An innocuous-seeming organization with ties to the Iranian government has become a powerful instrument for shaping American perceptions of the Islamic Republic.
The American Institute of Iranian Studies (AIIrS) is an organization with the stated goal to "represent American institutions of higher education and research in the field of Iranian Studies." It has an impressive list of affiliates, such as UCLA, NYU, Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and the Smithsonian Institution, among many other universities and museums. It is a member of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), an umbrella organization focused on sending students to countries as far away as Italy in southern Europe and Bangladesh in South Asia.
AIIrS is also intertwined with a group that has connections to the upper echelons of the Iranian regime, which the United States designates as a state sponsor of terrorism. Here are some simple facts concerning AIIrS:
AIIrS partners with Iranian organizations "to expose new generations of students and scholars to Iran and the wider Persianate world." It was founded in 1967, a dozen years before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, to provide "the full range of services for visiting American scholars in Iran" and served as the "sole private organization representing the academic interests of American universities, museums and scholars in Iran." Yet when the revolution came, AIIrS stopped sending students to Iran for almost two decades, only facilitating conferences and events outside Iran.
In 1998 AIIrS started sending students to Iran again, pursuant to Iranian president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami's "Dialogue of Civilizations initiative," facilitated by the U.N. and several other countries. According to one Spanish scholar, this initiative was aimed externally at "break[ing] the international isolation" of Iran, and internally at "searching for political reform in the Iranian political system, based on the spreading of Islamic or religious civil society that didn't mean separation between religion and politics or government."
Michael Rubin, who took an AIIrS-sponsored trip to Iran in 1999, said that participants were discouraged from making "any kind of dialogue" with "ordinary Iranians."
Michael Rubin, now one of the most prominent critics of the Iranian regime in Washington, D.C., participated in the initiative in the summer of 1999, traveling to Iran under the sponsorship of AIIrS. While there, Rubin studied at the Dehkhoda Institute, a language school affiliated with the University of Tehran.
Rubin pointed out that the initiative was hardly an exercise in academic freedom but instead sought "to keep participants from any kind of dialogue except for the irritable sort with their security handlers." In fact, according to Rubin, the apparent representative for the Dehkhoda Institute, Mohammed Hissami, was identified by other Iranians as being an employee of the Ministry of Security and Information. Hissami specified that the students were not allowed to travel independently with "ordinary Iranians." Instead, students were told the stories the regime wanted them to hear and shown the places the regime wanted them to see. Americans were "told to deny their U.S. nationality," under the threat of expulsion.
AIIrS has partnered with the Dehkhoda Institute, a language school affiliated with the University of Tehran.
To this day, the University of Tehran has a Memorandum of Understanding with AIIrS, and it remained a key partner as late as 2009. When asked, AIIrS did not comment concerning the nature of its current relationship with the Dehkhoda Institute.
But you wouldn't know any of this by looking at AIIrS's website today. This isn't because the program has improved since Rubin's visit more than 20 years ago. Rather, AIIrS's programs have gotten more troubling.
Today, according to AIIrS's own website, one of its main functions is to provide fellowships for advanced language study at the Sa'adi Foundation in Tehran. The purpose is to provide those enrolled in a "Doctoral or Masters program in the humanities or social sciences" that "have an approved research topic that requires use of Persian [language]" with access to Iran.
The Sa'adi Foundation appears to have replaced Dehkhoda Institute as AIIrS's primary partner.
The Sa'adi Foundation, which seemingly replaced Dehkhoda Institute as AIIrS's primary partner, was established in 2012 and has a sordid history and purpose. Sa'adi is tasked with the "strategic management and execution" of various "educational, research, cultural, and media activities . . . based on the objectives, policies, strategies, and regulations governing the international cultural relations of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
This is not just boilerplate Iranian patriotism. Ahmad Majidyar, a regional specialist now working at the National Endowment for Democracy, explained that Sa'adi is "part of an extensive government-led network that advances the Islamic Republic's revolutionary, ideological and political agenda in the region and across the world."
Members of Sa'adi's senior leadership have held, and currently hold, positions at the top of the Iranian regime. According to the Tehran Times, an English-language Iranian-regime paper with "close ties to the Iranian foreign ministry" (formally led by Seyed Hossein Mousavian, now a controversial academic at Princeton), the Sa'adi Foundation is "directed by the Iranian Vice President as chairman" and, according to another regime news outlet, is run by its president, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel.
The president of the Sa'adi Foundation, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, is a former speaker of parliament close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Haddad-Adel is not a mere functionary. One of his colleagues describes him as a "man of revolution and cultural jihad." Haddad-Adel's dedication to the ayatollah's version of "cultural jihad" has led him to the upper echelons of the Iranian regime. Not only is Haddad-Adel a former speaker of the Iranian parliament and presidential candidate, but his daughter is married to Mojataba Khamenei, a son of Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader.
There's more: Haddad-Adel is also a former senior adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran and is "known to be among Supreme Leader Khamenei's circle of confidants," according to several experienced journalists. Majidyar also notes that Haddad-Adel has close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated terrorist entity in the U.S. According to an email from AIIrS, the Sa'adi Foundation and Dehkhoda Institute have been the prime vehicles for getting AIIrS students access to Iranian visas.
Thus, in practice, AIIrS has engaged in assisting in the propagandizing of American students, with the help of the Sa'adi Foundation. Their joint efforts are being run by officials who have direct relationships with the worst elements of the Iranian regime.
AIIrS has received government funds in the past from the now-nonexistent U.S. Information Agency. Its recent public tax forms indicate that it still receives roughly two-thirds of its income from U.S. government sources. When asked which agency funds AIIrS currently, AIIrS responded via email that it is "funded through CAORC," which, while a private nonprofit, is heavily financed by the U.S. State Department to the tune of about $4.4 million a year. AIIrS's budget is, unsurprisingly, significantly smaller, about $150,000 annually in recent years. Roughly one-third of its budget goes directly to the salary of Erica Ehrenberg, AIIrS's executive director, with no other salaries being reported. The goal of AIIrS, according to CAORC, is to "facilitate access to research resources, provide a forum for contact and exchange, offer library and technical support and accommodation, and disseminate information to the scholarly and general public," which wouldn't seem to include any real influence on what happens in Iran.
This suggests that AIIrS is, in essence, a State Department–funded junior partner to Sa'adi and other Iranian institutions, simply shuffling papers for U.S. students who wish to visit Iran. It is another way (along with having multiple former regime officials working at U.S. universities) for Iran to manipulate American foreign policy by setting the conditions of debate years in advance.
Americans should want to learn all they can about Iran, and it is important to be in contact with sympathetic Iranians. But facilitating Potemkin-village visits, controlled by the regime, is not honest academic inquiry. It may well be true that, given the nature of the regime, sending any researchers to Iran will require bowing to the ayatollah's wishes. Yet as Rubin previously suggested, Uzbekistan may serve the same purpose in terms of learning Persian language and culture, at a much lower risk of being used or propagandized by one of the worst regimes in the world.
American political leaders ought to look more deeply into this, discover just how much influence the regime and its various fronts have over AIIrS and the programs it facilitates, and decide if this enterprise serves the interests of the U.S.
We suspect they will agree that it does not.
Cliff Smith (@CliffSmithZBRDZ) is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project.
Alex Nulman is a research intern at the Middle East Forum and a rising senior at the University of Maryland.