchery that followed. Iranian warmongering has resulted in a flood of refugees from the Middle East besieging the EU and UK, rapidly developing into a humanitarian crisis, as hundreds have drowned in small boats trying to cross the Mediterranean and the English Channel.

Now we know that the Iranian intelligence services have developed close relationships with organised criminal gangs across Europe and in the UK, to expand the capability of its networks. In a bid to by-pass western sanctions, the mullahs have provided money laundering facilities for these drug cartels, employing their hitmen as terrorists and assassins, increasing their efforts to kill or kidnap individuals perceived to be enemies of the regime outside of Iran. Last November this included the attempted assassination of Alejo Vidal Quadras, a former Vice President of the European Parliament, in Madrid. Indeed, since the start of 2022, British intelligence services say the UK has responded to more than 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals by the Iranian regime.

For decades, Iran has been engaged in an intricate powerplay, using undercover means to shape policies in both Europe and the United States. The recent exposé of the Experts Network project is just a fragment of the wider and deeply sinister web of influence woven by the Iranian regime. Through massive financial investments and the strategic cultivation of influential lobbies, Iran has persistently sought to sway the decision-making processes of Western institutions and governments. This relentless pursuit has been further facilitated by a longstanding policy of appeasement, revealing the deep extent of Iran's influence over key Western policies. Now that the facts are known and the crooked experts exposed, the West must end appeasement and crackdown on the regime. Last year, 598 MEPs voted to blacklist the IRGC. President Roberta Metsola agreed. Why has it still not happened? Why does Joep Borrell insist on appeasing this evil regime?

It is time for the UN, US, EU and UK to open negotiations with the Iranian opposition NCRI and MEK and to back the Iranian people in their desire to overthrow the theocratic dictatorship and restore, peace, justice, democracy and human rights to their nation.