When pondering the Iranian regime, Americans probably imagine fiery speeches by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map," or Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei bragging that the phrase "Death to America" originated in Iran. Such bellicose statements are alarming. Yet they are less concerning than the shrewd statements of a clever man strategically placed to look like a friend.
Enter former Iranian regime official Seyed Hossein Mousavian.
Since 2009, Mousavian, an Iranian national educated in the West, has lived in the U.S., working as a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University. Officially, Mousavian is a simple academic, his decades-long career as an Iranian official a casualty of "hardliners" who no longer appreciated his moderate approach.
Yet this is a fantasy spun for those eager to accept such a fiction. His claimed moderation and subsequent purge, to the degree they are even real, are without substance. His true role in America is to serve Tehran's interests. Particularly now, when there is greater awareness of domestic political interference from totalitarian regimes, this is intolerable.
Mousavian's presence at Princeton is a subject of significant amounts of controversy in recent months. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly true in the Princeton community, where it is hotly discussed in the pages of various school news outlets. But most of the facts regarding Mousavian are not in dispute.
Mousavian's career began at the Tehran Times, an English-language newspaper that, according to respected Iran scholar Ray Takeyh, is "a newspaper with close ties to the Foreign Ministry," while he simultaneously served in several governmental positions.
As Iran's ambassador to Germany, Mousavian covered for Tehran after four Iranian dissidents were gunned down in Berlin.
From 1990 to 1997, Mousavian then served as Iran's ambassador to Germany. During his tenure, four Iranian dissidents, most ethnic Kurds, were murdered. Mousavian dismissed the charges against an Iranian intelligence officer and his accomplice as "a joke." The individuals in question were nonetheless convicted, even though dissident Iranians accuse Mousavian of "running interference for the regime." After the conviction, Mousavian stated defiantly that "if European nations continued to treat Iran in the same manner as America and Israel did, then those European nations would be treated in the same manner by Iran," a thinly veiled terror threat. Mousavian later was a top official at the Center for Strategic Research, an Iranian regime think tank that previously housed Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran from 2013 to 2021. Working for the regime was his life's work.
The nature of his departure from Iran is controversial. Mousavian claims to be an "exile" due to his feud with regime "hardliners," including Ahmadinejad, who were opposed to the "moderate" faction led by former President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, who appointed Mousavian a nuclear negotiator. Mousavian claimed that the IRGC charged him with trumped-up "espionage" charges because of his moderate positions. But as Kasra Aarabi, an expert on Shiite extremism, points out, "While Mousavian was sentenced to two years in jail for 'endangering national security' in Iran, remarkably he was allowed to travel to the United States before he was imprisoned."
Is it possible that the Obama administration facilitated him coming to the U.S. to serve as the unofficial Iranian ambassador? He certainly acted like one. The Obama administration repeatedly sought his advice in the run-up to the 2015 Iran deal.
Evidence abounds that Mousavian has always remained loyal to the regime. In 2016, former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Mousavian "continued to, and continues to, work hard for the system [of the Islamic Republic]," and that he "believes in, and is completely tied to, the system of the Islamic Republic and Iran."
Mousavian's behavior and his voluminous public pronouncements confirm this.
Mousavian's public musings are moderate in tone, academic in style, portray the regime positively, and support Tehran's goals.
A common thread runs through Mousavian's public musings: They are moderate in tone, academic in style, portray the Iranian regime positively, and support the regime's goals. They also frequently contain subtle threats of violence, a technique he used while ambassador to Germany.
In an interview during the negotiations pertaining to the 2015 Iran deal, Mousavian claimed that Iran is "one of the most stable countries in the region," ignoring the regime's crushing of the 2009 Green Movement, which killed at least 100; the 1999 student movement; and the massive state resources dedicated to oppressing its own citizens.
When Congress raised concerns about the Iran deal in 2015, Mousavian decried in the Washington Post that Congress may "play a spoiler role," ignoring Congress' role in policymaking in the U.S., and threatening that any attempt to scuttle the deal would lead to radicalism in Iran. Clearly, Mousavian has not learned to appreciate the institutions of democracy by living in the US.
Mousavian is also an admirer of the late Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in early 2020. Mousavian attended Suleimani's funeral, and he also publicly blamed the U.S. for Iran shooting down Ukraine Flight PS752, which killed 176 people, and uncritically mentioned cries for revenge at Suleimani's funeral.
Writing in late 2020 after Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump, Mousavian decried Israeli efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program and encouraged Biden to re-enter the Iran deal and to ignore Iran's conventional weaponry in future negotiations. He also said that anti-American sentiment in Iran would be "hard to contain."
Most recently, Mousavian gave an interview in Farsi, in which he gleefully explained that the wife of former U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook "(C)an't sleep, she cries and trembles, she told Brian, 'They'll kill you,' since Hook was a partner in the death of Haj Qasem [Suleimani], that's how much they were trembling.'" According to reports, Hook is facing credible death threats from the Iranian regime. Mousavian's not-very-convincing excuse is that he was simply mourning that tensions had reached the point where violence was being discussed. The more careful observation is that he is reiterating veiled threats against Hook, particularly as it relates to Suleimani.
Mousavian's compassion doesn't extend to Princeton students who have been wronged by the regime. Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American who moved to Iran to study regional history, was imprisoned and tortured by the regime for 40 months on trumped up charges. Mousavian did nothing to intervene. It was Hook who led secret negotiations to free Wang. Wang has a close relationship with Hook, and unsurprisingly, is not a fan of Mousavian.
The conclusion is clear: Mousavian is not an "academic" in any meaningful sense, but a regime official given a sinecure so he can act as a purveyor of misinformation and an advocate for the regime in the U.S..
Mousavian's admission to the U.S. appears to be a too-clever-by-half attempt by the Obama admin. to create an informal Iranian ambassador.
The U.S. broke off formal diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 because it was a violent theocracy unwilling to accept diplomatic norms, announcing its presence to the world by taking U.S. Embassy staff hostage. Mousavian's admission to the U.S. appears to be a too-clever-by-half attempt by the Obama administration to create an informal Iranian ambassador. If the Biden administration wants to re-engage formal diplomatic relations with Iran, that is within its power. But Congress should put a stop to this charade. Particularly as there are fears that this farce will be repeated with foreign Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Congress doesn't have the power to expel Mousavian, but it should investigate how Mousavian got his visa, and expose any skullduggery that led to this unofficial ambassador to take his post with so little scrutiny. This will have the double effect of shining a light on the situation with Mousavian, and show how Congress might fix problems like this going forward.
Clifford Smith (@CliffSmithZBRDZ) is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project.