Why Did Princeton Hire a Former Iran Official Who Traveled to Soleimani’s Funeral?

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While a Princeton University student languished in an Iranian prison, Iranian official-turned-Princeton professor Seyed Mousavian not only refused to help the student but took Tehran’s side in a conversation with the student’s wife by insisting that the student must have broken one or more of the mullahs’ laws.

“I spent 1,216 days in an Iranian jail,” former Princeton student Xiyue Wang told The Daily Signal in an interview last month. “My wife insisted on having a meeting with Mousavian to talk about my case.”

Princeton repeatedly told Wang and his wife that they should not bother Mousavian, he recalled, but ultimately the university agreed to set up the meeting.

Wang recalled the professor’s words:

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Mousavian, in the meeting, told my wife, “Wang has certainly done something wrong to be in that situation. He must have violated an Iranian law. That’s why he was arrested and sentenced. There’s nothing I can do.”

“This is the mentality of this person,” Wang said of Mousavian in the interview with The Daily Signal. “He thinks like the [Iranian] regime. He talks like the regime, and Princeton allows that to happen, despite its student being taken hostage.”

Yet, Wang said, his captors didn’t seem as convinced of his guilt as an alleged spy. He said they told him that he wouldn’t have been imprisoned had he been Chinese rather than American. He also said they told him that Iran doesn’t want Americans to do research in Iran because the U.S. government ultimately could use that research to guide policy on Iran.

“I don’t think they really believed or suspected that I really did anything that warranted what they did to me,” Wang said.

Iran frequently uses espionage charges to hold political prisoners.

The Islamist regime arrested Wang in August 2016 and announced his release in December 2019, in exchange for an Iranian scientist held in the U.S. Earlier this year, an Iran-linked Shiite militia in Iraq kidnapped Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli-Russian dual citizen and Princeton graduate student, while she conducted field research for a doctorate in political science.

Wang said he suspects that Mousavian has done nothing to help Tsurkov, either.

Mousavian’s Response

Speaking to The Daily Signal, Mousavian repeated previous assertions that he carries no weight with Tehran. He cited espionage charges against him, but critics suggest those charges are a mirage designed to give the Princeton professor some breathing room.

Mousavian attracted new attention after speaking at an August symposium organized by U.S. Strategic Command.

Last month, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce sent a letter to Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber, demanding clarification about the professor’s role in the symposium. The letter notes that Mousavian began his career at a regime-connected newspaper and went on to serve as Iran’s ambassador to Germany and a nuclear negotiator for the regime.

Mousavian didn’t deny Wang’s claims that the professor did nothing to help Wang while he was in an Iranian prison, but insisted that he couldn’t have done anything to help even had he tried. The professor also didn’t deny meeting with Wang’s wife, nor taking the position that Wang must have been guilty.

“I was arrested in 2007 and accused of espionage for Western governments,” the professor told The Daily Signal. “Ultimately, in 2008, an Iranian court banned me from diplomatic appointments coupled with a two-year suspended jail sentence.”

Mousavian said Tehran forced him to retire from the foreign ministry, spurring him to leave Iran in 2009. He noted that Iran’s Intelligence Ministry renewed the espionage claim against him in 2010 while he worked at Princeton. In February 2022, an Iranian court convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to 11 months in prison.

“My father passed away in November 2022, but because of the sentence, I was unable to go to Iran to attend the funeral of my father,” Mousavian said.

“How could I help an American student arrested in Iran when I could not even travel to Iran to attend my father’s funeral?” he asked.

Mousavian admitted that he served as the spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiation team from 2003 to 2005 and worked closely with Hassan Rouhani (who became Iran’s president in 2013) and Mohammad Javad Zarif (who later became foreign minister).

However, Mousavian insisted that he has not worked with “any government, including the government of Iran,” since his 2008 conviction. He also noted that an Iranian court sentenced Hossein Fereydoun, Rouhani’s brother, to five years in prison in 2009.

