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The attack on Dr. Mousavian

A man sits in front of a map wearing a striped suit jacket and a burgundy collared shirt.
Dr. Seyed Hossein Mousavian speaks at Chatham House
Chatham House/CC BY 2.0

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

Recently, a group called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), wrote a letter to President Eisgruber declaring it will campaign against all grants and government contracts to Princeton University until my esteemed colleague, Dr. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a researcher in the University’s Program on Science and Global Security, is dismissed. UANI’s letter was copied to 19 large foundations, the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Energy, and Health and Human Services, and Princeton’s Board of Trustees. 


UANI’s attack on Dr. Mousavian should be understood for what it is: a hatchet job against a political opponent. 

First, some background. On its website, UANI says it “educates the public, policymakers, and businesses about the danger posed by the Iranian regime.” In the past, it has received a large share of its funding from Sheldon Adelson, the late billionaire and largest funder of Donald Trump. In a 2013 talk at Yeshiva University in New York, Adelson proposed that, to make Iran more cooperative, the United States should detonate a nuclear weapon over a desert area in Iran and threaten that the next one would explode over Iran’s capital, Tehran. 

As a hardline anti-Iranian organization, UANI has campaigned against diplomacy with Iran and especially against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. In 2018, UANI praised President Trump as “correct and courageous” when he took the United States out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. UANI now opposes the Biden Administration’s effort to bring Iran and the United States back into the deal. 

For his part, since coming to Princeton in 2009, Mousavian has worked tirelessly for a peaceful solution of the confrontation between Iran and the United States. Based on my personal observations, Dr. Mousavian, as an advisor to the negotiators on both sides, was as responsible as anyone for the creative ideas that bridged the gaps in the Iran Nuclear Deal.  

During the Biden Administration, Mousavian and UANI have been on opposite sides once again, with Mousavian encouraging the administration to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal and UANI in opposition

Fortunately, thus far it appears that Mousavian’s arguments have been more persuasive than those of UANI and other U.S. hardline organizations, and we may escape another war in the Middle East. That war would start with Israel or the United States bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities and most likely lead to the nuclear-armed Iran that UANI claims to be against. As Robert Malley, the White House special envoy leading the negotiations with Iran, recently reiterated, reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal remains in the “mutual interest” of the United States and Iran.


That is the political disagreement behind the UANI letter to President Eisgruber.

But the letter does not present UANI’s arguments against the Iran Nuclear Deal. It engages instead in what has become known in recent decades as “the politics of personal destruction.” When you can’t win the political argument, attempt to destroy your opponent with accusations of criminality.

At the core of the UANI letter is the accusation that, in 1992, while Dr. Mousavian was Iran’s ambassador to Germany, he oversaw the assassinations of four Iranian opposition figures in a Berlin restaurant, “Mykonos.” The reality is that the German government thoroughly investigated the Mykonos assassinations and the 395-page explanation of its verdict does not mention Dr. Mousavian. Indeed, Dr. Mousavian has been a frequent visitor to Germany since, and he has been involved in high-level policy discussions with senior German officials and parliamentarians and their colleagues from other European governments. These simple, easy to verify facts speak for themselves. 

What UANI does not understand — or does not want to understand — is that, when Dr. Mousavian was ambassador to Germany, he served under an Iranian president who wanted Iran to join the world as a normal country. Iran had, in effect, two parallel governments with its hardliners operating by their own rules, using the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence agency.  

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Dr. Mousavian has been attacked by Iranian as well as US hardliners. Before he came to Princeton in 2009, for example, he was accused by Iranian intelligence under Iran’s hardline President Ahmadinejad of being a foreign agent and interrogated in the notorious Evin prison

UANI’s letter makes much of a 10-second snippet from an Iranian documentary. This 10-second clip was part of a larger 90-minute interview with Mousavian. While that interview was not published in its entirety, Mousavian has said that he criticized both US and Iranian hardliners in the interview. He said that he criticized the Trump Administration for its assassination of Revolutionary Guard General Qasem Soleimani and Iran’s government for threatening Brian Hook and other Trump Administration officials who reportedly approved that assassination. For Mousavian, violence and threats of violence put at risk the meaningful diplomacy required if the United States and Iran are to resolve their long-standing, deeply held mutual grievances.  

In summary, in going after Dr. Mousavian, UANI’s strategy appears to be to kill the messenger when you cannot counter the message. Sadly, such demonization of political enemies is a growing manifestation of America’s current political distemper. 

Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist, is a Professor of Public and International Affairs emeritus and an affiliate of Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security, which he co-founded. During the 1980s, he worked with Mikhail Gorbachev’s advisors to end the Soviet-US nuclear arms race. In 1993, he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. From 1993-1994, he served as a White House nuclear-policy advisor. In April 2021, his career was profiled in Princeton Alumni Weekly. 

Editor’s Note: The ‘Prince’ was not able to independently verify Mousavian’s claims about his statements in the longer interview.

See a related op-ed on the UANI letter here.