The Magazine

Princeton’s Iranian Agent of Influence

The cautionary tale of Seyed Hossein Mousavian

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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

Newscom

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. 

Mousavian doesn’t say in his nuclear memoir who made him the man he is today; he doesn’t discuss anything at all, really, before 1997, when he became the head of the foreign-relations committee of Iran’s National Security Council. It’s bad manners outside of the clerical class, where lineage and mentoring are constantly discussed, to talk openly about who is indebted to whom for success. Mousavian could have had helping hands from others—his Motalefeh roots suggest that he may never have been comfortable on the more radical, “leftist” side of the Islamic Revolution, which eventually evolved into the reformist wing of the ruling class. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the primary opposition candidate in the convulsive presidential elections of 2009, is a good example of a radical-turned-reformer among the elite. So, too, with less guts and gusto but more reflection, is Mohammad Khatami, the former president whose election in 1997 never would have happened without Rafsanjani’s initial backing. (Neither Khatami nor Rafsanjani had any idea of the level of popular disgust with the status quo, especially among women, that would roar forth in the 1997 presidential election.) 

After the Islamic Republic’s defeat in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), Rafsanjani—also from a prosperous family, this time pistachio growers—became the North Star for the less radical lovers of a revolutionary theocratic state. Though increasingly loathed by the poor and the struggling middle class (as the Rafsanjani clan acquired fabulous wealth in the 1990s), he was reluctantly admired by many Westernized Iranians who benefited from his greater openness to the world. A well-heeled, aspiring, Western-educated provincial boy like Mousavian would probably have found him highly attractive. 

Like many first-generation hard-core revolutionaries, Mousavian knew the enemy well: He’d studied at Sacramento City College and Sacramento State University and received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Kent in England. He was a good choice to serve as the spokesman for Khatami’s nuclear-negotiating team headed by the Scottish-educated Hassan Rowhani, Rafsanjani’s longtime second in foreign affairs. Better than most Westernized revolutionaries, who have lost traditional politesse and gained crude egalitarian directness, Mousavian knows how to speak politely to non-Muslims. He’s not without charm towards Westerners and, even more difficult, Iranian expatriates who’ve fled the tyranny that Mousavian so assiduously helped to construct. To journalists and American officials, he has tried with conviction to make the case for Tehran’s “peaceful” nuclear program. For him, the Iranian regime is “misunderstood,” and the West, even under President Obama, has been too hostile and suspicious. Sufficient Western concessions and greater Western sensitivity are the keys to solving the nuclear contretemps. 

Hailed by many in the United States and Europe as a guide to a possible resolution of the crisis, Mousavian writes and speaks to both American and Iranian audiences. His assertions that Khamenei’s intent isn’t threatening are followed by hints that a bomb might, nonetheless, be logical for the Islamic Republic to develop, especially given the threatening behavior of the United States and Israel.  

 

Throughout The Iranian Nuclear Crisis and in his small-group gatherings at Washington’s think tanks, Mousavian has remained respectful towards Supreme Leader Khamenei. Mousavian prefers to suggest that his own personal travails—a brief imprisonment in 2007 following charges of espionage on behalf of the British, leading to his flight to America—owe more to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s machinations than to Khamenei’s determination to purge anyone too closely aligned with Rafsanjani, who refused to back Ahmadinejad’s “triumph” in 2009. The president has reveled in going after Rafsanjani and his supporters, whom he sees as hopelessly corrupt and insufficiently loyal to Khomeini’s teachings. It’s likely that Khamenei too has enjoyed tormenting Rafsanjani, who had unlimited access to Khomeini (Khamenei did not) and who backed Khamenei’s candidacy for supreme leader because Khamenei had been so dependent upon him before and after the revolution. Rafsanjani, who personally told Mousavian to catch the next plane out of Iran, has been utterly humbled. 

Mousavian knows the truth: He underscores in his book that Iran’s supreme leader—not its president—ultimately controls the nuclear program and the political landscape surrounding it. From his opening invocation (his book, published by the Carnegie Endowment, starts: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful”) to his chats with U.S. officials and think-tankers, Mousavian seems unwilling to foreclose the possibility that he will return to the Islamic Republic—that he can, somehow, be accepted back into the ruling elite. He wants to be seen as a member of the loyal opposition even though the Islamic Republic has never really accepted the legitimacy of a bifurcated body politic. Iran’s theocracy is allergic to potentially seditious division. It is historically ironic that Shiism is the product of Islam’s longest-lasting schism and that the Islamic Republic—the world’s only Shiite state—has aggressively orthodox standards of permissible faith, comparable to what one finds among hard-core Sunnis.

