Susannah Johnston, investigative reporter for Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), a new Middle East Forum media outlet reporting on lawful Islamism in the West, spoke to a July 1st Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about an Oberlin College academic accused of ties to the Iranian regime, in an interview with Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch.
Johnston said Mohammed Jafar Mahallati, a professor at Oberlin College who served as Iran's ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) in the late 1980s, is being targeted by protesters for his part in "the Iranian regime's efforts to infiltrate and influence Western society ... through campus academics." Iranian dissidents are protesting Mahallati's presence at the college because of Iran's extrajudicial execution of several thousand political prisoners under orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988. The political purge occurred during Mahallati's ambassadorship. His purported claim of ignorance about the massacre was exposed as a lie by an Amnesty International 2017 report that points to his complicity in a coverup.
The dissidents' protest is part of a "global movement" to remove Mahallati from his position. The varied groups of dissident protesters range from Iranian leftist groups to a group they "would traditionally not work with," the controversial Mujahidin e-Khalq (MEK). The MEK was "designated as a terrorist group in the West" but removed from the U.S. government's list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) in 2012. Westrop said the FTO designation was made under "murky" reasoning, but asked Johnston if fractious groups opposing Mahallati and the "soft power elements of Iranian networks here in our universities" have sufficient common cause to overcome the divisions between them. Johnston responded positively, as the groups are now united not only by the fury they share over the 1988 executions, but also over "what's happening now in Iran and wanting genuine positive Iranian regime change."
Johnston investigated the current ties of Mahallati, the former "senior regime figure," now an academic. Mahallati serves on the board of Sepehr-e-Siasat, an Iranian-based journal, which praised Hezbollah, and includes fellow board members tied to Tehran. One of them works for Iran's foreign minister and has an "INTERPOL red notice" issued against him; another belongs to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) [the ayatollah's internal security force]; and yet another praised Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force [the IRGC's military intelligence branch specializing in unconventional warfare], who was assassinated by the U.S. military in 2020.
In 2018, an Iranian authored an article in Farsi "smearing" Mahallati, which landed the former on Iran's "national suspect" list. In response, Mahallati wrote a letter to Ali Larijani, the former Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, objecting to the accusations in the article by underscoring "the importance of Shiite supremacy in the West," and boasting of his "crucial" role "in fulfilling the mission." His letter to Larijani also claimed he was "persecuted" as a Shiite professor and inferred that there were others like him. Johnston sees Mahallati as the "tip of the iceberg" of a network of academics in the U.S. who are here to expand Iranian influence in the West. She said that Iran's interest in working through the universities is to take advantage of American naiveté in academia. Professors who are sympathetic to the regime present a narrative to students who may not know how to question the narrative. Tehran's goal is to advance its foreign policies with university graduates who gain employment in political positions "shaping future foreign policy."
In the early 2000s, Mahallati founded the Ilex Foundation in Boston and hosted Seyyed Mohammed Khatami, the former president of Iran. Called "the silver-tongued Ahmadinejad" [a former Iranian president known for his hatred of the U.S. and Israel], Khatami "bragged" about developing Iran's nuclear program and held several positions in the Iranian government in the 1980s. Johnston said Khatami would have "been involved" during Khomeini's state-sponsored "slaughter" of political prisoners. Mahallati and the Ilex Foundation's association with Khatami raises skepticism as to Mahallati's protestations of innocence regarding these massacres.
Johnston said that the Alavi Foundation in the U.S., begun as the Pahlavi Foundation under the former Shah, was "rebranded" when it came under the control of the Iranian government after the Shah fell. The Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecuted the foundation, exposing it as a "front group for the regime" that has given "thousands of dollars to Ivy league schools." The Alavi Foundation funding influenced Columbia university to hire Mahallati as a professor after it received generous funding from his brother, who was president of the Alavi Foundation at that time. Johnston said the DOJ should investigate Mahallati's connection to two other schools where he worked, each having received monies from the Alavi Foundation.
In light of the myriad examples cited by Johnston of Mahallati's apparent role as "an agent of a hostile foreign power," she is very critical of the U.S. government. She said Washington should be "upholding the laws" in the U.S. regarding foreign agents and the "restrictions on financing of universities." Johnston said it is "too easy" for foreign money to be "filtered" to academic institutions and warned that there are other conduits for foreign funding from "Shia networks," such as "mosques [and] private grant-making foundations." Yale university "didn't report hundreds of thousands" of dollars they received in foreign funding. Universities such as Princeton and Georgetown received foreign funding that advances the foreign sponsors' interests, many of which are at odds with those of America's.
Johnston urges greater media coverage of the Mahallati case which serves as an important insight into "how Iranian infiltration works in the U.S." She said it is not only Tehran's infiltration and funding of academic institutions that is worth the DOJ's scrutiny, but also monies run through disingenuous "medical aid organizations," and "mosques that are not serving appropriate religious purposes." The Mahallati example is "just another piece of the puzzle."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.