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Updated May 9, 2024, 6:07am EDT
securityNorth America

How Princeton got burned by its outreach to Iran

Semafor/Al Lucca
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The Scoop

As US-Iran relations thawed during the Obama administration, Princeton University saw an opportunity to make the school a central player in bridging the decades-long divide between the two antagonists. It established an Iran center, welcomed a senior Iranian diplomat to its ivy-coated halls, and pursued a student exchange program with Iran.

But within a dozen years, two of Princeton’s graduate students had been detained or kidnapped by Tehran and its military proxies. And a Republican-led Congress is now formally probing the school’s ties to Iranian regime officials.

Princeton’s experience is a cautionary tale of how American institutions can be ensnared in the internal politics of Tehran and Washington and become pawns in those battles, even as they see themselves as working towards noble goals. After Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Princeton is also another Ivy League school that is seeking to balance academic freedom with scholarship and speech that some US lawmakers and educators believe are hostile to American interests.


Princeton’s ambitions to position itself as an arbiter in reducing tensions between Iran and the US are clear in a large cache of Iranian foreign ministry emails obtained by Iran International, a Persian-language television channel banned in Iran, and shared with Semafor. They’re also illustrated in the Princeton faculty’s extensive writings, speeches, and appearances focused on Iran.

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Know More

Students abducted

Princeton’s student exchange program first took off in 2014, when a prominent Iranian-American scholar and future Biden administration official, Ariane Tabatabai, connected the Iran center’s then-associate director to Mostafa Zahrani, a senior Iranian foreign ministry diplomat with strong ties to his country’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). “I wanted to introduce you to a friend who is in Princeton, and you will see him in Vienna in three weeks,” Tabatabai wrote, cc’ing Kevan Harris, the then associate director. “He is interested in sharing with you a plan to send Iranian students to Princeton and to send American students to Iran.”


Harris jumped at this opening, according to correspondence seen by Semafor, and arranged to see Zahrani in Austria two weeks later on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations that were taking place between Iran, the US, and other global powers. The follow-up took time, but by early 2015, Princeton welcomed its first candidate for the Iran program: a Chinese-American graduate student named Wang Xiyue.

Wang was hesitant about going to Tehran, he told Semafor in recent interviews. He didn’t speak Farsi, and his Ph.D. work initially focused on the Soviet Union’s role in Central Asia, rather than issues related to Iran itself. He also raised with Princeton his concerns about security, given Iran’s history of abducting American citizens and the fact Tehran had no diplomatic ties with Washington.

On Dec. 1, 2015, Wang emailed administrators that he felt he needed to be as specific as possible about his scholarship with Iranian officials to protect himself once on the ground. “[A]s a US citizen of non-Iranian descen[t], I think it would be preferable for me to be as transparent as possible so that I would not be deported from the country for doing things my visa does not prescribe me to do,” he wrote.


But Harris and other Princeton officials reassured Wang about his safety and the importance of learning Farsi in Iran, both for his dissertation and future academic work. “It’s a good time to go [to Iran] — looks like they are in a good mood over there,” Harris wrote to Wang in the weeks before his January 2016 departure. “Take advantage of it.”

Wang’s reservations proved to be right. Six months after his arrival in Tehran, Iran’s intelligence ministry confiscated his US passport. On Aug. 7, 2016, he was arrested on espionage charges and sent to Iran’s feared Evin Prison, where he spent more than three years, at times in solitary confinement and threatened with death.

Princeton denied that it in any way downplayed the risks of travel to Iran nor pressured Wang into joining the exchange program. “Princeton did not direct, and indeed did not have the power to direct, Mr. Wang’s travel,” university spokesman Michael Hotchkiss told Semafor. “And it was Princeton University that undertook a relentless, multi-year and multi-million-dollar global effort to secure his release.”

Last year, a second Princeton graduate student, Elizabeth Tsurkov, was abducted by an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. She hasn’t been seen since last November.

Tsurkov’s journey to Princeton was an unusual one. The academic and journalist was born in Russia, raised and educated in Israel, and earned her master’s degree in social science from the University of Chicago in 2019 with a 3.9 GPA. Throughout this time, she showed a remarkable ability — particularly for an Israeli — to engage the Middle East’s religious groups, militias, and political movements in hotspots like Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Tsurkov has said in published interviews that she began her reporting through the heavy use of social media. Fluent in Arabic, she employed Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to document the plight of people caught in war zones, and amassed a substantial online following and network in the process. She also used her Russian passport to visit Arab countries that are largely off limits to Israelis.

Tsurkov has acknowledged that her citizenship and religion unnerved some of her contacts. But her colleagues and family said that her writings, which have focused heavily on the plight of victims of regional and sectarian violence — including Palestinians — have allowed her to gain and maintain the trust of the groups and individuals she’s documenting. Among her affiliations is an Israeli-Palestinian think tank that educates Israelis on Islam and their Arab neighbors in a bid to support the peace process.

“I think that what drives all of them, at the end of the day, to speak to me is a feeling that I care about them, and I want to properly reflect their perspectives and their views,” Tsurkov told the media outlet Al-Monitor in a 2021 podcast.

Tsurkov’s doctoral work at Princeton was focused on the patronage systems that underpin political movements in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan and why their members often remain loyal to feudal and sectarian leaders who deliver little economic development in return. In her thesis proposal from 2021, which was approved and funded by Princeton, she outlined the travels she’d made, and would continue to make, to Baghdad, northern Iraq, and Lebanon.

Tsurkov was kidnapped on March 21, 2023 from a cafe in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada, just days after undergoing back surgery in an Iraqi hospital for a herniated disc. Both the US and Israeli governments blame the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah (KH) for the abduction.

KH was established in 2003 with the direct support of Iran’s IRGC, and is designated by the US as a terrorist organization. KH’s militia forms the largest part of Iraq’s national guard, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and KH politicians serve in Iraqi Prime Minister Shia Al Sudani’s government. US officials say KH also regularly coordinates with the IRGC to attack American military facilities and personnel in Iraq and the wider region. This includes a January drone strike on a Pentagon base in Jordan that killed three American troops.

The Trump administration assassinated KH’s founding commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a January 2020 missile strike on his convoy in Baghdad. He was accompanied by the IRGC’s most powerful general, Qasem Soleimani, who also died in the attack. Iran has vowed to avenge both of their deaths. KH hasn’t contacted the Tsurkov family nor made any demands for her release.

Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Tsurkov, has publicly criticized Princeton’s response to the kidnapping — mirroring, in many ways, complaints raised by Wang Xiyue. Last August, she penned an opinion piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger claiming the school had been denying it approved Elizabeth’s travel to Iraq and was telling the State Department that their grad student had essentially gone rogue. Emma Tsurkov stressed in her article that any divide between the school and Elizabeth was extremely dangerous as it could only fuel charges that she was a spy and “hurt her chances of coming home.”

Semafor/Jay Solomon

Emma told Semafor that Elizabeth, once in Iraq, was in regular contact with her Princeton thesis advisor, Professor Amaney Jamal, the dean of the School of Public and International Affairs. This included occasional video calls from Baghdad. But the Tsurkov family has been disappointed that Jamal hasn’t met with Emma in person since Elizabeth’s disappearance, something Princeton doesn’t dispute.

The school in October, for the first time, publicly took responsibility for Elizabeth’s research and travel to Iraq, even while raising questions about whether she followed proper procedures going there. Spokesman Hotchkiss told Semafor that Princeton is totally committed to gaining her release “by making available reputable outside experts the University has retained and by advocating with US government officials to use their influence to help bring Elizabeth home safely.”

He added that Jamal “directly communicated her deep concern for Elizabeth and her family to Emma Tsurkov” via email and that the school has appointed a deputy dean at the graduate school to serve as a point person. “[The administrator] is available for Emma at any time and remains in contact with her,” he said.

