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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 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.

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