In the pursuit of fostering diplomacy and bridging the divide between the United States and Iran, Princeton University embarked on a journey that ultimately led to unforeseen consequences. As US-Iran relations thawed under the Obama administration, Princeton saw an opportunity to play a pivotal role in this process. However, within a short span of time, the university found itself entangled in the internal politics of both Tehran and Washington, serving as a cautionary tale for American institutions. This article explores Princeton’s experience, highlighting the challenges of navigating the complex landscape of international relations and the potential risks associated with such endeavors.

Seizing the Opportunity

Princeton’s foray into US-Iran relations began in 2014 when it established an Iran center and initiated a student exchange program with the country. With the assistance of a prominent Iranian-American scholar, the university connected with Mostafa Zahrani, a senior Iranian diplomat known to have ties with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The prospect of exchanging Iranian and American students seemed promising, despite concerns about security given Iran’s history of abducting American citizens and the absence of diplomatic ties with the US.

The Tragic Consequences

Tragically, Princeton’s optimism was short-lived. In 2016, Wang Xiyue, a Chinese-American graduate student participating in the exchange program, was arrested on espionage charges and detained in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for over three years. His concerns about security were tragically justified. Furthermore, in 2023, Elizabeth Tsurkov, another Princeton graduate student, was abducted by an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq and has not been seen since. These incidents highlight the grave risks associated with engaging in academic and cultural exchanges with countries embroiled in political turmoil.

The Role of Iranian Officials on Campus

Princeton’s engagement with Iranian officials extended beyond the student exchange program. In 2009, the university welcomed Hossein Mousavian, a top regime diplomat and former nuclear negotiator, to its campus. Mousavian’s involvement in advising both US and Iranian delegations during the 2015 Iran nuclear deal prompted accusations of his potential influence on American institutions. Princeton defended its decision to provide Mousavian with a platform, emphasizing his contribution to bridging the gaps in the negotiations. Nonetheless, his presence sparked concerns about the influence of foreign regimes on American institutions.

The Iran Center’s Perspective

Princeton’s Iran center, officially known as the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, aims to promote scholarship on the Islamic Republic. Its director, Professor Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, has been vocal about highlighting what he perceives as the achievements of the Islamic Revolution, including advancements in women’s rights. However, this perspective has drawn criticism, particularly during periods of crackdowns on women-led protests against the regime.

Controversial Figures and Investigations

Princeton’s association with controversial figures continued when it hosted Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s suspended special Iran envoy, as a guest lecturer in 2023. Malley’s security clearance was revoked by the State Department, and he has faced an FBI investigation for possible mishandling of classified information. These developments further fueled concerns about the university’s ties to figures who advocate engagement with the Iranian regime.

Lessons Learned

Princeton’s experiences with Iran serve as a cautionary tale for American institutions seeking to engage in diplomacy. The university’s noble goals of fostering understanding and diplomacy were overshadowed by the risks and challenges associated with navigating the internal politics of Tehran and Washington. The incidents involving detained or abducted students highlight the potential dangers inherent in such endeavors. Moreover, the scrutiny faced by Princeton due to its association with Iranian officials raises questions about the influence of foreign regimes on American institutions.


Princeton University’s outreach to Iran demonstrates the complexities and risks associated with engaging in diplomacy and cultural exchanges with politically charged nations. While the pursuit of noble goals is commendable, it is essential for institutions to carefully navigate the intricate landscape of international relations. The cautionary tale of Princeton’s engagement with Iran serves as a reminder that the pursuit of diplomacy requires a thorough understanding of the risks involved and a commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of those involved.

Source » iranprobe