Book review of “The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir”

In The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir, Seyed Hossein Mousavian gives us a rich history of Iran’s nuclear programme and describes his own attempts to achieve a “grand bargain” with the West. He offers a combination of text book and personal accounts but, more importantly, a political analysis of the behavior of all actors involved both past and present.

The author, who is now a research scholar at Princeton University, is in a unique position to recount the crisis. He served as the Iranian ambassador to Germany in the 1990’s until he became the head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in 1997. In that capacity, he served as spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team between 2003-05 during the initial crisis following the September 2003 IAEA Board of Governors Report which demanded full disclosure by Iran on its nuclear programme. He then worked as foreign policy adviser to the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council until he was forced out in 2007 under the Ahmadinejad regime and arrested on espionage charges.

Mousavian forcefully and convincingly argues his case on the basis of two key points. First he describes how Iran was clandestine in its surge toward nuclear energy because the United States fostered an international consensus against Iran’s inalienable right to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy programme. Thus, from his perspective, it was the United States that violated its NPT commitments and not Iran. Second, Mousavian contends Iran’s hard line leaders see it in their interest to maintain the option for building a nuclear bomb. Therefore, Iran is not necessarily seeking to build a nuclear weapon but current Western strategy is encouraging rather than dissuading Iran to contemplate moving closer to having the capability.
He maintains that the crisis is not only a dispute over nuclear proliferation, but in large part stems from the dispute between Iran and the West which has been going on for three decades. The US response to Iran, particularly in 2003, was a component of broader US strategy in the region. In this regard, Mousavian also regularly points to the divisive approaches to the nuclear question taken by various circles of the Iranian body politic. Referring back to the 2003 crisis, he stands on “the grand bargain approach” which emphasized the wider political context of that crisis following the September 2003 IAEA Report. Thus he reasons that the crisis can only be resolved by tackling the broader problem, in other words by achieving rapprochement with the West, including the United States, a goal for which Mousavian had strived since joining the Foreign Ministry in 1986.

Mousavian backs what he calls the “diplomatic solution” to the current crisis, as opposed to alternatives including sanctions or preemptive strikes. The Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies are often referred to by Mousavian in supporting this outlook. His shared views with them also paved the way for his downfall after the Ahmadinejad regime appointed hardliners with whom his approach was irreconcilable.

It is these major divisions within the Iranian body politic that Mousavian so excellently analyzes. He recalls the annual seminar of ambassadors in Mashhad in 1993 where he was severely criticized by many diplomats for raising the “grand bargain’ idea. Then Foreign Minister Dr. Velayati interrupted and effectively stopped Mousavian’s talk to criticize him and reiterate “that the issue was a red line for the Islamic Republic that must not be crossed”. According to Mousavian, the same ambassadors met with President Rafsanjani two days later where he criticized the seminar for not allowing a discussion of major foreign policy issues, a criticism which the ambassadors took as a declaration of support by the President for Mousavian’s “grand bargain” approach.

In any case, Ayatollah Khamenei blocked the initial attempts at a “grand bargain” in the early 1990s and Mousavian highlights former President Rafsanjani’s frustration at being held back from interaction with the United States, which we can take as reflecting his own frustration as well. He believes that in addition to endorsing a religious fatwa against nuclear weapons, the country’s religious leaders are both educated and rational enough to understand that a bomb would not be in Iran’s interest. These leaders, after all, along with former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, were building unprecedented relations with the international community, particularly the Gulf region, where Mousavian played a key role in renewing relations with Saudi Arabia.

In this vein, he berates Ahmadinejad and the hard liners throughout the book for ruining the work of those negotiation teams of which he was proud to be a part, and conveys palpable frustration over the loss of progress with Saudi Arabia. Although critical of Ahmadinejad, he is willing to admit faults such that “some of the IAEA’s findings as well as failures on the part of Tehran, lent credence to the international media’s allegations about Iran’s nuclear activities”. His assessment of the 2003 crisis is that it was accentuated by “dawdling on the part of Iran, bred by incorrect assessments of the extent and severity of the crisis and bureaucratic passivity exacerbated by a diplomatic shift away from Iran”.

The style of the book is academic. However, the reader must simply decide whether to accept or reject much of what Mousavian assumes to be true, for example the assumption that the United States was behind the Stuxnet computer worm – which is questionable but generally accepted – or that the Israeli Mossad was behind the targeted killing of nuclear scientists.

The book is the first detailed study of diplomacy around the nuclear program from a one-time insider’s point of view, and dutifully targeted at the West. Mousavian explains, “From the US perspective, the nuclear issue arguably is an opportunity to unite the international community against Iran, with the ultimate goal being regime change. From the Iranian perspective, the nuclear issue is an opportunity to resist US hegemony and its regime change policy. The nuclear issue is a matter of national consensus and pride that enables the Iranian government to unite the nation around the flag and resist the West.”

In this respect, he regularly refers to efforts at “detente”, specifically referencing President Obama’s “engagement policy”. He stresses that a “grand bargain” cannot be a zero sum game, “neither country can expect full satisfaction in achieving all its objectives” and that any successful US negotiating strategy must take into account Iran’s objectives, intentions and interests… and vice versa.


Seyed Hossein Mousavian, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir, Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC: 2012.


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