Mousavian’s incongruities—his slipperiness—are a part of Rafsanjani’s and Rowhani’s approach to the nuclear program. In his unguarded moments, Rowhani used to brag that the primary purpose of nuclear diplomacy was to buy time so that the program could move forward. Rafsanjani, who guided the nuclear-weapons effort longer than anyone else, once attacked Ahmadinejad—that is, Khamenei—for his needless, in-your-face approach to the P5+1 talks, since it risked an American preemptive strike. In other words, Rafsanjani had been clever, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad manifestly not.

Mousavian at times claims to know a lot about Iran’s nuclear program, and then, when accusations from the IAEA are too cutting, not much at all. Concerning the Fordow uranium-enrichment facility, buried beneath a mountain, Mousavian knew not a thing until President Obama’s press conference about it. Concerning Iran’s work on the advanced P-2 centrifuge, an unnecessary, expensive investment if the objective is uranium for medical isotopes, Mousavian conjectures: “I believe that even Khatami, the president at the time, Rowhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council responsible for the nuclear file, and Kharrazi, the foreign minister, heard about the P-2 centrifuge issue for the first time from the IAEA and the foreign media and had no previous information on the matter.” Mousavian adds for his American audience, “This thick wall between the technical and political sides of nuclear programs exists in many nuclear countries, and this issue was naturally among the serious problems faced by Khatami’s negotiating team.” 

The only response possible to all of this: Which countries pursuing peaceful nuclear programs might he have in mind? 

Mousavian—unlike many Westerners, who’ve bent over backwards to give the Iranians the benefit of the doubt—is aware how surreal his position is if one accepts his story. “One may ask how, if Iran’s nuclear negotiators were not fully informed about their country’s nuclear activities, they could reject American and Israeli claims as not credible,” Mousavian ponders self-critically. The answer: “We trusted the supreme leader’s fatwa banning the use or production of nuclear weapons as ensuring this, and hence we could confidently reject foreign claims that Iran was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.” 

In other words, Mousavian is putting his trust in the man who demolished his world, incarcerated him, and forced him and his family into exile. It would be easy to say that Mousavian is just lying—and he is. But what is more intriguing is how hard it is for him to reflect critically on the revolution. In his eyes still, Iran’s faults are mostly American in origin—or tactical mistakes made by his archenemy, Ahmadinejad. Like battered Communists of old who just couldn’t stop loving the Soviet Union, Mousavian remains a party apparatchik who still loves the cause. He doesn’t see the “pathology of despotism” (to borrow from former president Khatami) that defines so much of the Islamic Republic. There isn’t a word, even from the safety of Princeton, about the dark side of Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards’ having the bomb. Little men like Mousavian—ideologues whose identities were created by the revolution—just can’t flip. And Mousavian is vastly more thoughtful, in his ability to associate with Westerners and to see their side, than the men who now dominate Iranian politics. 

The Carnegie Endowment obviously thought it was publishing a book making the Iranian case for a peaceful nuclear program. George Perkovitch, the vice president for studies at Carnegie, who had the unenviable task of supplying clarifying and corrective notes to Mousavian’s text, explained his institution’s decision to publish “the other side” this way: “The answer is that the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is a global think tank.  We believe that the most serious international conflicts cannot be resolved—or mitigated—if the antagonists do not understand each other’s perceptions.” Ecumenically all very commendable—except that’s not what Mousavian is doing in his book, his chats, and his interviews. What Mousavian is really saying (to his Iranian audience) is that the nuclear program—the development of the bomb—was handled so much more intelligently and nonconfrontationally under Rafsanjani and Rowhani and him. Our cause, he is saying, has gone to hell since the ugly dwarf  Ahmadinejad got the better of the supreme leader (unconscionable idiot that he is) after 2005.

