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Princeton-Iran ties again under scrutiny as Congress investigates research fellow

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

Content warning: The following article contains links with graphic imagery.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce announced on Thursday, Nov. 16 that it is launching an investigation into University research fellow Seyed Hossein Mousavian, amid allegations that Mousavian is using his position to advance the interests of Iran. 12 Republican committee members wrote a letter to University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 with 10 questions to aid their investigation. No Democratic committee members signed the letter.


Mousavian, who was hired in 2009 as a Middle East Security and Nuclear Policy Specialist at the Program on Science and Global Security, was a prominent figure in the Iranian government prior to his 2007 arrest. He served as the Iranian ambassador to Germany from 1990 to 1997. From 1997 to 2005, Mousavian headed the Foreign Relations Committee of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran. From 2005 to 2007, he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Ali Larijani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. He also served as Vice President of the Center for Strategic Research and worked for the Expediency Discernment Council’s Center for Strategic Research from 2005 to 2008.

In 2007, Mousavian was arrested following accusations from the Iranian president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed Mousavian leaked information to European members of the 2003 to 2005 nuclear negotiation team which Mousavian was part of. Ahmadinejad was one of most hardline of Iran’s recent presidents.

In an email to The Daily Princetonian, Mousavian attached a list of responses to each allegation in the House committee’s letter. Regarding any continued connection with the Iranian government, Mousavian wrote, “I have not been able to go to Iran since June 2021 and I have not been engaged with any government including the government of Iran since the Iranian court convicted me in 2008.” He added that he was not able to attend his father’s funeral in Iran in November 2022.

Non-profit advocacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) called for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, and U.S. House Armed Services Committee into Mousavian’s appearance at the 2023 U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium, held by U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM). 

“My talk at the US Strategic Command was all about peace in the Middle East and why the US should avoid wars and focus on peace and cooperation,” Mousavian wrote.


In February 2022, UANI also called for Mousavian to be fired from the University due to his attendance at the funeral of Qasem Soleimani, whom the U.S. military assassinated in 2020. Soleimani was an Iranian military officer who served as the head of the Quds Force, a division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) responsible for secret and extraterritorial military operations. The U.S. government classified the IRGC as a whole as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in April 2019, while the Quds Force was classified as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in December 2012. The U.S. government labeled Soleimani a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in October 2007. Mousavian also appeared in an Iranian television program tribute to Soleimani.

In his email to the ‘Prince,’ Mousavian addressed his alleged support for Soleimani. He wrote, “This is a manufactured fake story created by certain lobbies in Washington which are interested in dragging the US to attack Iran, another disaster for the U.S. and the region.”

He explained that he was in Iran to visit his mother, who was hospitalized and later passed away around the same time former President Donald Trump had Soleimani assassinated. He added that as an academic researcher, he attended the funeral to see the public reaction to the assassination.

“Seven million attended Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran and 20 million in other cities in total,” he wrote. “This was clear evidence that Soleimani was very popular in Iran and this association added another layer to Iran-US hostilities.”

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Frank von Hippel, a senior research physicist and professor emeritus of public and international affairs and a close colleague of Mousavian’s, wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that “this [current investigation] is more of a fishing expedition to see if they can find some dirt. I am afraid they will be disappointed.”

The investigation comes in the wake of University graduate student Elizabeth Tsurkov’s kidnapping in March by a militia linked to the IRGC while conducting research in Baghdad, Iraq. Princeton also reached a settlement in September with former graduate student Xiyue Wang, who filed a lawsuit against the University for their alleged negligence during his forty months as a hostage in Iran. 

Two of the committee’s questions to Eisgruber ask about the University graduate students who have been kidnapped while conducting research in the Middle East. The committee wrote, “Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Princeton doctoral student, is currently being held hostage in Iraq by Iran-backed militias. Has Princeton asked Mousavian to assist in Tsurkov’s release? Has Mousavian offered to use his contacts to try to free Tsurkov?”

The committee also asked about Wang, who was imprisoned for 40 months while conducting research in Iran. In the letter to Eisgruber, the committee wrote, “During Mousavian’s tenure at Princeton, one of its students, Xiyue Wang, was held hostage in Iran. Given Mousavian’s experience as a former high-ranking official with the government of Iran, did Princeton ask Mousavian to assist in any way for Xiyue Wang’s release? Did Mousavian offer to use his contacts to try to free Xiyue Wang?”

Mousavian was mentioned by name in Wang’s lawsuit. According to the lawsuit, Mousavian and others “made the intentional decision not to utilize their political capital in Iran to assist Mr. Wang. Specifically, Mr. Mousavian was the former spokesperson for Iran’s nuclear negotiation team and a close friend of the then Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.” 

