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The International Crisis Group Responds to Letter from Congress to DOJ

The International Crisis Group is an independent conflict prevention organisation. We speak to all sides in the 70-odd conflict situations we cover, including those with whom we have strong disagreements. We do not act on any country’s behalf. We value good governance and compliance, and we are confident that our activities fully comply with U.S. law. 

In September 2023 and again in February, two media outlets – Semafor and Iran International – published articles about our work and staff, including sourcing based on self-serving emails among a few Iranian officials with a track record of lying. The articles are full of mischaracterisations.

On 6 February, Semafor published a column by its co-founder, Steve Clemons, dissenting from its own reporting. In addition, its primary reporter seems to have backed away from previously misguided assertions that our staff worked on behalf of the Iranian government as part of an “influence operation”. He did so following Clemons’ revelation that the United Kingdom was among the European backers of the initiative. We encourage the Members of Congress who wrote the Department of Justice prior to this revelation to similarly reassess their understanding. Despite our exhaustive efforts to correct the earlier stories, neither outlet was interested in a public correction. 

We encourage all to read our full responses to this reporting, as well as the aforementioned critique by Clemons. A top European negotiator in the nuclear negotiations, Enrique Mora, has similarly corrected these mischaracterisations. In addition, we would note:

  • For two decades, Crisis Group has worked to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program. Our work during the 2014-2015 JCPOA negotiations was transparent and aligned with the goals of those powers, including the United States, seeking to hinder that program. Several U.S. and European diplomats involved in the negotiations later joined our Board of Trustees.

  • Crisis Group had minimal involvement with the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), but enough to know that characterisations of it as an “influence operation” floated by the Iranian government were fanciful. The latest Semafor article has backed away from that claim, though the outlet has not corrected its earlier reporting. It likely made this change because Clemons revealed the fact that IEI was funded and backed by the UK government and other European entities – not Iran. The original articles imprudently based their claims on internal emails among Iranian officials, which should be taken with a large dose of scepticism. 

  • Arianne Tabatabai – an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense who is mentioned in the letter – has never worked for the International Crisis Group. 

  • Ali Vaez – also mentioned in the letter – is a U.S. citizen who has been unable to travel to Iran since 2015, due to security threats, precisely because the regime is critical of his work. 

  • Dina Esfandiary is also mentioned in the letter. Dr. Esfandiary has similarly displayed independence in her work and regularly engages U.S., European and regional officials.

  • Crisis Group is a U.S.-registered organisation and not a Belgian one. We have received funding from a variety of sources over the years, including the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Institute of Peace and the U.S. Agency for International Development, but never the Iranian government nor any entity affiliated with it. 

  • Among other things, Iranian media has accused Dr. Vaez and Crisis Group of working for the CIA – and on behalf of Israel – to overthrow the regime in Tehran. We mention these scurrilous allegations here to underscore that, though we engage Iranian officials as we do U.S., European and other officials, we are not aligned with the Iranian or any other government. 

  • All of our government funding is disclosed on our website. Many think-tanks and research organisations have MOUs with foreign governments or government-affiliated entities that do not involve funding. Our MOUs like these are often intended to safeguard our staff in conflict zones or in countries that engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions, or to guarantee our ability to work in certain places.  They can, for example, provide Crisis Group an official reason to be in a given country. Any potentially sensitive MOU is reviewed by counsel for compliance with U.S. law. 

  • As with funding agreements with governments, referenced above, we always retain our independence, and no entity or person outside Crisis Group directs or controls our work due to an MOU or otherwise. 

Working the middle ground, between parties to a conflict, is necessarily difficult and sometimes dangerous. Debates about such important issues ought to be rigorous. We urge all concerned, however, not to base such serious allegations on the words of Iranian officials or individual reports and to engage the full facts, including those revealed on 6 February by Semafor’s own co-founder as well as those in our own comprehensive clarifications.