On October 7, in the small town of Sardasht, Iranian authorities hanged Hamzeh Ghaderi. His crime: Calling for democracy in Iran. Three days later, Iranian authorities hanged 50-year-old Khalid Showghi and 30-year-old Jalil Zivehi for similar offenses. Unfortunately, such executions are becoming the rule rather than the exception, especially in small towns away from the itinerary of foreign visitors. While Iranian president Muhammad Khatami works to soften the image of the Islamic regime, capital punishment has more than doubled in the past two years. The Islamic regime continues to imprison journalists, shutter newspapers, and harass students. Contrary to popular belief, Khatami has not only failed to implement a single substantive reform, but has also refused to speak up as his colleagues whittle away existing rights. For Khatami and self-described inside-the-government reformists, image rather than substance is what matters.
Unfortunately, many in the United States are willing to play along, or even actively participate in the Islamic Regime's public-relations campaign. Academics from some of America's leading universities — UCLA, Georgetown, University of Michigan — turn a blind eye to human-rights abuses in Iran for to do otherwise might endanger their ability to acquire limited Iranian visas. In a choice between principle and uniform intellectual standards on one hand, and access and dishonest scholarship on the other, most professors will choose the latter.
One recent episode typifies how some Iran experts appear to have prostituted themselves to the Iranian lobby. Earlier this month, Columbia University associate Professor Gary Sick — famous for his October Surprise conspiracy theory whose subsequent investigation cost American taxpayers millions — used his podium as moderator of the Gulf-2000 online community to turn the attention of hundreds of academics, journalists, and NGO members to the Mission for Establishing Human Rights (MEHR) in Iran, a grassroots- and low-budget group I established dedicated to publicizing and ending human-rights abuses in Iran. Sick inexplicably forgot to mention that he serves on the board of directors of the American Iranian Council, an organization funded largely by oil companies that calls for unconditional restoration of diplomatic and business relations between Washington and Tehran. Many Iranians in both the United States and Iran describe the American Iranian Council to be the Islamic regime's unofficial lobby in the United States.
Specifically, Sick and some colleagues accused MEHR of working against freedom of speech and claimed that MEHR was a group for "militant monarchists." His allegations were untrue. MEHR is a registered non-profit organization with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status not affiliated with any political party or group. Indeed, unlike Sick, MEHR refuses to accept oil company money. The conference that so piqued Sick's invective was MEHR's September 1, 2002 commemorative conference in Los Angeles. Fourteen years previous, the Islamic regime liquidated more than 5,000 political prisoners (at a time Muhammad Khatami was Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture). The forum attracted more than 500 Iranian Americans and was bipartisan in support of human rights. Both Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D., Ca.) and American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin (a Republican) gave keynote speeches in favor of judging the Islamic regime by its record, and not by the empty words of a few self-described reformists. Other congressmen wrote letters of support. Sick seemed especially upset that MEHR has sought to file human rights law suits against prominent figures in the Islamic regime.
Free speech is the right of Sick and others who may not uphold our human rights standards because we live in the United States and not in the Islamic regime of Iran. But what is troubling is that Sick and others in the American academic and intellectual community seeks not only to limit but also to completely restrict debate and discussion.
Sick posted numerous attacks on MEHR, Sanchez, and Rubin, but repeatedly refused MEHR the right of response. For Sick, consideration that the Iranian people might want a secular, democratic government is too dangerous to even be discussed; such might contradict his personal beliefs that envision legitimacy for a regime which oppresses ethnic and religious minorities, and unabashedly has funded a 23-year-old wave of terror stretching from the alleys of Tehran to streets of Buenos Aires.
After initiating vitriolic attacks on MEHR and conference speakers, Sick refused to allow MEHR to cite description of the massacre by none other than Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, Ayatollah Khomeini's principle deputy, in his memoirs. (Montazeri, by the way, remains under house arrest in Iran; Khatami's "reformist" Minister of Culture banned publication of his memoirs inside Iran). Unfortunately, what Sick seeks to do in his online community — ironically funded by Open Society — many professors and journalists increasingly do in their classrooms and newspapers. It is no coincidence that Genieve Abdo reported critically from Tehran and was expelled, but Los Angeles Times correspondent Robin Wright, who parrots official rhetoric labeling Khatami "the leading reformist in Iran," has unfettered access.
Professors should be the guardians of free discourse. Neither in Tehran nor in New York City should universities be used for political indoctrination. Nor should we ever accept that Iranians somehow deserve fewer human rights than those holding American, British, or French passports. Intellectuals must defend themselves with fact and argument, not with arbitrarily insulating themselves from criticism. If academics believe in principles such as free discourse and human rights, then these principles must be universal and not selectively applied and arbitrarily limited.
— Mohammad Parvin, a university adjunct professor in California, is executive director of MEHR.