An Iranian Education

This is a post by Robin Simcox, crossposted at The Spittoon

The merits of Columbia University hosting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007 have always been somewhat dubious. So it is interesting that it has now emerged that the university was paid $100,000 by the Alavi Foundation, an alleged Iranian front group, two months before agreeing to host the dictator.

The Alavi Foundation – an organisation based in the United States which declares itself ‘devoted to the promotion and support of Islamic culture and Persian language, literature and civilization’ – is accused by the US government of funnelling money to Iranian spies based in Europe and Islamic schools backed by the Iranian government. Federal prosecutors are currently attempting to seize up to $650m in assets from the foundation, with Adam Kaufmann, investigations chief at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, saying that they have ‘found evidence that the government of Iran really controlled everything about the foundation’. Alavi also regularly donated to Harvard, Portland State and Rutgers. The latter received $351,600 from the foundation between 2005-2007 to fund its Persian Studies Program.

The concept that top US universities are being funded by an Iranian front is troubling enough. However the possibility that Iranian money is influencing academia is not only restricted to America, but is a problem in the UK as well.

The Iranian government announced last year that it was in talks with ’several British universities’ in order to fund Islamic studies programmes which would ‘train and educate experts on Islam’. It barely needs pointing out that the Iranian government’s understandings of Islam have not been working out too well for those being forced to live under it.

Furthermore, the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews was founded after a 2006 donation of over £100,000 by the former Iranian deputy foreign minister. Its opening lecture was delivered by former leader Mohammed Khatami, the supposed ‘moderate’ whose government still managed to rack up over 200 executions and the torture of thousands of Iranians.

Another university to receive money from Iran is the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) who, within weeks of receiving a donation from the Iranian Government, ran a conference celebrating the life of Ayatollah Khomeini. The event featured a keynote speech by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s representative to the UK.

The issue of huge cash donations from foreign tyrannies to UK universities, and the pernicious impact this can have, is one that I covered in a report earlier this year. I am somewhat skeptical of the impact that these donations have on the way students are actually taught – many academics don’t need the incentive of a huge donation to proselytise on how, for example, western foreign policy is the source of all the world’s evils – but the trend of top universities relying on dictatorships’ foreign aid programmes in order to sustain their running contains obvious problems.

Neither the Government or the Conservatives have offered much on how such problems can be rectified. The legalities of the matter are admittedly complex. However an acknowledgement that universities should be setting their standards a little higher than donations from Iran is a simple enough start.