KH released a proof-of-life video in November in which a visibly exhausted Elizabeth Tsurkov reads a statement in Hebrew claiming she was both an operative for the CIA and Mossad, the Israeli spy agency. (The US and Israel deny this charge.) The student is believed to still be in Baghdad.

Emma Tsurkov is now focused on pressuring Iraq’s government to secure Elizabeth’s freedom, given Baghdad’s close ties to KH. The family believes Iraq should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism and have its US aid budget slashed unless it wins Elizabeth’s release. Emma Tsurkov directly confronted the Iraqi prime minister at a Washington think tank last month on behalf of her sister, publicly accusing him of “not doing anything to save her.”

The Iraqi government hasn’t responded to requests for comment from Semafor.

An Iranian diplomat on campus

Princeton entered the Iran debate in a significant way in 2009, when it agreed to host Hossein Mousavian, a top regime diplomat and former nuclear negotiator, in New Jersey. Mousavian fled Tehran that year after being charged with espionage by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, and briefly detained. The Islamic Republic insider would be cleared, but still found himself starkly on the wrong side of his country’s vicious political infighting.

Semafor/Al Lucca

Mousavian was no dissident, though, and used his perch at Princeton to advocate Iran’s positions on its nuclear program and other key national security issues. A former ambassador to Germany, Mousavian has supported ties with the West in ways that have placed him at odds with the IRGC and other hardline parties in Tehran. He has also sought to improve relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Many of Mousavian’s dictums on the nuclear file would be adopted by the Iranian government after his close political ally, Hassan Rouhani, succeeded Ahmadinejad as president in 2013 and moved to negotiate directly with the Obama administration over the next two years. The Princeton scholar was a prolific producer of opinion pieces and commentary during this period who liaised, at times, with Iranian diplomats, including Mostafa Zahrani and then-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, to promote their messaging and engagements in the West, according to the foreign ministry correspondence reviewed by Semafor.

Princeton officials lauded Mousavian’s ability to advise the US and Iranian delegations to help advance the nuclear deal, which was finalized in July 2015. And in the eyes of Wang Xiyue, the graduate student, this reflected his school’s strong ties to the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic’s leadership. This sense of security was only bolstered, Wang told Semafor, by the fact that one of his advisers at Princeton’s Iran center, Mona Rahmani, was herself related to an Iranian government official. Her father ran Tehran’s interests section in Washington, an Iranian government body that works to support dual US-Iran citizens, from 2010-2015.

“My concerns were alleviated by the fact that there were these direct links between Princeton and Iran,” Wang said. “It looked like there was coordination.”

Following his arrest in August 2016, these connections to Tehran proved of little use, Wang outlined in a lawsuit he filed against Princeton in 2021, charging negligence. The university advised Wang’s wife to stay quiet and not publicly criticize the Iranian government, he says. And Mousavian told Princeton’s leadership that his outreach to Zahrani, Zarif, and other Iranian officials would be counterproductive for Wang, given the Princeton scholar’s own sparring with Tehran’s security state. Rahmani, meanwhile, also declined to lobby the regime, the lawsuit states. She left the university in 2017.

Wang says he felt totally abandoned during the more than three years he was incarcerated in Evin Prison. He was released on December 7, 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange negotiated between the Trump administration and Iran. “Simply put, after encouraging and convincing Mr. Wang to go to Iran, Princeton chose to put their reputation and political interest ahead of Mr. Wang’s personal safety,” reads his lawsuit.

Princeton denies that it placed its reputation or ties to Iran ahead of Wang’s safety. And the school said it invested enormous resources behind gaining his release. “Throughout his ordeal, the University worked in close coordination with his wife and provided extensive financial and other support to Mr. Wang and his family during and after his imprisonment,” Princeton’s legal team at Akin Gump wrote to congressional lawmakers investigating the school’s ties to Iran last year.

Princeton reached a financial settlement with Wang last September but denies all charges made against the school in the suit. “We have chosen to help them [Wang’s family] move on with their lives by avoiding protracted litigation,” spokesman Hotchkiss said.

