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Who is Vali Nasr, Former Senior Advisor at US State Department

vali nasr ali akbar salehi munich security conference 2013 (1)
Vali Nasr (left) and former Iranian regime’s nuclear chief Ali-Akbar Salehi (middle) in the Munich Security Conference 2013

Vali Nasr is an individual who has enjoyed long-standing trust and involvement within the United States government. He served on the United States Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board and held the position of senior advisor to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, from 2009 to 2011. Currently, he is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and his foreign policy recommendations have garnered attention from numerous U.S. politicians, including Secretaries of State.

However, Vali Nasr also has another side to his career, one that is often overlooked in policy circles: His secret agenda to push the talking points of Iran’s regime in the U.S. Such efforts are coming under increasing scrutiny in light of the exposure of the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), an effort by Iranian Foreign Ministry officials, starting in 2014, to strengthen Tehran’s global image and positions on security issues, particularly the nuclear program, by building connections with influential overseas academics and researchers, as revealed in Iranian regime’s correspondence, offering insights into Tehran’s diplomatic strategies during a critical period.

As the world increasingly recognizes the threat posed by the Iranian regime, and as politicians and legislators on both sides of the Atlantic raise questions about the extent to which the regime is using so-called Iranian experts to influence their policies, it’s important to delve into the mechanisms at play. While policy inclinations are often shaped independently of individual actors, there are instances where specific individuals play a key role in advancing particular agendas.

In Vali Nasr’s case, some might question the hiring process by the human resources department. However, the records indicate that he was selected by certain officials within the U.S. State Department precisely due to his existing connections with high-ranking individuals in the clerical regime.

Vali Nasr’s background

Born on December 20, 1960, in Tehran, Vali Nasr is the son of the religion scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. His father was a descendant of Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, a fundamentalist cleric who was hanged by the people in Iran on July 31, 1909, during the Constitutional Revolution, for treason and serving the repressive monarchy. In 1972, the Shah chose Vali Nasr’s father, Hossein, to become the President of Aryamehr University (now Sharif University of Technology).

Vali Nasr has been teaching in various prominent American universities and has published several books on Iran, the Middle East, and Islam.

Vali Nasr’s views, interviews, and opinion pieces on foreign policy have been regularly translated and published on irdiplomacy.ir, a website seemingly affiliated with the Iranian clerical regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

vali nasr RT soleimani zarif tweet (1)
Translation of a tweet from Hasan Jaberi Ansari, then-FM spokesperson under Hasan Rouhani: “Like other countries, Iran needs both national heroes on the battlefield, such as the martyr Commander Soleimani, and national politicians and diplomats like Mohammad Javad Zarif. While immersed in extremist dichotomies and political games played by Iran’s enemies, let us not sacrifice this undeniable historical fact and the interests of the country through our negligence”

The trusted middleman

Vali Nasr’s appointment as a prominent figure in the U.S. diplomatic sphere held particular importance for the Iranian regime. On January 20, 2009, the state-run Donyaye Eqtesad published a news article focusing on Nasr’s new role, emphasizing his familiarity with the region and his expertise in religious matters.

On May 12, 2009, the state-run Tabnak website, which is run by the former IRGC Chief Mohsen Rezaee, wrote about an official visit from Vali Nar to Tehran to discuss the release of former American hostage Roxana Saberi. The source wrote, “It has been said that Haddad Adel and Larijani obtained the approval from senior authorities of the Iranian government for Obama’s advisor’s trip to Iran. Both of these individuals were students of the late Ayatollah Motahari and, due to their friendship with Seyyed Hossein Nasr [Vali Nasr’s father], they also maintained connections with his family. Following Ayatollah Motahari’s martyrdom, they continued to keep their relationship with the Nasr family intact. Haddad Adel was a student of Dr. Hossein Nasr before the revolution.”

Gholamali Hadad Adel is the father-in-law of Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the clerical dictatorship. He has held several high-ranking positions in the regime, including Speaker of the Parliament and senior advisor in Khamenei’s Beyt.

Ali Larijani is a former IRGC commander, IRIB Chief, senior nuclear negotiator, and senior advisor to Khamenei. He has also held several other high-ranking positions in the Iranian government, including Speaker of the Parliament.

On May 16, 2009, the state-run website Fararu wrote, “Of course, the topic was way more important than the subject of Roxana Saberi. They were saying that Vali Nasr, on behalf of the U.S. government, has initiated negotiations with Iran to lay the groundwork for bilateral relations on certain matters. They claim that the Iranian side in these negotiations was Gholamali Haddad-Adel, and the date of the talks began about a month ago.”

“Haddad Adel and Larijani are considered reliable and trustworthy figures for conducting negotiations from various perspectives,” Fararu added. “This can be attributed to their long-standing acquaintance, especially Haddad Adel, with Seyyed Hossein Nasr [Vali Nasr’s father] due to the close relationship he had with the late Motahari and the circles of religious thought. However, [Vali] Nasr is one of those individuals who have gained the trust of the Iranian side as well. He is a person who is close to Iran, not only due to his father’s background and intellectual and cultural personality but also because of his family and intellectual ties with revolutionary figures in Iran. On the other hand, he has provided consultations about Iran to the U.S. government and is officially active in the fields of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

fararu website vali nasr 2009 (1)

The writing was also republished by iridiplomacy.ir on the same day.

Influencing public opinion

While the public record has no access to what people like Vali Nasr have said or pushed for in governmental meetings and behind closed doors, their “expertise” has been widely covered and circulated on mainstream media. With the benefit of hindsight and a comprehensive understanding of the evolving circumstances, reviewing these viewpoints can illuminate the roles played by various actors in shaping the current state of affairs and how they were guided towards the decisions they ultimately made.

The available record shows Vali Nasr has written articles, commentary, and essays for the most prestigious publications on Middle East policy. In 17 different pieces for Foreign Affairs, he discussed varying topics from the “rise of the Shiites” in July 2006 to “Iran’s nuclear deal” in May 2023.

For the Foreign Policy Magazine, Vali Nasr has written ten essays, ranging from “Ramadan” in June 2010 to “Iran nuclear talks” in September 2022. He also has penned numerous other pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Washington Post Opinions, The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, Agenda (World Economic Forum), The Hub (Johns Hopkins University), Channel NewsAsia, La Voz de Galicia and more.

What’s intriguing about Vali Nasr’s writings is that his foreign policy recommendations and viewpoints seem to remarkably coincide with the strategic interests of the Iranian regime, which has been labeled as a terrorist regime by some.

In a New York Times opinion piece on December 13, 2004, Nasr proposed a strategy to create a rift between the ruling clerics and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He suggested that the IRGC includes reformist elements and argued that the U.S. could potentially strengthen its influence by refraining from sanctions and offering economic incentives instead.

On February 23, 2006, in the wake of the tragic bombing of the Shiite holy site in Samarra, Iraq, which was later revealed as an Iranian regime plot that successfully triggered a sectarian war resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, Vali Nasr used his platform on The New York Times to advocate for a narrative aligned with Tehran’s objectives.

Nasr criticized the efforts of the U.S. ambassador, who was pushing for power-sharing between pro-Tehran Iraqi politicians and Sunnis. He stated, “Among the Shiites, such threats carry an ominous tone; not only because they view their militias as the only force now protecting them from car bombs, but also because Shiites see the overt American push for a national unity government as nothing more than coddling the Sunnis and, worse yet, rewarding the insurgency.”

Nasr went on to say, “This American desire to placate the Sunnis could also hurt our regional ambitions. The White House has reasonable concerns about ties between Iraqi Shiites and Iran; the stated intention is to wean away Iraqi Shiites from Iranian influence. This will not be easy to achieve in any circumstance, but will be impossible if Iraq’s Shiites don’t trust America’s commitment to protecting their interests. In the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, the American policy of pushing the Shiites to compromise with Sunnis will only backfire.”

On December 6, 2007, reflecting on the Bush administration’s policy to decrease the Iranian regime’s influence in the Middle East, Nasr wrote in the New York Times, that Washington shall be wise enough not to contain the regime in Iran by promoting an Arab alliance against Tehran. He wrote, “Dialogue, compromise and commerce, as difficult as they may be, are a means of providing Tehran with incentives to commit itself to regional stability. Instead of militarizing the Gulf and forming up shaky alliances on Iran’s periphery, Washington should move toward a local security system featuring all the regional actors.”

