A broad-based coalition of Iranian-Americans and human rights activists met with Ohio state lawmakers in Columbus in late April, requesting they take punitive action against Oberlin College for employing a pro-Iranian regime religious studies professor accused of covering up the mass murder of 5,000 political prisoners in his home country.
Lawdan Bazargan, the director of the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists (AAIRA), told The Jerusalem Post that her organization wants the state of Ohio “to withhold state and federal funding from Oberlin College” until Prof. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati is dismissed from his position.
London-based human rights NGO Amnesty International has alleged in two separate reports (2018 and 2023) that the scandal-plagued professor of religion Mahallati played a key role in crimes against humanity that unfolded in Iran’s vast penal colony system in 1988.
Crimes against humanity
Hamid Charkhkar, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a member of AAIRA, told the Post that “in our recent visit to the Ohio State House and talking with Ohio’s political leadership, I underscored the critical role of high-quality education in shaping our state’s future. The presence of individuals like Mahallati, who carry a dark and troubling past, in our academic institutions, could seriously compromise the integrity and caliber of education in Ohio’s colleges. There’s a substantial body of evidence highlighting his involvement in grave human rights violations, which raises serious questions about his continued employment as an educator. It’s a situation that could potentially expose our students to harmful influences.”
He added that, “together with a dedicated group of activists, we have raised our voices, not just in the political arena, but also through peaceful protests on the college campus. We are resolutely asking the college leadership to heed our calls for accountability. My goal as a professor in an Ohio university is to ensure that our educational institutions remain spaces of safety, trust, and high ethical standards.”
Benjamin Baird, a Columbus native and project director at the Middle East Forum, told the Post that “the victims’ families have held protests around the world, sparked a congressional inquiry, and mobilized students, academics, and media to pressure Oberlin College to properly investigate Mahallati. Despite these activities, Oberlin administrators refuse to even open a dialogue with these grieving families.”
Baird, who played a role in the meeting with the Ohio lawmakers, added that “it’s time to hit Oberlin College where it hurts. Thanks to this Day of Action from Ohio’s Iranian American community, state legislators were asked to reconsider state funding of Oberlin College.”
AAIRA members and Baird met with Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Columbus, including with Rep. Dick Stein, whose district covers Oberlin and with the office of Rep. Dontavius Jarell.
The offices of the Ohio congressional senators, James David Vance and Sherrod Brown, are also aware of the Mahallati row. AAIRA sent a delegation to meet with congressional representatives and senators in Washington to address the issue.
Ohio-based Oberlin College and its president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, have been dogged by allegations since October 2020 for aiding Mahallati in his cover up of the massacre of 5,000 innocent Iranians.
Ambar has vehemently refused appeals from the victims’ family members to meet with them to discuss the mass murder of 1988 and Mahallati’s reportedly documented role in crimes against humanity.
AAIRA said that “Mahallati makes no secret of his loyalty to the Iranian regime. In fact, Mahallati lives half of the year in Iran, owns charities there, publishes books, organizes seminars, meets with Iranian officials, and gives speeches. In a 2022 interview, Mahallati flatly refused to condemn or even acknowledge the Iranian regime’s well-documented, ongoing human rights abuses and instead accused the United States of committing ‘atrocities’ against Iran and warmongering in the Middle East.”
According to AAIRA, “Mahallati’s current association and open loyalty to the Iranian regime cause serious national concerns. It is utterly strange and bewildering that Oberlin so adamantly harbors Mahallati, an individual with such a disgraceful past and questionable current allegiance.”
When asked about AAIRA’s statements, Andrea Simakis, a spokeswoman for Oberlin College, told the Post “I have received your press query.” Simakis declined to provide information.
Mahallati denies the allegations
Mahallati denied the allegation in a 2020 correspondence with the Post that he covered up crimes against humanity in Iran when he was Tehran’s ambassador to the UN between 1987-1989. Mahallati’s tenure at the UN was marked by rambling diatribes against Israel, the US, Iranian dissidents, and the Baha’i community.
He called for a global jihad against Israel, stating there should be a “holy struggle against oppression and Zionism.” Mahallati also railed against the persecuted peaceful Baha’i community in Iran. According to the Oberlin College student paper, Oberlin Review, Mahallati “laid the groundwork for Iran to commit genocide against the Baha’i community.”
In 2021, due to enormous pressure about his genocidal antisemitism at the UN, Mahallati claimed that he now supports a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis. He also said in 2021 that “Bahais and others must be free and fully respected in choosing their faith and must enjoy religious freedom irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality and other identity factors.”
AAIRA held multiple rallies in Oberlin and protested in several US cities, as well as London and Berlin in front of the business of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees to demand Mahallati’s immediate removal. The AAIRA campaign said they are in the fight for the long haul to dislodge Mahallati.
A recent protest on the Oberlin campus on April 28th attracted some two dozen. AAIRA also participated in the Oberlin Parade to celebrate the Iranian people’s courage in standing up against a brutal theocratic regime.
AAIRA has launched a comprehensive campaign to raise awareness about the need to boycott Mahallati’s workshops and classes on campus. Oberlin alumnus Melissa Fleming, who is currently the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, spoke at Oberlin in April.
Mahallati apparently had a role in organizing Fleming’s talk. Ahead of the talk, AAIRA urged Fleming to pull the plug on her talk. Brenden Varma, Deputy Director for the United Nations Information Center, told the Post “Melissa Fleming, accepted an invitation to speak at Oberlin College, her alma mater, as part of a wider effort to communicate about the United Nations to diverse audiences, including students. The event that Ms. Fleming will be attending was not organized by Professor Mahallati. There is no planned meeting between Ms. Fleming and Professor Mahallati during Ms. Fleming’s upcoming visit to Ohio.”
The Post asked Fleming about AAIRA’s statement that it “is concerned that Ms. Fleming’s presence at Oberlin College would lend credibility to an institution that has Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, accused of involvement in covering up and denying the 1988 Massacre of Iranian political prisoners, on its payroll. Mahallati served as Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations from 1987 to 1989, during which time the Iranian government executed thousands of political prisoners.”
AAIRA added that “Ms. Fleming has been a staunch advocate for human rights and has consistently worked towards promoting diversity and inclusivity. However, by agreeing to speak at an institution that has celebrated and promoted a figure like Mahallati, she risks undermining her own principles and the important work she has done to combat intolerance and discrimination."
"In light of these concerns, AAIRA respectfully requests that Fleming reconsider her decision to speak at Oberlin College. We believe it is essential to stand up against those who seek to cover up and deny human rights abuses, and we urge Ms. Fleming to stand in solidarity with the victims of the 1988 Massacre and their families.”
Fleming’s spokesperson Varma told the Post: “The secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights have highlighted the widespread and systemic impunity in Iran for gross violations of human rights, both past and present. And indeed we have documented retaliation against those seeking accountability and justice. We will continue to insist on the need for investigations and accountability for serious human rights violations in Iran.”