What is most distressing is that important voices within the Washington foreign-policy establishment welcomed Mousavian with insufficient skepticism. It’s a microcosm of how the West has abetted the Islamic Republic’s worst aspirations. Doubtless few people have actually read Mousavian’s dull tome, which offers little insight and even less color about behind-the-scenes, all-Iranian discussions. The revolutionary from Kashan usually makes the Iranian elite sound like elderly Episcopalians meeting at Washington’s Metropolitan Club to discuss bird watching. It is striking that no one on the left in Washington bothered to point out Mousavian’s longstanding ties to Rafsanjani. Nor did they point out that he was the Iranian ambassador to Germany when Iranian agents machine-gunned Iranian-Kurdish dissidents at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992. In the early 1990s, Rafsanjani and Khamenei, then working in tandem, gave orders to Iranian intelligence to assassinate several annoying dissidents in Europe and Turkey. 

We know that Iranian ambassadors, though most likely not players in the planning of these assassinations, were kept apprised of the operations and were instrumental in the post-kill whitewashing of the Islamic Republic. Mousavian was quite active on the German scene—he remained ambassador until 1997—denying Iranian culpability. In 1997 Tehran’s guilt was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in a German court, and an arrest warrant was issued for the intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian. Fallahian’s men would not have moved without a green light from Khamenei and Rafsanjani.

We can assume that the Central Intelligence Agency thoroughly debriefed Mousavian in exchange for his refuge. That’s fair game in power politics and espionage. (Why Princeton University—especially former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, now at the Woodrow Wilson School, who strongly supported Mousavian’s appointment— would want to give a fellowship to someone who has so much blood swirling around him is a different question.) We can hope U.S. intelligence officers got more out of him in private than he’s revealed publicly. No question: There is something to be said for Mousavian serving as Rafsanjani’s eyes and ears in America even though it would take a near-miracle for Rafsanjani to regain strength against Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, who now appear to despise Mousavian’s patron even more than the supreme leader does. But that so few intelligent American liberals have questioned Mousavian’s past and character shows how disconnected the nuclear discussion usually is from real-life Iranian revolutionaries, even when they are drinking coffee right next to you. 

We’ve almost reached the denouement of the liberal foreign-policy establishment’s longstanding love affair with arms control. Doubtless some hard-core arms-control types in Washington are prepared to have the United States preemptively strike the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites. Most are not. Nuclear disarmament on the left was always mostly about us—about eliminating original sin. In a natural twist, the passion of this cause is now largely aimed at those who would contemplate military conflict to prevent virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic Islamists from getting a nuke. Better that nukes spread, even to the State Department’s longest-standing state-sponsor of terror, than America risk a fight. 

Those of the nonproliferation crowd who’ve become dovish advocates of sanctions will soon confront a perverse situation. They will have contributed to a global alliance against the Islamic Republic, only to see those efforts amplify enormously the regime’s sense of victory when it finally crosses the atomic threshold. Sanctions against Khamenei’s nuclear drive really only make sense if (1) they can collapse the economic means necessary to manufacture a weapon before the first nuke is made or (2) they are followed by preemptive raids when it becomes obvious that (1) is no longer possible. Given Iran’s oil wealth, economic emasculation was always problematic, if not a dream. 

Given how dangerous the regime is, how provocative its victory over the West will be (assuming it is not stopped from acquiring the bomb), a case can be made that it would have been shrewder for the United States and Europe not to mount any opposition to Tehran’s nuclear plans but instead to be conciliatory and flood the Islamic Republic with goods and services. This, too, most likely would have failed to dissuade the regime from going for the nuke. Europe’s energetic engagement policy in the 1990s collapsed before Western concerns about the nuclear program skyrocketed. Ideology trumps economics almost every time. The Islamic Republic’s leadership just isn’t like the Ottoman princes of old who could be neutralized with women and wine in the harem. But the frisson of victory over the infidels would have been less had we taken this route. With holy warriors—like Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards, who survived the ghastly Iran-Iraq war and see themselves as being on a divine mission to cleanse the Middle East of Islam’s enemies—that matters. 

Mousavian is now an observer of all this. He may never go home again. He seems increasingly like a child adrift, abandoned by his parents, yearning for attention and affection. But one thing is certain: If the Islamic Republic crosses the nuclear threshold, a part of him—a big part—will be smiling. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers