Would you believe that Princeton University employs a former collaborator with Iranian terrorists and provides him with venues to communicate with a mainstream audience through print publications and media appearances? Would you believe that this has been the case for more than a decade? Such facts are objectively shocking but come to as little surprise to those who are familiar with the tactics Iran has long used to spread its talking points beyond its borders.
In 2009, Seyed Hossein Mousavian allegedly broke ties with the Iranian regime and relocated to the US in order to become a "visiting scholar" at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Since then, his work and his public advocacy have made it abundantly clear that his supposed self-imposed exile was all an act, presumably designed to give him a veneer of legitimacy while promoting regime talking points to a Western audience.
Just this week, Mousavian used his Twitter account to proclaim that a "door of trust... desperately needs to be reopened between Iran and the United States," and that the only means to that end is a return to US compliance with the nuclear deal that the US pulled out in 2018. This was presented to ordinary readers as an appeal for "regional peace and stability," but it is much more straightforwardly a demand for the US to lift virtually all economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, even while Iranian violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action continue unabated.
These are exactly the talking points of the Iranian regime pushing the US administration to reenter the nuclear deal while neglecting the mullahs' continuous and ongoing violations.
From 1992 until 1997, Mousavian essentially ran interference for the regime and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security while serving as Iranian ambassador to Germany. On September 17, 1992, a team of MOIS operatives carried out a terrorist attack on the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin, killing four Kurd opposition activists. Members of the assassination squad were eventually identified and put on trial, but Mousavian publicly dismissed the proceedings as a joke and attempted to convince European audiences that the German court would rule in Iran's favor.
Not only did this assertion turn out to be groundless, but the trial concluded in 1997 with German authorities declaring that some of Iran's highest authorities, including the supreme leader and the foreign minister, were involved in hatching the attack. The implication of the foreign minister naturally led to the implication of those working under his direct supervision, and Berlin requested that several Iranian diplomats be removed from the embassy.
This was not the last terrorist act of the Iranian regime and its embassy in Germany while Mousavian was the ambassador. On June 25, 1995, the New York Times reported that "Iranian diplomats working out of their embassy in Bonn plotted to disrupt a huge opposition rally in Germany last week, perhaps with the intention of assassinating a leading Iranian dissident, American intelligence officials said today. At about the same time, Germany asked two Iranian intelligence officials to leave the country because of evidence that they were planning potentially lethal operations from German territory, the American officials said."
The report also explained why the German government "abruptly banned Mrs. Rajavi, the Iranian opposition leader, from entering Germany...American intelligence officials concluded that there was another reason as well: the discovery by German intelligence that Iran's embassy in Bonn was assembling a team from the terrorist group the Party of God to violently disrupt the rally, and perhaps assassinate Mrs. Rajavi."
Mousavian, with this background, later moved to the US and became a "scholar" of international affairs at Princeton.
There he became a frequent collaborator with other well-known pro-Iran lobbyists and authors, including Trita Parsi and the National Iranian-American Council. Early last year, three US Senators sent a letter to the Department of Justice which stated that NIAC's "innocuous public branding masks troubling behavior," including the circulation of documents that blame US foreign policy, rather than the regime itself, for some of Iran's most malign activities. Like Mousavian, NIAC applied this line of argument to the nuclear deal, but it also suggested that the US bore responsibility for attacks on its own forces in Iraq.
No doubt recognizing the prior alarms that had been raised about NIAC, nine members of the House of Representatives sent another letter to the DOJ this month, but in this case they urged investigators to cast a broader net and look for anyone who might be receiving payment from the Iranian regime in exchange for promoting its talking points to the Biden administration or other Western entities.
That letter was apparently motivated by the arrest and indictment of Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, a Massachusetts political scientist who had been presenting himself to US media outlets as an independent analyst for over a decade, all while receiving upwards of 265,000 dollars from the Iranian regime. A broad investigation is precisely the appropriate response to this news, considering that it reveals how Iranian influence operations have been able to operate right under the noses of US lawmakers, American institutions, and the American public for so long.
The persistence of this phenomenon is all the more troubling when one considers that suspicions regarding NIAC, Parsi, Mousavian, and others have been voiced over and over again, to little avail, by individuals and institutions that include those who are most frequently targeted by the regime's coordinated disinformation.
The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) has always been an obsession for Tehran, to the point of being the main target of a massacre of political prisoners that claimed the lives of over 30,000 people over several months in 1988. Despite such attacks, the MEK has grown more popular and sophisticated over the years, and in January 2018, Khamenei acknowledged that it had played a leading role in a nationwide uprising that was then ongoing.
That uprising was surely a motivator for the regime's attempt to bomb an expatriate gathering near Paris later that year – an operation that utilized at least one Iranian embassy in Europe, as with the Mykonos bombing. Such developments make it clear that the regime's tactics have not changed with respect to either terrorism or propaganda. In fact, they are likely to continue escalating in the wake of persistent challenges from the pro-democracy Resistance, unless directly, comprehensively challenged by the international community.