STRATCOM invited an Iranian propagandist. Now Congress wants answers - opinion

Far from encouraging a nuanced dialogue, STRATCOM’s invitation to Hussein Mousavian only served to legitimize him and the Iranian regime he represents.

 THEN-IRANIAN chief delegate Hussein Mousavian briefs the media after an International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, in 2004.  (photo credit: HERWIG PRAMMER/REUTERS)
THEN-IRANIAN chief delegate Hussein Mousavian briefs the media after an International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, in 2004.

Imagine the United States military inviting a former Iranian official to speak at a strategic forum, only to hear recycled Iranian regime propaganda. This isn’t a hypothetical. It’s what happened at US Strategic Command (STRATCOM)’s 2023 Deterrence Symposium, and now Congress is demanding answers.

In mid-August, STRATCOM made a controversial move by inviting Hussein Mousavian, a former Iranian official who still maintains close ties to the regime, to serve as a keynote speaker at its 2023 Deterrence Symposium, held in Nebraska. Now, Congressional leaders are demanding accountability, seeking names of the officials who invited Mousavian, and inquiring whether any taxpayer dollars funded his accommodations. 

A STRATCOM spokesperson defended the decision, suggesting that Mousavian’s perspectives could provide valuable insights from an opposing viewpoint. However, Mousavian’s remarks at the STRATCOM conference merely echoed standard regime propaganda. One could easily find similar viewpoints in regime papers and propaganda outlets such as the Tehran Times and Press TV.

How did Iranian propaganda get publicized and legitimized by STRATCOM?

In his remarks, Mousavian describes all the regime’s aggressive policies, including advancing the nuclear weapons program, terror operations in the region, cyber attacks on the US and its allies, and arming Russia against Ukraine as “reactions to the US hostile policies against Iran.”

He merely repeated the regime’s propaganda, accusing the US of committing unjustified acts of aggression towards Iran including “the US backing a coup against prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953,” “the oppression by the Shah,” “the US support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the war against Iran,” and “sanctions.” 

Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. (credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS)
Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. (credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS)

According to Mousavian, Iran and the US might still have a good relationship and could be friends if the US had taken a different approach toward the regime. Mousavian’s argument is fundamentally flawed, as animosity towards the US, often referred to by Tehran as the “Great Satan,” is one of the core ideological tenets of the Islamic Republic. Any attempt to reconcile with the United States would undermine the regime’s identity and legitimacy.

The revolutionary ideology of the regime is built on maintaining this enmity; without it, the internal contradictions within the Islamic Republic would become untenable. Contrary to Mousavian’s argument, the main obstacle to diplomatic breakthrough is not the US approach but the intrinsic nature of the regime itself. 

FURTHER, MOUSAVIAN criticized former president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, claiming “the Islamic Republic complied completely with the deal…but the US again broke the promise.” Contradicting Mousavian’s claims, evidence from the Iranian nuclear achive, stolen by the Israeli Mossad in 2018, tells a different story. The documents show that the regime was conducting nuclear activities in three undeclared sites and was very close to mastering key bomb-making technologies.

The documents further show that the regime was making extensive plans to continue secret projects, hidden within existing military research programs. While Mousavian defends Iran’s alleged compliance with the nuclear deal, his own words betray a different agenda. He once admitted, “if I was the decision-maker during the Ahmadinejad era... I would have produced a nuclear bomb.”

Mousavian also criticized Trump’s decision to eliminate Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) as an unjustified American act of aggression towards Iran.

However, what Mousavian conveniently overlooked is that Soleimani was responsible for half of the American casualties in Iraq, a number that reached 4,431 by 2010, who died due to Iran’s roadside bombs. Under Soleimani’s command, the IRGC-QF supplied the Iraqi Shi’ite militias with an array of weapons such as rockets, magnetic bombs, and IED/EFP road bombs. Iraqi militants were sent to special camps in Iran where Soleimani forces trained them in the use of explosives and snipers tactics.