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The View From Princeton

Princeton officials strongly back the school’s decision to provide Mousavian a base to conduct his scholarship from 2009 through today. The school cites his role in helping to promote the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and his efforts to reduce tensions between Washington and Tehran that some Western officials worry could expand into an all-out war. “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,” Princeton Professor Emeritus Frank von Hippel, who helped bring Mousavian to Princeton, wrote in a 2022 opinion piece.

Mousavian has remained active in the Iran debate, including speaking last August at the Pentagon’s Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska on the history of US-Iran relations — from Tehran’s perspective. Some Republican lawmakers were outraged that a former regime official — who maintains ties to Tehran — was invited to speak to such an important US military body. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce launched a formal probe last fall into Mousavian’s employment at Princeton, questioning whether he was operating as an unregistered foreign agent for Tehran. “Mousavian’s position ... raises significant concerns about the influence of foreign hostile regimes on American institutions,” the committee wrote to Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber last November.

Princeton, via Akin Gump, told the committee that Mousavian’s employment is compliant with US law and furthers the school’s educational mission, “including its commitment to scholarly excellence and academic freedom.” In March, the National Association of Scholars, a higher education membership organization and think tank, called for Princeton to dismiss Mousavian on the grounds that his position threatens US national security and “cedes academia’s integrity to a hostile regime linked to terrorism and human rights abuses.”

The school’s Iran center — formally known as the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies — meanwhile, promotes scholarship that seeks to better understand the Islamic Republic. The center’s director, Professor Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, has been outspoken while at Princeton in highlighting what he views as some of the Islamic Revolution’s accomplishments, including, the empowerment of women. In the fall of 2022, at the height of the Iranian government’s crackdown on women-led protests against the regime and laws that enforce Islamic head scarves, he wrote: “Despite all this, women’s social mobility and presence in [the] public sphere grew exponentially in the past four decades.”

Princeton also hosted Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s suspended special Iran envoy, as a guest lecturer for the 2023 fall semester. The State Department revoked Malley’s security clearance in March of last year, and he’s currently being investigated by the FBI for the possible mishandling of classified information. He’s been one of the strongest proponents in Washington for engaging the Iranian regime.

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The View From Iran

The desire for stronger academic ties during the mid-2010s was a two-way street. Throughout former President Barack Obama’s tenure, Tehran communicated to Washington a desire to increase the numbers of Iranians at elite American universities, according to current and former US officials. The formalizing of the 2015 nuclear agreement was seen as a way to accelerate this process.

“As I mentioned to you in Vienna, we are also considering sending a few of our scholars and researchers to your university. A Ph.D. course is what we had in mind,” Mostafa Zahrani wrote to Kevan Harris of Princeton’s Iran center, in November 2014. “I would appreciate [it] if you give details on if and how this would be possible or information on any other program you had in mind.”

Wang Xiyue’s imprisonment two years later appeared to be a deliberate attempt by the IRGC, and other hardline elements of the regime, to sabotage academic or business engagement with the US, according to American and European officials. Iran’s security forces imprisoned a prominent Iranian-American businessman, Siamak Namazi, three months after the finalizing of the nuclear deal in July 2015, and held him for eight years until his 2023 release. This placed a significant chill on the willingness of diaspora Iranians to travel to Iran and attempt to conduct business. Wang and Namazi were both charged with being Western spies.

Attempts by Semafor to reach Zahrani and other Iranian officials about the student exchange program were unsuccessful. Ariane Tabatabai, who first put Zahrani in touch with Princeton while she was working at Harvard University, “played no part in a separate institution’s student exchange,” a person close to her work told Semafor.

KH, the Iranian proxy force in Iraq, has also couched the abduction of Elizabeth Tsurkov as part of its broader battle against the US and Israel — though its statements appear aimed at distancing itself from the actual kidnapping. “We in the victorious Kataib Hezbollah, in turn, will increase our efforts to find out the fate of the Zionist prisoner or prisoners in Iraq,” KH security chief, Abu Ali Al-Askari, said about the Tsurkov kidnapping in a statement released last July on Iraqi television. “[We will] learn more about the intentions of this criminal gang, and who facilitates their movements in a country that prohibits and criminalizes dealing with them.”

