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Is Iran Ratcheting Up Influence Peddling in American Universities?

October 27th 2016

Ali Rouhani of Iran

The American academy, which has revealed itself to be markedly susceptible to the intrigues of the Saudi-based radical Wahhabi sect and the Muslim Brotherhood, now faces the challenge of an Iranian radical presence.

Since 2014, admission of Iranian students to U.S. colleges has been permitted by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Iran has yet to flood the U.S. with its own professors. Nevertheless, there are indications that an Iranian wave may soon hit the American academic community. A network of apologists for the Iranian clerical regime already exists within the Middle East studies departments of American educational institutions. How much will this attitude grow in light of the Obama administration's turn toward Tehran?

Three recent examples of Iranian ideological functionaries penetrating U.S. universities stand out: Ebrahim Mohseni, Seyed Mohammad Marandi (by long-distance control from Iran), and Ali Akbar Alikhani.

Ebrahim Mohseni is a research scholar at the University of Maryland (UM)'s Center for International and Security Studies, while simultaneously serving as a senior analyst at the University of Tehran's Center for Public Opinion Research (CPOR) and a lecturer in the University's Faculty of World Studies (FWS). He has a masters of public policy and a graduate certificate in intelligence analysis from UM.

Ebrahim Mohseni & Seyed Mohammad Marandi

That an obvious – as will be seen – Iranian regime advocate should have been awarded a graduate certificate in intelligence analysis by a major U.S. educational institution is startling, and so are Mohseni's affiliations with the CPOR and the FWS.

In coordination with a CPOR colleague, Iranian official Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Mohseni produced two opinion polls in 2007-08 that presented Iranians as extremely supportive of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the noted extremist and anti-Semite. This view of Iranian politics was consequently disproven when the Green Movement of 2009-10 mobilized millions of the country's subjects against Ahmadinejad and the ruling theocracy.

Undaunted, CPOR continued to produce propaganda. In 2014, it issued a suspect poll claiming that 78 percent of Iranians favored a law mandating separation of men and women in workplaces and that 64 percent believed that women should work only in jobs assigned to their gender.

If that did not demonstrate that Mohseni was an inappropriate hire for a Western university, his jargon-filled doctoral dissertation at UM, "When Coercion Backfires: The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy in Iran," should. It was presented in 2015 to his dissertation advisory committee, including a well-known pro-Iranian professor, Flynt Leverett of Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches international relations, and Nancy Gallagher, a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she taught Middle East and feminist studies and supported the divestment campaign against Israel.

The website for the UM Department of Government and Politics may carry the subhead, "Be Civil," but the tone of Mohseni's dissertation is anything but civil in its treatment of U.S. policy toward Iran. Mohseni admits that international sanctions on Iran, in reaction to its nuclear development program, have failed and that Tehran continues expanding its atomic capacity. But rather than assess this problem as a product of Iranian recalcitrance, Mohseni spins a complicated and contradictory theory in which U.S. policy, based on what he condemns as "coercive diplomacy," has "strengthened Iran's determination to advance, enhance, and expand its nuclear fuel cycle program."

In the introduction to his dissertation, Mohseni asserts that "[t]o achieve a stable peace with Iran and to effectively deal with the proliferation risks of Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. needs to regain the confidence and the trust of the Islamic Republic." Yet when in the history of the Tehran theocracy beginning in 1979 did the U.S. ever possess the "confidence and trust" of that regime? In place of "coercive diplomacy," Mohseni calls for "strategic empathy [emphasis original]." He complains that "President Obama has also used his executive authority to put in place Executive Orders that target Iran. These executive orders stipulate neither the reason behind nor the objective of the orders," although the authoritarian and adventurist nature of the Tehran regime is obvious to the world. But Obama's "pivot to Iran," supported by the "5+1 group" comprising the United Nations Security Council and Germany, has been more accommodating than coercive and has failed.

The professional alliances of Ebrahim Mohseni are more interesting when one enters, figuratively, Iranian sovereign territory. At Tehran University's FWS, his partner in political propaganda polling, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, is a former dean known for his venomous attacks on Israel.

In a 2013 diatribe broadcast by the Russian Sputnik News Agency, Marandi defended Ahmadinejad's repeated calls to wipe Israel off the map by declaring that "Israel must cease to exist" and adding that "the political entity in this case meant military extinction."

Ali Akbar Alikhani

Another luminary of the University of Tehran FWS, Ali Akbar Alikhani, recently completed a 2015-16 visiting scholarship at the Harvard University Center for Middle East Studies. Alikhani, whose stated views are as radically anti-Israel as those of Marandi, remained below the radar until the end of his Harvard post early this year. His project as a Harvard visiting scholar was theological, meaning, in the Iranian context, ideological: "[A] Model for Peaceful Coexistence in [the] Contemporary World[,] ... Based on the Quran and Sunnah." One might interpret this topic as "world peace imposed by radical Islam."

Alikhani's university work follows the hardline posture of the Iranian ruling elite and its supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, in its attacks on Israel and Zionism. In a Farsi-language review, Alikhani lauded an Arabic-language book titled The Jewish Threat-Danger to Christianity and Islam as "strong and good," as it would "show the quality and the method of the Jewish threat."

In the era of Obama's positive gestures toward Iran, Mohseni and Alikhani may be no more than scouts examining the terrain for a campaign to more thoroughly penetrate American academia. Financial resources for such an effort already exist. The Alavi Foundation, an Iranian-controlled charity that claims independence from Tehran, was freed on July 20, 2016, by a U.S. appeals court in New York from confiscation of its assets, mainly the Piaget building, a skyscraper at 650 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

In the past, Alavi financed Persian studies courses at dozens of American colleges and universities. Alavi particularly favored Harvard, where Alikhani was employed, by donating $419,000 between 2004 and 2012. On September 30, 2016, Alavi launched a petition calling for support to maintain 36 Muslim congregations, 23 schools, and 30 currently existing programs at American universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Hunter College, and Hartford Seminary, along with student loans, free gifts of books on Islam and Persian culture, and free medical clinics.

Along with the mental gymnastics of Ebrahim Mohseni, and the Jew-baiting of his peers, Seyed Mohammad Marandi and Ali Akbar Alikhani, increased infiltration of American academia by Iranian state agents – building on the successful campaigns of other radical Islamist enthusiasts – is highly likely. Given the American Middle East studies establishment's long, sordid record of welcoming Islamist funding and operatives, and the proliferation of American professors who share Iran's official anti-American and anti-Israel views, stopping this infiltration before it further metastasizes is imperative.

Stephen Schwartz, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, D.C. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.


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