“If President Rouhani could not help his brother and adviser, how could he help an American citizen?” Mousavian asked.

House Panel’s Concerns

The House committee’s letter to Princeton’s president notes that Iran allowed Mousavian to leave even though two of his former associates who faced similar charges were sentenced to 10-year terms in Iranian prisons. The letter cites a 2013 New York Times article reporting that Mousavian “acted as an unofficial Iranian government representative, answering queries or commenting for international news media about the nuclear program and the prospects for improved relations between Iran and the United States.”

The lawmakers’ letter cites Zarif, who said in March 2016 that Mousavian “continued to, and continues to, work hard” for Iran’s Islamist regime. Zarif added that he didn’t believe the “accusations of espionage against him,” and asserted that Mousavian “believes in, is completely tied to, the system of the Islamic Republic and Iran.”

Zarif added that “Mousavian beautifully defends the interests of the Islamic Republic [of Iran].”

Mousavian attended the funeral in Tehran for Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s feared Quds Force, whom then-President Donald Trump killed in a 2020 drone strike. The professor appeared in a tribute to Soleimani in an Iranian TV program in 2022.

In that show, Mousavian also referred to Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy to Iran from 2018 to 2020. He said an American had told him, “The wife of Brian Hook could not sleep for a few nights now” because she feared for her husband’s life.

“When President Trump had Gen. Soleimani assassinated, I was in Iran to visit my mother who was hospitalized and later passed away,” Mousavian told The Daily Signal. “As an academic researcher, I attended the funeral of Gen. Soleimani to see the reaction to this assassination. Seven million attended Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran and 20 million in other cities in total. This was clear evidence that Soleimani was very popular in Iran, and this association added another layer to Iran-U.S. hostilities.”

“The 10-second clip from my two-hour interview with Iranian TV was taken out of context,” Mousavian added. He claimed that Iranian TV refused to air the entire two-hour interview, just those few seconds. “I have always opposed assassinations and threats of assassination against both Iranian and U.S. nationals because it is against the U.N. Charter and a violation of international rules and regulations.”

The professor said he urged Washington and Tehran to “stop the mutual threats,” condemned Soleimani’s assassination as “a clear violation of international law,” and contended that the threats against Hook “caused panic in Hook’s family.”

Wang’s Theory

Wang, the former Princeton student, said he read a Persian-language op-ed that Mousavian had written in an Iranian newspaper, “with the Princeton byline, supporting Iranian policy against the United States.”

Wang said he has been unable to find this newspaper article since his captivity.

In 2022, Mousavaian published the book “Religion and Nuclear Weapons: A Study of Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan,” in which he argues that the Iranian regime isn’t seeking a nuclear weapon.

Wang suggested that Princeton hired Mousavian to help then-President Barack Obama’s administration negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He noted that Princeton has hired former Obama administration officials as well as former officials in President Joe Biden’s administration.

Princteton hired former Obama White House environmental quality adviser Van Jones, former Obama State Department official Jon Finer (now Biden’s national security adviser), former Obama adviser Cecilia Rouse (who also served in the Biden administration), former Obama Defense Department staffer Brent Colburn, and Biden’s former chief envoy to Iran, Robert Malley.

“I think it is highly problematic for the university to hire someone like Mousavian, especially when students are repeatedly taken hostage,” Wang said of Princeton. “The university needs to answer questions about that.”

“My family and my colleagues were pulling all kind of strings they can think of to find help,” the former hostage added. “The problem for Mousavian is, he never wanted to help, never offered to help. Even when my family, through Princeton, asked him to get involved, he said, ‘I’m not going to get involved.’ Princeton was quite OK with that.”

“Because the student’s welfare and safety is so unimportant, so trivial, compared to the university’s larger objectives,” Wang added sarcastically.

Princeton University did not respond to The Daily Signal’s requests for comment by publication time.

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