The KH chief appears to be referring to the Israeli government.

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Jay’s view

The story of Mousavian’s exile in New Jersey is one for which I’ve had a front row seat. I was the first journalist to interview the Iranian diplomat and scholar following his quiet arrival at Princeton in 2009. And his saga speaks to what’s been a decades-long effort — pursued by both the US government and private American institutions — to identify and engage moderates in revolutionary Iran.

Obama administration and European officials flocked to meet Mousavian, and closely scrutinized his writings, once he was ensconced in the US. Mousavian was clear to me and others at that time that he wasn’t seeking asylum and planned to return to Iran. From his modest office at Princeton, he pumped out books and papers that helped serve as building blocks for what would be the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Some Western officials told me that they saw Mousavian as serving as a critical interlocutor if he joined a future Iranian government.

I thought Mousavian would serve as a senior official in President Rouhani’s government, which took power in 2013. But the diplomat never left Princeton. He’s publicly said that he remains barred from government service. And he’s privately told people that he runs the risk of arrest by the IRGC and other hardline factions if he travels to Iran.

Mousavian’s status raises serious questions about whether Iranian officials, courted by the West, can really survive in Iran’s authoritarian and Islamist system. Supporters of the Obama administration’s nuclear policy point out — correctly — that it was the US under Donald Trump who pulled the plug on the nuclear accord. But it’s also true that most of the constraints placed on Tehran were going to expire. And even Mousavian, in his writings, acknowledges that he’s not sure what the IRGC’s long-term plans for the nuclear program might entail.

“I hold to the assessment that Iran has not made a decision to acquire a nuclear weapon as distinguished from a nuclear weapons option,” he wrote in his 2012 book: The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir. Mousavian has recently voiced his concern that the current tensions in the Middle East involving Iran, Israel, and the US are only increasing the chances that Tehran will seek to develop nuclear weapons.

Princeton’s efforts to establish a student-exchange program were also derailed by Tehran’s political warfare. Correspondence reviewed by Semafor details the optimism Princeton officials held for academic exchanges with Tehran just weeks before Wang’s arrest. They clearly didn’t seem to appreciate that there were forces inside Iran eager to maintain the country’s hostility towards the US.

“What the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran did to Xiyue Wang and his family is outrageous, unjust, and alarming for researchers and academics around the world,” Harris, the former Princeton postdoctoral researcher who worked on student exchanges, told me. He left in the summer of 2015 for UCLA where he currently works as an associate professor of sociology. “No one in an academic institution should be subject to such treatment by Iran’s government, whether they are a citizen of Iran or a foreigner.”

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  • An organization of Iranian exiles called the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologistshas been staging events and protests calling for Mousavian’s dismissal, including at Princeton. Some of the protesters are relatives of Kurdish dissidents assassinated by the Iranian regime in Berlin in 1992, when Mousavian served as Tehran’s ambassador to Germany. AAIRIA accuses Mousavian of being complicit in the terrorist attack, which he denies.
  • Elizabeth Tsurkov’s writings on the Middle East have also focused on Jewish settler violence against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Her June 2021 piece in New Lines Magazine documents how Jewish militias have moved their operations into Israel proper from the West Bank.
  • Current and former IRGC generals have spoken in recent weeks of revising the country’s nuclear doctrine, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled explicitly forbids the development of atomic weapons. “If the Zionist regime wants to use the threat of attacking our country’s nuclear centers as a tool to pressure Iran, it is possible to review the nuclear doctrine,” Gen. Ahmad Haqtalab said on April 18.
  • Top Republicans investigating the suspension of the Biden administration’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, said they uncovered evidence that the diplomat sent classified documents to his personal devices, and may have been hacked by a foreign power. The lawmakers’ conclusions were documented in a letter sent to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 6 — which was obtained by The Washington Post — and laid out 19 questions on the matter. The State Department declined to answer media requests for comment.
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