Lawdan Bazargan, a former political prisoner, human rights activist, and member of the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists (AAIRIA.org), spoke to an April 10th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the infiltration of American academia by Islamic Regime of Iran (IRI) proxies. The following is a summary of her comments:
The Islamist ayatollahs who came to power after Iran's 1979 revolution wasted no time arresting thousands of the country's young men and women on trumped-up charges as a means of crushing any protest against the theocratic regime and its "barbaric ideology." A decade later, the incarcerated thousands, who were subjected to torture, still languished in prison without due process. In 1988, IRI authorities decided to resolve the political prisoner problem. Tasked with the goal of "eliminat[ing] as many prisoners as possible," abrupt and abbreviated "inquisitional sessions" sentenced thousands to the gallows. Hanged in groups of six at a time by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), they were buried in unmarked mass graves.
Bijan Bazargan, Lawdan's 23-year-old brother and a college student, was arrested by the regime in 1982 for his membership in a leftist party and endured torture and uncertainty in prison over the next two years, only to receive a sentence of ten more years. Six years into his sentence, the IRI regime executed Bijan, along with the others in the 1988 prison massacre. An Amnesty International report named former IRI ambassador to the UN, Mohammed Jafar Mahallati, as one of the key officials involved in a cover-up of the massacre. Mahallati, who dismissed the accusations as "mere propaganda," is currently a professor of religion at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Mahallati is not the only IRI sympathizer carrying water for the regime. Janet Afary and Reza Aslan have also infiltrated American academia where they "brainwash" U.S. students in IRI propaganda. Mainstream media, as well as campus leftists hostile to America, dismiss or silence Iranian activists' warnings about the IRI. The apologists provide cover for regime tyrants who brutalize their people and impose cruel "gender apartheid rules" on Iranian women. These tyrants silence their critics in the U.S. with accusations of "Islamophobia." Additionally, the U.S. government has been lax in investigating the IRI's corrosive foreign influence into the American education system. The IRI proxies in academia indoctrinate the young minds of students who, once graduated, will fill positions in think tanks, media, and government, with far-reaching national security implications.
In the media, the New York Times has generated millions of dollars by selling tours of Iran with "reporters moonlighting as tour guides." In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Hussein Ronaghi, a prominent blogger who had been jailed for six years as an Iranian political prisoner, described how the Western media is failing the Iranian people: "For us, it is as if there are two Irans – the one where we live and another that you read about. Your Iran is defined by a pesky nuclear negotiation. Ours is much worse. It is a religious police state where we live in fear, with countless red lines that most dare not cross. It is a country of repression, censorship, and violence."
Although they have yet to realize their goal of seeing Mahallati fired, AAIRIA has recently scored victories in thwarting him. Members of the Iranian American community, relatives of the victims of the IRI's 1988 prison massacre, and Ohio's concerned citizens combined forces and mounted a campaign against Mahallati. Among the organization's successes are raising awareness of the "crime against humanity" massacre, and forcing Columbia University to reverse its decision to hire Mahallati as a visiting professor, which he tried to secure using a relative's influence. AAIRIA alerted Jerusalem Post reporter, Benjamin Weinthal, that the UN and a German university posted their logos on Iranian business websites that included Mahallati's name. As a result of Weinthal's press inquiries, Mahallati's name was scrubbed from the sites.
Other victories included AAIRIA's involvement in the cancellation of a two-day seminar Mahallati had planned to hold in May of 2021 with other "so-called religious leaders" on the topic of "Religion diplomacy in the Middle East." In September 2022, a formal request was submitted by two Republican lawmakers to the Committee of Education and Labor to investigate Mahallati's alleged role in the prison massacre. AAIRIA also organized protests in European capitals, in U.S. cities, and at Oberlin College. After protests in front of the businesses of the college's trustees shone a light on Mahallati's "dark past," students boycotted his classes. As a result of all these actions, Oberlin cancelled the classes and placed Mahallati on administrative leave.
The Amnesty International report detailing the cover-up of the 1988 massacre used documents provided by AAIRIA. AAIRIA informed senatorial staffers of Mahallati's ties to the IRI and asked them to investigate how Mahallati attained his position in academia. AAIRIA convinced guests invited by Mahallati to participate in a workshop he organized to cancel their attendance in "solidarity with the victim's families." At the end of this month, AAIRIA will meet with Ohio legislators to demand a "freeze of state and federal aid" to Oberlin College until its administration conducts an investigation into Mahallati and appoints a "neutral party" who will oversee the admission of testimony from human rights groups.
Infiltration by the IRI is not limited to academia. IRI uses charities, Islamic centers, and think tanks to influence academia and further its "propaganda and anti-American agenda." Smaller charities arose and stayed below the radar after the FBI's successful 2013 court case against the Alavi Foundation, found guilty of money laundering for the Iranian government. The IRI wields its influence on academia through these charitable foundations and uses interfaith dialogue and friendship as a deceptive front to obtain grants and donations which benefit the IRI.
One such entity is the Ilex Foundation, a Boston-based, non-governmental organization (NGO) founded by Mahallati where he serves as trustee. The foundation purportedly promotes "the study of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Civilizations, and Beyond." Ilex hosted the IRI's former foreign minister in 2000 and its former president in 2006 as speakers.
Janet Afary and Reza Aslan serve as advisory board members of the Baskerville Institute, an NGO "devoted to supporting and strengthen[ing] the bonds of friendship between Iranians and Americans." Baskerville was the organizer of the May 2021 two-day seminar that was cancelled after AAIRIA's exposure. Bahman Baktiari, Baskerville Institute's director, was fired from his position as head of Utah University's Middle East Center for plagiarism. AAIRIA wrote to Afary and Aslan asking them to resign from Baskerville's board, with no response.
Board members aware of their roles in this deception must be publicly shamed, and to combat Islamism, Congress needs to investigate these religious centers and charities to "close the loopholes" that enable them to benefit the IRI. The think tank, National Iranian American Council (NIAC), is yet another unofficial lobbyist for the IRI that has been publicly exposed, shamed, and now shunned by Iranian communities in the U.S. Bazargan's recommendation:
Mahallati's case is not unique, and the government and educational institutions must take steps to identify and prevent potential threats. While it is essential to maintain academic freedom, ensuring the safety and security of educational institutions and the communities they serve is equally important.
Mahallati is a cautionary example of the potential risk of "Islamist operatives in America, especially those with ties to foreign governments and extremist organizations." In the years since the Iranian people first took to the streets of Tehran to protest the regime, the uprising has escalated to become a national revolution that has spread across Iran. The courage and sacrifice shown by the Iranian people who bravely challenge a violent regime, in particular the Iranian women who have borne the brunt of the crackdown, have countered much of the "pushback from the leftist intellectuals and progressives" in the West. With greater acknowledgement of the national uprising against the ayatollahs and their brutal Islamist ideology, there is increasing engagement to support the cause, but there is more that remains to be done.
AAIRIA has been lobbying Congress to ensure that Starlink remains available for the grassroots protesters in Iran to communicate and counter the Islamic regime's limitations on the internet. The West can offer support to the young Iranian men and women risking their lives for freedom from the mullahs' tyranny by contacting Congressional representatives and sending the message to the White House to "stop negotiating with this brutal regime."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.