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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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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. 

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