Additionally, the lawsuit claims that Mousavian asked Princeton’s attorneys to advise Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, “‘that [Mousavian’s] connection with this matter is the worst thing for Wang’ and to stress to Ms. Qu, ‘and others who communicate with Wang, that there should be no mention of Mousavian’s name.’ Mousavian ‘instructed that if his name comes up on a call with Wang, [Ms. Qu] and others should … say that Mousavian has nothing to do with this case and that [they] have had no communications with him.’”

Wang wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter) about the investigation into Mousavian and the University’s connection to Iran, calling Mousavian a “regime agent.”

Mousavian wrote that his work at the University and how over the past two decades, he’s “used every opportunity to propose peaceful solution [sic] to the Iranian nuclear crisis and dialogue and engagement between Iran and the United States and with other countries such as Saudi Arabia.”

“All my books, articles, speeches, and interviews during 13 years working at Princeton University are about peace, security, stability, and opposing wars and warmongering,” he added.

This is not the first time Mousavian has come under fire. In February 2022, a guest contribution from former Trump administration State Department officials in the ‘Prince’ called for Mousavian’s removal from his position at the University. In response, von Hippel wrote an opinion piece in the ‘Prince’ in defense of Mousavian, in which he wrote, “UANI’s attack on Dr. Mousavian should be understood for what it is: a hatchet job against a political opponent.”

Mousavian and von Hippel referred the ‘Prince’ to a letter that von Hippel wrote in September to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, and Sen. Roger F. Wicker (R-Miss.), the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. The letter is in response to a letter that Rogers and Wicker published in the Free Beacon, a conservative news website, questioning Mousavian’s attendance at STRATCOM’s Deterrence Symposium.

In the response, von Hippel wrote, “Mousavian’s relationship with Iranian administrations has depended on the administration. He has cooperated with liberal administrations such as the one in which Zarif was Foreign Minister (2013–21). His relationships with hardline administrations have been more problematic.”

“We all know the sorry history of Senator Joe McCarthy’s recklessly false allegations against honorable people 60 years ago,” von Hippel added. “We are in another such era today. It is therefore critical that political leaders protect themselves from being misused by groups seeking to discredit their political enemies.”

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ UANI policy director Jason Brodsky wrote, “The presence of a former Islamic Republic official, who maintains ties to the regime, at Princeton for so long while Americans, and Princeton students, have been held hostage, is an outrage. Rewarding someone with such a position who presided over the Islamic Republic’s embassy in Germany when Iranian dissidents were murdered by the regime in Berlin is a stain on Princeton's reputation.”

“This is not an issue of academic freedom, it’s one of national security. Princeton has not responded to the many concerns raised over the years regarding Mousavian, including from UANI, which has called on Princeton to sever ties with him,” he added. “If Princeton’s motto is ‘in the nation’s service and the service of humanity,’ it must take action and address these concerns.” 

In response, Mousavian wrote that "This another lie. The 398-page verdict is published and everyone can have access to it. The Berlin court verdict does not contain any direct or indirect allegations against me." He added that German authorities never forced him to leave the country and that the court verdict was issued in April 1997, and his seven-year assignment as ambassador was terminated less than a year later in early 1998. "Since then, I have been a frequent visitor to Germany," he added.

"However, a group of rogue elements at the Iranian intelligence Service plotted to assassinate me during my mission in Germany as the Ambassador, but they were unsuccessful," he wrote. Later, the killing team were arrested in Iran and confessed that they planned to assassinate me in Germany during December 1996 Christmas holidays actually a few months before the Mykonos Court verdict which issued in April 1997."

The 'Prince' was unable to independently verify these allegations.

This is also not the first time that the University has come under scrutiny for hiring professionals with ties to Iran. In August, the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) hired Robert Malley, the special envoy for Iran in the State Department. Malley was placed on unpaid leave from the State Department in June after his security clearance was revoked amidst an ongoing investigation into his handling of classified materials.

Nick Nikbakht, a businessman, made calls on X for the public to formally file complaints with the Committee on Education & Workforce to investigate the University for “harboring Mousavian” in September.

“When Princeton, a prestigious university backs these propagandists of the terrorist regime in Iran, their effectiveness of spreading propaganda to influential figures and policy makers in our American society increases,” Nikbakht wrote in a message to the ‘Prince.’

The University did not respond to repeated requests for comment by the time of publication.

Olivia Sanchez is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’

Lia Opperman is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’

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