Foto: Sebastian Gabsch

“Germany has the weight to be a peacemaker.”

Since its inception, Körber-Stiftung has been committed to dialogue, in line with the motto of our founder Kurt A. Körber ‘Talking to each other, not about each other’. Our aim is to explore the scope for political action and to contribute to international understanding, especially in times of acute crisis and conflict.

Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel and the nuclear threat expressed by Tehran have fueled concerns about a further escalation of tensions, carrying the risk of regional destabilization and posing a direct threat to the security of Israel. Meanwhile, there is no end in sight to the Israeli war against Hamas, prompted by the Hamas massacre against Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023. The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza is deteriorating by the day. Why Hossein Mousavian, Middle East Security and Nuclear Policy Specialist at Princeton University and former Iranian diplomat, still believes in diplomacy for a region on the brink.

Körber-Stiftung: Mr Mousavian, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash. What does that mean for the country?

Hossein Mousavian: I don’t think there will be any major changes in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has said that Iran will continue the same policies as in the era of President Raisi. But the race in the upcoming presidential election will be between the radical conservatives and the moderate conservatives. The latter faction could increase the chances of easing tensions between Iran and the West.

You were in prison in Iran because of a dispute with the regime. What have you done wrong?

I was imprisoned in Iran and accused of spying for the West. Although I was cleared of the charges, the court sentenced me to two years’ imprisonment on probation and a ban from holding a diplomatic post because I opposed President Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, particularly his nuclear policy. Ahmadinejad pushed to have me removed from the Foreign Ministry. That’s why I left Iran in 2009. In 2022, another court sentenced to 11 months in prison. That’s why I couldn’t attend my father’s funeral.

After you left Iran, you began your academic work at Princeton University. Now at Princeton University in the United States, people are calling for your dismissal because of your ties to the Iranian regime. Why do people want you to be fired?

My focus here has been on how we can resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, how we can de-escalate tensions between the United States and Iran, and how we can bring peace to the whole region. But there are forces against such schools of thought. That’s why, during my 15 years of work at Princeton, I was constantly attacked. The fact is that the hawkish forces, including some in the Iranian opposition, want war and sanctions against Iran. That’s why they are attacking me.

These people also accuse you of being involved in the assassination of 24 Iranians, when you were ambassador to Germany.

The 398 pages of the Berlin court’s (Kammergericht) verdict issued in April 1997 are public and anyone can read it. There is no accusation against me at all. The German and European governments know that I was never involved in such affairs. All my efforts were to promote Iran-EU relations. Now the radicals in Iran accuse me of being a puppet of the West and the warmongers in the United States accuse me of being a puppet of the Iranian government. Both are wrong.

How do you react to that?

I try to continue my work. My books, interviews and talks are all about peace because I want peace between Iran and its neighbours, the United States and the EU.

It looks like Hamas is going to be defeated in Gaza, while Iran’s relations with the United States are extremely tense. Bad time for peace?

I don’t think Israel can defeat Hamas. Hamas is not a group. It is a school of thought of millions of Palestinians. It really broke the notion of Israel’s security as untouchable that Iran has attacked Israel with hundreds of drones and missiles. That’s why I think Netanyahu made a big mistake by attacking Iranian Consulate in Damascus.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock disagrees. She says Iran miscalculated with the attack on Israel and has brought more sanctions against itself.

I think the foreign minister is extreme on some foreign policy issues. I have always believed that Germany has the weight and the potential to be a peacemaker between Muslim countries and the West. But with its current foreign policy I believe Germany is distracting itself from its role as a major player in peacemaking.

Our The Berlin Pulse survey shows that Germans prefer international restraint over engagement. Aren’t you expecting too much from Germany?

It depends how you understand restraint. I think the Germans would prefer not to engage in increasing hostilities and supporting wars and sanctions. But what if Germany would be proactive in peacemaking?

You left the nuclear negotiating team in Iran in 2005 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. What happened?

Iran’s national currency depreciated dramatically and inflation soared to 40 per cent. This led the Americans and Israelis to think that Iran would capitulate under the pressure. But Iran reacted differently. It made Iran increase the level and capacity of its nuclear programme to the point where the number of months it would take Iran to produce uranium for a nuclear weapon dropped to two in 2013.

Then the Iran nuclear deal was negotiated, which Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Do sanctions always lead to an increase in nuclear capability?

The sanctions were also a reason for Iran to come to serious negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal in 2013. But, from the other side, Iran reached a two-month breakout time to build nuclear weapons. That made the West understand that if they continued with more sanctions, Iran would resist and build nuclear weapons. I believe that sanctions also now in 2024 are not a solution. The only way is diplomacy.

Now Iran is signalling that it is closer than ever to building nuclear weapons. You suggest diplomacy even though Iran’s leadership has become more radical?

The sanctions have caused enormous economic damage to Iran, but on the other hand they have made Iran increase the level and capacity of its nuclear program. Look at the threatening policies of the United States, followed by Israel and the EU. Who won? Everybody has lost.

Thank you for your time, Mr Mousavian.

Stay tuned for our interview with Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, Senior Researcher at Tel Aviv University‘s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

The Berlin Pulse – Express Edition

In cooperation with Table.Media, The Berlin Pulse Express Edition combines the foreign policy attitudes of Germans with expectations of Germany from abroad.