Why Is the West OK With Iran’s Abuse of Academic Institutions?
by Farhad Rezaei
Earlier this month, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) passed a resolution calling for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of Israeli universities. The organization accused the Israeli institutions of higher learning of “restricting freedom of movement for Palestinians … harassing Palestinian professors, teachers, and students … and maintaining inequality in educational resources between Palestinians and Israelis.”
MESA is the latest in a long line of professional associations, colleges, and student bodies to argue that Israeli academics need to be sanctioned because they “perpetuate the oppression” against the Palestinians.
At the same time, the Western academic community is virtually silent about the pivotal role that Iranian universities have played in helping the theocratic regime in Tehran destabilize the Middle East and the world. The regime has also used academic conferences to lure foreigners for its infamous “hostage diplomacy,” and has made little effort to cover up its extensive relationship with academia.
To begin with, many Iranian universities and faculty members have a close relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the US State Department has designated as a Foreign Terror Organization (FTO). According to General Ali Fadavi, the deputy commander of the IRGC, Iranian universities helped boost the group’s naval capabilities, and played an essential role in many other areas. As he put it, “…the IRGC have used the capabilities of students, researchers, and academics at different times and for various problems, especially in the most difficult tasks, meaning in the military field.”
The IRGC has also used universities to hide its illicit nuclear weapons program. Several Iranian universities played a crucial role in advancing nuclear development by hosting research centers.
For instance, the Nuclear Research Institute at the University of Isfahan (UI) and Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), and the Department of Physics and Nuclear Sciences at the Amir-Kabir University of Technology (AKUT), have conducted numerous experiments related to nuclear weapons production. The SBU and the AKUT also conducted research and experiments on the separation of plutonium, and research related to the generation, measurement, and modeling of neutron transport, which has applications to the nuclear bomb.
Iranian academic institutions have also played a role in kidnapping foreigners and dual nationals. In one notorious case, Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-born Swedish citizen and an expert in emergency disaster medicine at the Free University Brussels (VUB) and lecturer at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, was invited by the University of Tehran and Shiraz University for a series of conferences and workshops. On April 24, 2016, agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence arrested Djalali and charged him with “collaboration with hostile governments,” “espionage,” and “acting against national security.” Djalali was jailed in the notorious Evin Prison; he was placed in solitary confinement in the infamous Ward 209, which houses political prisoners and is controlled by the Intelligence Ministry. On October 21, 2017, Djalali was sentenced to death on a charge of allegations of “providing intelligence to Israel,” without the regime presenting any evidence for these allegations. It has been announced that the execution is still scheduled to take place.
Targeting Iranian professors for “not being in line with the Islamic Republic doctrines” has been widespread since 1979. In its “Islamizing of Universities” campaign, the regime has conducted several cleansing operations in universities, firing professors that it has deemed “secular” and not committed to the regime. The most widespread firings occurred after the 1979 Islamic revolution, under the “Cultural Revolution” campaign, and peaked again during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, forcing 55 professors into retirement.
Targeting students for alleged subversive activities has also been prevalent. In a case that was publicized by the media, in April 2020, the IRGC arrested Ali Younesi and Amirhossein Moradi, two award-winning students from Sharif Technical University. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced them to 16 years in prison on charges of “corruption on earth, conspiracy against the regime, and propaganda against the regime.” Younesi, who won a gold medal at the International Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad in 2018 in China, and Moradi, who won the silver at Iran’s National Astronomy Olympiad in 2017, were “beaten and held in prolonged solitary confinement in harsh conditions to extract forced confessions.” It is not clear why Younesi and Moradi were imprisoned. The students have not received any support from the university authorities or the wider academic community.
Equally shameful is the ban on enrolling Bahai students, a discriminatory policy that’s a hallmark of the theocratic regime. Bahai students who take the national university entrance exam are not given the results. The National Organization for Educational Testing sends them a notice of “incomplete application,” “not meeting the general qualification for university,” or denies that their names were on the registration list.
The Bahai International Community has appealed to Western academics to protest this systemic discrimination — but without any success. Such resolute silence contrasts sharply with the intense efforts of MESA and other academic bodies to promote BDS and target the peaceful, democratic Jewish state.
Ironically, Arab students in Israel enjoy full access to higher education. According to Israel’s Higher Council for Education, since 2018, over 51,000 Arab students have studied in Israeli academic institutions, a jump from 24,000 in 2008. This number represents 16.1 percent of the total student body.
Since its inception, the Iranian regime has managed to defy international norms and evade serious punishment. The academic community in the West needs to protest the egregious conduct of Iranian universities. Remaining silent would legitimize the practices of the theocratic regime, and encourage more academic abuse.
Farhad Rezaei is a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.