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Does Iran even need spies in academia?

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The Justice Department recently indicted professor Kaveh Afrasiabi, charging that for decades his persona as a neutral, mild-mannered scholar was a cover and that, in reality, he was an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran. (Editor’s note: Dr. Afrasiabi denies the charges. See his response below.) If the allegations are true and this seasoned academic (Boston University, Harvard and UC Berkeley) was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote Iranian interests in the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe and to appear on television, it was wasted money.

Perhaps Iran got lucky and a man with a good cover offered his services, or perhaps he is one covert operative in a much larger operation to infiltrate American academia. But the sad truth is that Iran really doesn’t need agents to pose as neutral experts because American academics long have done Iran’s public messaging free of charge.  

After his arrest, Afrasiabi’s alleged handlers at Iran’s United Nations Mission defended him by invoking his credentials, insisting that “Dr. Afrasiabi has not been working as an agent of the Mission, and only as a university professor and an expert on international relations.” The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Even before the Shah of Iran was overthrown, Michel Foucault, France’s most famous academic, helped to usher in the Revolution by downplaying the ruthlessness of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s followers and exaggerating their popularity. In September 1978, traveling to Iran as a journalist for the Italian daily Corriere della sera, Foucault wrote enthusiastically that “the reactivation of Islam” would be peaceful and women would be free under the new system. Claiming that he “met, in Tehran and throughout Iran, the collective will of a people,” he insisted that Khomeini “is not a politician” but rather “the focal point of a collective will.”

After Khomeini became the Supreme Leader, his purges, restrictions on women’s rights and seizure of the U.S. embassy proved Foucault wrong. It would be difficult to convince Americans that Khomeini’s new regime was anything but hostile after it held Americans hostage for 444 days. Nevertheless, academics tried. Principal among them was Hamid Algar, professor of Persian studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Algar did more to boost Iran in his 45 years at Berkeley than Khomeini could have possibly hoped for. He wrote biographies of Khomeini, translated his writings, and publicized the Iranian Revolution as “the greatest event of contemporary Islamic history.”

Barack Obama’s presidency brought Iran unprecedented opportunities to expand its influence on the American public. From the moment that Obama began his rapprochement, working on a grand deal that would remake the Middle East, academia had his back, promoting the idea that there were moderates in Iran’s government who could change the system. Seventy-three professors drafted a letter to Congress urging support for Obama’s nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which only delayed and then legitimized Iran’s nuclear program.

Columbia University appears to have many professors devoted to promoting Iran. Seven of the 73 academic signatures on the letter urging Congress to pass the JCPOA belong to Columbia professors. One of them, Robert Jervis, is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Science. Last year, when Iran used the coronavirus pandemic to get sanctions removed, Jervis endorsed the idea in an interview with the Iranian Labor News Agency that later became a headline in the Tehran Times: “Columbia university professor urges removal of Iran sanctions.”

At Rutgers University, Hooshang Amirahmadi makes claims that would make Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei proud. A founder of the American Iranian Council, former director of the Rutgers’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and currently a professor at Rutgers’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Amirahmadi has said in public: “Iran has not been involved with any terrorist organization. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas are terrorist organizations.”

At George Washington University, Hossein Askari, emeritus professor of international business and international affairs at the Elliot School of International Affairs, does regime public relations. In a recent interview with the Tehran Times, he said Iran should never negotiate its right to ballistic missiles, should answer U.S. criticisms of Iran’s human rights abuses with charges of American racism, and should only stop enriching uranium if the U.S. ends sanctions and meets Iran’s demands for compensation stemming from economic pains inflicted by former President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

Princeton University is home to Seyed Hossein Mousavian, an Iran expert at its Program on Science and Global Security. Mousavian consistently has urged American conciliation with Iran, arguing against sanctions. Writing in Al-Jazeera, he advised Tehran to wait out the Trump administration and work with the Europeans on “a way to circumvent U.S. sanctions.” In late November 2020, he advised President-elect Biden to rejoin the JCPOA and, most outrageously, to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the State Department’s terrorist list. What else could the mullahs possibly ask for in a well-positioned propagandist? 

Iran’s goal is to build nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of launching them. This January, William O. Beeman, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, told a Tehran Times interviewer that Iran’s ballistic missile program is “completely legal.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agrees.

In 2012, Columbia’s Jervis wrote that the U.S. should “resign itself to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.” He was one-upped by Kenneth Waltz, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote in that same year that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons shouldn’t be merely tolerated but actually encouraged because it would stabilize the Middle East and force Iran to become a more responsible power. Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, called it “the single most preposterous analysis by an allegedly serious strategist of the Iranian quest for a nuclear weapon.”

Ultimately, Iran doesn’t need to pay professors such as Kaveh Afrasiabi to do its messaging under the guise of neutral credentialed historians and researchers. When it comes to propagating myths about Iran’s moderation and preaching about the evils of America’s Iran policy, there are many credentialed historians and researchers apparently willing to do the work for modest academic wages. 

A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is also a Ginsburg-Milstein fellow.

(Editor’s note: Dr. Afrasiabi denies the Justice Department’s charges against him. His response, in part:

“Recently, I was subjected to a high-profile arrest by the FBI pursuant to a federal warrant accusing me of violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) by acting as a ‘secret agent’ of Iran since 2007 and writing books and articles ‘disguising propaganda as objective analysis.’ 

“In 25 years I have been repeatedly subjected to what I believe to be malicious prosecutions in the U.S. — all causing considerable pain and suffering for my family and me, despite being resolved in my favor in all of the previous cases.

“In response to the latest accusations, I have published a large compendium of my articles in various media, from the New York Times to the UN Chronicle, that demonstrates my credentials as an international affairs and Iran expert. I have published several books on Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies as well as dozens of articles promoting the cause of peace, dialogue and reconciliation between two hostile nations, and criticizing Iranian policies, such as exiting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or oppressing women.

“I campaigned for the release of the three American hikers held in Iran during 2009-2011 and hand-delivered a letter on their behalf written to Iran’s foreign minister by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. I wrote and gave TV interviews on behalf of Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent missing in Iran, calling for his immediate release. I lobbied Iran for the release of Wilson Center scholar Halleh Esfandiari and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. I worked on a joint proposal with a former U.S. defense secretary on an ‘incident-at-sea agreement,’ following a letter I wrote in the New York Times on the subject.

“My last oped in the New York Times called for a meeting of Presidents Trump and Rouhani at the U.N., which I followed by contacting the U.N. secretary-general and then meeting his political assistants, urging them to facilitate such a meeting. I did this as part of my ‘private diplomacy’ that stretches back two decades. These belie the government’s contention that I acted as Iran’s agent, working secretly to spread propaganda for Iran — when in fact, as an Iranian American expert, I always put the emphasis on both countries’ mutual interests, reconciliation and detente. 

“If my work was illegal, why did the U.S. government wait 13 years to file charges, given the admission in its complaint that it knew about that work — as international affairs consultant for Iran’s Mission to U.N. — from the very beginning? It makes no sense, unless viewed through the prism of Iranophobia.”)

Tags Ali Khamenei Barack Obama Donald Trump Iran–United States relations Joe Biden Kaveh Afrasiabi Politics of Iran Sanctions against Iran Seyed Hossein Mousavian

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