In 2012, at the height of the Syrian opposition’s efforts to overthrow the Assad regime, Vali Nasr, who was recognized as an expert on Middle East affairs and had the trust of the U.S. government, provided recommendations to the Obama administration, advising against pursuing a regime change. On July 28, he wrote in The New York Times, “If the Syrian conflict explodes outward, everyone will lose: it will spill into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Lebanon and Iraq, in particular, are vulnerable; they, too, have sectarian and communal rivalries tied to the Sunni-Alawite struggle for power next door… Most members of Syria’s Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish minorities, along with a portion of its Sunni Arab population, still prefer Mr. Assad to what they fear will follow his fall; together, those groups make up perhaps half of Syria’s population, the rest of which is largely Sunni Muslim… Even if Mr. Assad were to step down voluntarily, his Alawite military machine and its sectarian allies are likely to fight on, holding large chunks of territory.”

On March 17, 2013, in an article in the New York Times, Vali Nasr argued that the United States government has to lift sanctions on Iran for the regime to come to terms. Nasr wrote, “The United States should shift from trying to further intimidate Iran to trying to clinch an agreement. The sanctions have given America leverage, and we should use it to seek a deal that would finally restrict Iran’s ability to make bomb fuel, rather than ratchet up the pressure in the hopes of getting either a broader deal now or a total surrender later.”

“The problem with just standing tough is that it is likely to backfire; Iran is understandably nervous, and if it thinks America is intransigent, it might double down on its nuclear program, speeding it up past a point of no return,” Nasr added.

Utterly lying about the Iranian people’s support of the regime, Nasr also wrote, “Iran’s leaders already suspect that America’s real goal is to overthrow their Islamic republic; at the same time, their citizens bitterly resent the sanctions and generally support the idea of an Iranian nuclear program… That logic — if Iran is going to face sanctions anyway, better to face them with the bomb than without — has produced a saying in Tehran these days: ‘Better to be North Korea than Iraq.’ Still, Iran’s leaders and citizens clearly want the sanctions lifted, and they may now be signaling a way out of the deadlock.”

In an interview with the New Republic on June 29, 2014, Nasr was introduced as an expert of Shia and tried to justify how then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian approaches were just reflective of the community he represents. Nasr argued that by the Shia majority in Iraq, Maliki is even considered not tough enough on Sunni terrorism.

While trying to explain the regime’s penetration in Iraq, he said, “The Iranians have a larger interest in Iraq, which is to protect their position and to protect the Shias. Also, they have to know there are enormous amounts of anxiety among average Iranians about ISIS’s threat to the shrine city, and there are reports in the Iranian press that say the defense of the city is a religious duty of every Iranian.”

Arguing against the removal of Maliki, a known Tehran puppet, Nasr said, “The more America stands up and shouts that Maliki has to go, the less we’re going to get cooperation from Iran. This, in the region, sounds like some kind of an imperialist exhortation. And they’re not going to do our bidding. These are times when actually quiet diplomacy is much better than these kinds of public pronouncements.”

On January 10, 2018, Vali Nasr authored an article for the Atlantic, where he leveraged his status as an Iran expert to argue that the significant uprising, which was later brutally suppressed by the regime, wasn’t an attempt to “unravel the Islamic Republic.” Instead, he contended that these protests were primarily rooted in economic grievances. His entire piece revolved around the notion that these protests served as a wake-up call, encouraging the regime to pursue “Rouhaninomics.” He described this as a combination of liberalizing economic reforms and restructuring, which involved reducing the economic influence of powerful foundations, state institutions, and the Revolutionary Guards.

However, time has unequivocally discredited this theory.

He wrote, “The important factor in the recent protests, and why they did not resemble the fight against tyranny Trump tried to portray in his tweets, is the dog that did not bark. The urban dissident voices did not join the populist call for economic justice. Why? First, urbanites, as noted by the economist Djavad Salehi-lsfahani, have been beneficiaries of President Hassan Rouhani’s economic liberalization policies, like his talk of moderation, and have been the main backers of his pursuit of a nuclear deal.”

Vali Nasr employs well-crafted rhetoric and persuasive reasoning, but in reality, he is simply misleading his audience about the truth. The January 2018 uprising marked a significant moment in Iran’s recent history. After two decades of the clerical regime’s deceptive strategies, people from all corners of the nation marched in the streets, chanting, “Reformists, principalists, the game is over.” This resounding declaration shattered the misconception fostered by Western narratives that moderation enjoys broad support in the country.

