Elite universities are protecting Iranian agents - opinion

Tehran is guilty of gross human rights violations, ignoring UN Security Council resolutions and violating nearly every one of its obligations to restrain its nuclear program.

People walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey, November 16, 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS/EDUARDO MUNOZ)
People walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey, November 16, 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS/EDUARDO MUNOZ)

The Biden administration is on the precipice of approving another disastrous deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It will reportedly relieve pressure on Iranian terrorist organizations and provide hundreds of billions of dollars to a regime allied with Russia and China.

Tehran is guilty of gross human rights violations, ignoring UN Security Council resolutions and violating nearly every one of its obligations to restrain its nuclear program. This should be cause for great concern, but in higher education, it is likely to be met with a shrug of the shoulders if not outright applause.

Leading universities like Princeton University and Oberlin College in Ohio have for too long chosen to cast their lot with the Iranian regime, not the United States and its democratic allies. Iranian government agents are members of the faculty at both institutions. Princeton must cut ties with Iranian Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Oberlin with Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Jafar Mahallati.

They represent the brutal Iranian establishment and hide behind calls for diplomacy and peace to mask their bloodstained records. It is shameful that both schools are standing by their side instead of prioritizing student safety and upholding their moral obligations to protect against infiltration by agents of hostile foreign powers.

Despite mounting public pressure, as members of the faculty, they are protected by their brethren, no matter their offenses. This must stop.

A poster of senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani is seen during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022 (credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)A poster of senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani is seen during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022 (credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)

Just one member of US academia publicly mourned and attended the funeral of a slain terrorist leader, Qasem Soleimani, in 2020 – Mousavian. 

Soleimani was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization responsible for hundreds of US casualties in Iraq. Mousavian followed that with an outrageous justification for taking hostages as leverage to win financial concessions from the West, and an interview for an Iranian propaganda film glorifying Soleimani’s actions and reveling in Iranian death threats against American diplomats and their families. Nevertheless, Princeton has stood by him.

This is perhaps unsurprising given Princeton’s disinterest in Mousavian’s history in the assassination of dissidents. While serving as his country’s envoy to Germany in the 1990s, a German court found that Iranian agents organized themselves at Iran’s embassy, at the time headed by Mousavian, before assassinating these individuals in a restaurant.

AS FOR Mahallati, before joining Oberlin’s faculty in 2007, he served the Iranian regime as its ambassador to the United Nations (UN). He is accused of engaging in the cover-up of Iran’s mass execution of more than 5,000 political prisoners in the late-1980s, repeatably denying that such atrocities were taking place while ambassador. Furthermore, even after evidence of the murders have come to light, Mahallati has not amended his position, demonstrating his allegiance firmly lays with the Iranian regime.

Mahallati has also peddled in antisemitic and anti-Baha’i rhetoric. At the UN, he made speeches encouraging violence against Jews, now as a professor of religion, Oberlin has stood by him allowing him to give lectures to their students, the future minds of America.

Amid rising criticism, both institutions have provided weak justifications for not cutting ties with the men in question. Princeton has fallen back on its adoption of the Chicago Principles, a nonbinding document steeped in the traditions of classical liberalism and authored by academics that value civil discourse, using it to justify taunts of US officials and their families as free speech.

And in Ohio, despite Mahallati being indicted by Amnesty International for supporting a cover-up of crimes against humanity, Oberlin has continued to take the stance that there is no evidence Mahallati knew about the murders – confusing lack of evidence for the denial of the truth. The line at which a member of the faculty has engaged in disqualifying behavior is clearly moving in the wrong direction.

In the new paradigm, being a mouthpiece for a regime that fully endorses the call of “Death to America” is acceptable. Being complicit in the cover-up of mass political executions is acceptable. Religious bigotry is acceptable. Joining in a celebration of the life of a terrorist leader accused by the commander-in-chief of wounding or killing thousands of Americans is acceptable. Finding happiness in threats made against Americans is acceptable. It begs the question: what obscene behaviors are unacceptable?

Perhaps officials at Princeton and Oberlin are content to absorb the risks, the reputational damage and the rising wave of criticism, but they have not yet been truly tested and have not had to take responsibility for enabling the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.

The Biden administration should suspend all grants and contracts with those institutions for working with a regime that flagrantly violates all conventions of human rights. Congress and local governments should exercise oversight.

Financial supporters from the largest foundations to individual donors should suspend or terminate their giving to institutions that host regime mouthpieces, as they are exposing themselves to great reputational risk. Students that would never tolerate their tuition dollars going toward paychecks for former North Korean or Taliban ambassadors should speak up against terrorist enablers and participants in a conspiracy to obscure gross human rights abuses.

For Princeton and Oberlin, their path forwards are clear: they can continue to associate themselves with Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, or they can immediately terminate ties with Mousavian and Mahallati. The choice is simple.

The writer is CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and is a former US ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform.