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Princeton’s Iranian Agent of Influence

The cautionary tale of Seyed Hossein Mousavian

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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As the Islamic Revolution has devoured its own, many Iranians have sought refuge in the West. After the fraudulent 2009 presidential elections and the crackdown that followed, the United States and Europe were flooded with Iranian pro-democracy dissidents and even pro-regime types who fell afoul of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s shrinking definition of “loyal.” In this latter category is the former ambassador and nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who left Iran in 2009 and has since resided at Princeton University. 

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Tehran, 2004

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Tehran, 2004

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Mousavian is a compelling character: He reveals how distant philosophically these Iranian exiles can be from their Western hosts, and how poorly many Americans have understood their guests. Mousavian’s American and European admirers have been as naïve as he has been deceitful. And his sojourn here hints at a larger truth about the embrace of nonproliferation as a cause célèbre among many liberals, including, probably, Barack Obama. Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is a driving passion for the American left—up until the point where it requires the use of force.

Mousavian would likely have languished in Ivy League obscurity if he’d not recently published a 600-page atomic apologia, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir. He has the standing to write such a book. For years he has been the factotum of the fallen, incomparably avaricious clerical powerhouse Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Mousavian’s jobs in the foreign ministry, his ambassadorship to Germany between 1990 and 1997, and most important his position on Iran’s National Security Council from 1997 to 2005—all came from his ties to the beardless, white-turbaned Rafsanjani, who was the most powerful man in Iran when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989. Personal ties in Iran often mean a lot more than titles; offices are often created to match the personal and private wielding of power. Iran has always been defined by partibazi—the power that comes through connections. The Islamic Revolution greatly expanded the number of winners and losers in this never-ending contest, but did not alter partibazi’s firm hold upon politics, economics, and culture.  

Mousavian comes from a wealthy carpet-dealing family from Kashan, one of Iran’s industrial-scale carpet-manufacturing centers. The family was associated with the Motalefeh, the religiously conservative revolutionary movement founded in the early 1960s that united the bazaar and mosque behind Khomeini. Mousavian probably used his father’s Motalefeh connections to gain access to the big personalities in and around the Islamic Republican party (IRP), which absorbed the Motalefeh movement. The founder of the IRP, Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, also launched the Tehran Times, the Marxist-Islamist English-language newspaper of the revolution, and made Mousavian editor in chief in 1980. Rafsanjani, Khamenei, and virtually everyone else who mattered in Iran’s fledging theocracy were tied to the IRP. 

At the paper until 1990, Mousavian also had roles in government (the union of church, state, and the fourth estate being an ideal in the Islamic Republic). Mousavian worked directly with Rafsanjani in parliament in the mid-1980s, when Khomeini’s go-to cleric was speaker of the Majlis, the Islamic Republic’s controlled, but at times rambunctious, legislature. Mousavian’s rapid rise in foreign affairs started then. When Rafsanjani became president in 1989, his key foreign policy was expanding trade relations with Western Europe, a step critical to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear aspirations. European imports—especially dual-use items—allowed the then-clandestine atomic program to begin in earnest. Probably the most valuable country for this trade (as well as for less menacing industrial pursuits) was Germany, where Mousavian arrived as ambassador in 1990. 

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