In May 16, 2019, Vali Nasr wrote in the Washington Post, “Iranians voted in record numbers to reelect Hassan Rouhani as president, not primarily to reward him for signing the nuclear deal but so that he can sign more deals. If Trump’s goal is to install a more moderate regime, then he should have stuck with the nuclear deal and backed moderates who were using it as a lever for change.”

He added, “Iranians have plenty to not like about the Islamic Republic, but they will resist being used as an instrument of U.S. policy… If it comes to confrontation, many will rally to the flag. And the Trump administration has alienated the Iranian public further by aligning its policy so closely and publicly with Iran’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (The closeness with Israel comes as less of a surprise.)”

Vali Nasr and Ali Vaez have co-authored numerous articles and extended their collaboration to encompass various media activities, book publications, and lectures within American academia. They also shared their expertise and experiences on various panels and conferences.

On September 22, 2021, in an article for Foreign Policy, co-authored with Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the former ambassador of the Iranian regime to Germany, Vali Nasr urged the Biden administration to “decouple the Iran Deal from discussions on regional security.” This approach effectively played into the hands of the Iranian delegation during the Vienna Talks. The strategy was designed by the Iranian regime to ensure access to frozen funds without making concessions regarding its proxy warfare activities.

Over the course of several decades, Vali Nasr, renowned as a Middle East expert, has been a prominent speaker at numerous panels and conferences. His engagements have covered a wide array of topics, ranging from speaking at the Munich Security Conference, where he shared a panel with the former Iranian regime’s Foreign Minister and nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, to discussing “the Iraq invasion” at Georgetown University, where the former Iraqi President participated in September 2023.

He also has been a knowledgeable source to write and discuss geopolitics for American corporations and think tanks and has “helped” them understand the complicated political dynamics of the Middle East and shape their long term strategies accordingly.

In a commentary Vali Nasr wrote for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) website in September 2023, a source globally trusted and referenced for its analysis and reports on the world economy, the carefully designed structure of his writing reveals the particular weight he wants the audience to reflect upon. Entitled “A generational shift in geopolitics is creating new possibilities for prosperity in the Greater Middle East”, the piece mentions Iran 26 times, versus Arab countries 18 times, Saudi Arabia 11 times, Iraq 11 times, United Arab Emirates (UAE) 5 times, Türkiye 5 times, Israel 6 times, and Russia 9 times.

Attacking the Iranian Resistance

Over the years, the Iranian regime has launched an extensive campaign to discredit the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its main constituent, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK/PMOI). This campaign has included over 198 films, documentaries, TV series, hundreds of conferences, and a vast number of articles, studies, books, and leaflets. These efforts are closely linked to individuals associated with the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI) and those who share interests with the clerical regime. They aim to tarnish the MEK’s image and advocate for engagement with the existing regime.

Given that the NCRI and MEK are high on the Iranian regime’s list of security concerns, opposition to them has become a key indicator of one’s stance regarding the regime.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Vali Nasr was one of the proponents of “engagement” with the Iranian regime, aiming to assist the regime in “settling its issues” with the MEK.

In an interview with PBS, Vali Nasr said, “The Iranians hoped that the demise of the Saddam regime would ultimately destroy the MEK. I don’t think the Iranian government is afraid of the MEK. The MEK is not popular in Iran. It is seen as collaborators with the Saddam regime during the Iran-Iraq war. But the MEK has killed many people in the Iranian leadership, friends, and comrades of people who are now in positions of power. So there are old blood feuds that the Iranian government would like to settle.”

In March 2012, Nasr told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “In the eyes of the Iranians, they embedded with the enemy. They were traitors. They are regarded likewise across the Iranian political spectrum, including by leaders of the Green Movement. The idea that the group has vast support inside Iran is simply untrue.”

In an interview in February 2023, telling a Newsweek reporter that the people in the Middle East would prefer to live 100 years under authoritarian regimes over one year of chaos, Nasr added “that external forces such as the exiled People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK)” are embodying that chaos.

In another interview that was well noted and covered by Iranian state media, Vali Nasr told the Wall Street Journal, “The MEK was always a small price to pay for Washington to improve ties with Iran. The problem is that Washington is not interested anymore in paying any price.”