STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A former Iranian diplomat just got his first look at his country in years. Seyed Hossein Mousavian used to be part of Iran's nuclear negotiating team. Later he was accused of spying and left Iran for the U.S. Then, after years away, he was recently able to visit home. Mousavian's path, bouncing from one country to the other and back, reveals the complexity of U.S. relations with Iran.
This is Princeton University in New Jersey. It's where Hossein Mousavian has lived and worked the last few years. We're standing at the university gate made of wrought iron, looking through at a clock tower, an American flag over a stone building. This is about as far as you can imagine from Iran, the place to which Mousavian recently returned for his first visit in years. We went to his office just down the street from here to talk with him about it.
The first thing to know is that Mousavian never meant to live in Princeton. In 2003, he was a high-profile Iranian diplomat involved in a historic negotiation. Iran briefly suspended enrichment of uranium, a nuclear activity that concerned the West. But the political climate changed, a more conservative president was elected, and Mousavian was accused of spying for the West.
Did your family suffer at all because of the attention that had been paid to you and the prosecution of you?
SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: You know, Steven, my brother was killed during the war.
INSKEEP: The Iran/Iraq War.
MOUSAVIAN: Iran/Iraq War, it was in 1983. But my parents, they told me that the amount of suff(ph) after my arrest was more than the time he was killed in the war fronts.
MOUSAVIAN: Because it was the faith the credibility of whole family by Ahmadinejad's accusation on me as a spy. I mean the whole crisis for them was much more difficult.
INSKEEP: I'm just thinking out loud. When your brother was killed, you could say he was a patriot and the community would support your family.
MOUSAVIAN: Yeah. Yes.
INSKEEP: But when you were accused, the community could not support your family.
INSKEEP: Mousavian says he was cleared, but was barred from diplomatic work for five years, so he became a scholar at Princeton, where he seems to fit in, a genial academic with a stubble of beard. Yet he became an object of suspicion again. Some Americans suggested Mousavian was an agent for Iran because he never disowned the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Did you ever have a moment in the last several years of saying I just need to turn against this regime, down with Khamenei, I'm done with it, it's time for a revolution?
MOUSAVIAN: Never, because I really believe it doesn't work. I do not see any other country on the planet with more pressures and sanctions than Iran. Look at the Middle East, you will see still Iran, if not the most stable country in the region, one of the most stable countries. If one-tenth of these pressures would have imposed against any U.S. allies in the region, even Turkey would not last.
INSKEEP: So calling for regime change is pointless.
MOUSAVIAN: Really pointless.
INSKEEP: The bottom line is, Mousavian remains an Iranian who'd like to move home. Last year's election made it possible for the former diplomat to think of home. The new president, Hassan Rouhani, was once Mousavian's boss when they were nuclear negotiators. A few weeks ago, Mousavian left Princeton and boarded a flight for a visit to Tehran, hoping it was safe to return.
What was it like to go home after all these years and arrive at the airport and give them your passport to be stamped? You're smiling as I ask that question.
MOUSAVIAN: Yes. No, no, it was, for me, really it was also a question whether there would be a problem to go back. Ninety-five percent I was sure, because there was nothing legally against me after 2008. But nobody knows, you know.
INSKEEP: How different was the atmosphere on the streets when you returned this time after years away?
MOUSAVIAN: I really felt big changes. There is a great, great hope within the nation about major changes in foreign policy, in economic, in cultural status of the country. And sometimes I get worried because in the streets, the people, they believe the nuclear would be resolved very soon, sanctions would be removed very soon, everything would be normal, and you and I, we know this is not that much easy.
INSKEEP: Mousavian met with senior members of Iran's regime, though he won't say who. Now he's back at Princeton with a belief that a nuclear deal is possible.
MOUSAVIAN: I'm personally convinced that if there is a face-saving solution on the nuclear, the leader will support.
INSKEEP: So by face-saving, you mean some deal where he can still go out and say we have preserved our legitimate rights.
MOUSAVIAN: The reason he supported the first nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, November 2013, was because the deal included enrichment.
INSKEEP: An interim deal reached last year does give Iran the right to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear power, just not up to weapons grade. Western skeptics want Iran to give up enrichment entirely. Neither side really trusts the other, as Mousavian knows from experience. He's a man in the middle, suspected in both countries of being too friendly to the other side. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.