As a further incentive, Soleimani offered $800 to Iraqis who killed American soldiers. In Afghanistan, Soleimani paid Taliban fighters $1,000 for each US soldier they killed.

In the months prior to his demise, Soleimani directed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Kataib Hezbollah (KH) chief and his most loyal follower, to hit an American base near Kirkuk. That strike killed an American contractor on December 27.

Soleimani then ordered the KH to attack the American embassy in Baghdad, a 24-hour siege that caused considerable damage to the compound’s outer perimeter. The assault, invoking as it did the storming of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, was a warning that the Iranians were ready to “Carterize” Donald Trump.

Amid this context of selective storytelling, it’s crucial to highlight that Mousavian himself championed Soleimani’s confrontational actions against US forces. 

In an article titled “Ten Characteristics of General Soleimani” published in the Iranian daily Hamshahri, Mousavian praised Soleimani as “a hero that fought alongside his soldiers against terrorists and Americans in Iraq and Syria.” 

Mousavian also took pride in Soleimani’s fight against Israel and his role in killing Israeli citizens. In his Hamshahri article, he wrote, “during the Israeli war against Lebanon, especially the 33-day war, Soleimani was present on the battlefield and fought like a brave soldier.”

When Soleimani was killed, Mousavian attended his funeral in Tehran. In an interview with Iranian media, he claimed that the US had been instrumental in forming jihadi terrorist groups in the region. He further asserted that “because Soleimani was combating ISIS, which he alleged was created by and allied with the US – the US government chose to assassinate him.”

MOUSAVIAN GLOATED about the regime’s death threats against former officials at Trump administration, including secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his deputy, Brian Hook, in a documentary film produced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Furthermore, he allegedly maintains strong ties to the regime’s intelligence organizations, including the Intelligence and Security Ministry (MOIS) and the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC (SAS or Sazman-e Ettellaat Sepah). 

While serving as the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to Germany, Mousavian was in office when the assassination of Kurdish leaders occurred at the Mykonos restaurant on September 17, 1992. This event resulted in the deaths of Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders Sadegh Sharafkandi, Fattah Abdoli, Homayoun Ardalan, and their translator, Nouri Dehkordi. According to German investigators, the operation was sanctioned by senior officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, MOIS chief Ali Falahian, and several other high-ranking figures.

German authorities believed that such an operation couldn’t have been carried out without coordination from Iran’s embassy in Germany, which was led by Mousavian at the time. Given the Mousavian’s ties to the MOIS, and the MOIS track record of using diplomatic missions and agents posing as diplomats across Europe for terrorist activities, this is a plausible scenario.

In response, the German government forced Mousavian to leave the country, along with several other Iranian diplomats and intelligence operatives. Mohsen Sazegara, who was one of the founders of the IRGC after the revolution in 1979, says that Mousavian currently has ties with the IRGC-SAS and its chief, General Mohammad Kazemi.

Additionally, in a leaked recording in 2016, the regime’s former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif revealed that Mousavian is loyal to the regime and its leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and “continues to work hard” for the regime’s interests while working at Princeton. According to Zarif, Mousavian is someone who “in the US, Europe, and in international conferences, beautifully defends the interests of the Islamic Republic” to the point where if official Iranian diplomats can’t participate in a conference abroad, he often fills the void. 

Mousavian’s true colors and loyalties are revealed when he offers recommendations at the end of his remarks. 

He advises the US government “to revive the nuclear deal and lift sanctions,” to give billions of dollars to the regime that sponsors terrorism and kills Americans. Then, he recommends the US government “pursue nuclear disarmament with Israel” and “end the policy of isolating the Islamic Republic,” a regime that is determined to remove the Jewish State from the map of the world.

Far from encouraging a nuanced dialogue, STRATCOM’s invitation to Mousavian only served to legitimize him and the regime he represents. Mousavian’s propagandistic remarks at the symposium were simply echoing the regime’s talking points, a fact that led Iranian media outlets to celebrate his appearance.

The writer is a senior fellow at Philos Project.