A proposed new Afghanistan-Iran university to undertake joint research and engineering projects, announced by the two governments last month, is being seen as part of a broader Iranian strategy to counter its international isolation brought about by Western economic sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Collaboration in higher education, research and science is a key part of Iran’s ‘soft power’ strategy, with a large number of cross-border projects in the pipeline, in particular in Islamic countries.
“Cross-border education is a growing trend globally and Iran's initiative is part of this trend,” said Abdul Waheed Khan, former assistant director general for communication and information at UNESCO.
“Iran believes that it has a long tradition of knowledge creation and preservation, and it is interested in exercising its soft power to gain influence in the Islamic world,” Khan told University World News.
Branch campuses in Afghanistan
The new joint university with Afghanistan was announced at a 28 December meeting in Tehran between Iran’s Minister for Science, Research and Technology Kamran Daneshjoo and Afghanistan’s Minister of Higher Education Obaidullah Obaid, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
Daneshjoo was quoted as saying that Iran was ready to undertake joint technical and engineering projects involving experts from both countries.
Iran is also establishing branches in Afghanistan of the state-run Payame Noor University – which specialises in distance education and already has some 30 provincial centres and campuses in Iran – and a branch of Ferdowsi University of Mashhad (FUM) in the Afghan city of Herat, to be called Khajeh Abdollah Ansari University.
FUM is Iran’s third largest public university and the largest research university in eastern Iran. It attracts students from Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, the Central Asian Republics, Lebanon, Syria, India, China, Thailand and other Asian and African countries.
“Iran has a large pool of human resources in science and technology to produce quality educational content for cross-border education and has long experience of open and distance learning, such as Payame Noor University,” Khan told University World News.
Iran will also grant several hundred scholarships to Afghan students at Iranian universities, particularly for postgraduate study in the sciences and technology, and will establish study centres for Persian language and Islamic issues in Afghan universities.
According to Palestine-based international higher education consultant Hilmi Salem: “These cross-border universities will help in improving Iran's image and enhancing mutual understanding, along with spreading culture and increasing the international prestige of Iranian universities.”
They could also boost regional and international opportunities for collaboration on issues of mutual interest. “This type of higher education diplomacy could be one of the hidden doors for easing Western sanctions and economic isolation imposed upon Iran,” Salem added.
Other branch campuses
But Iranian universities are also seen as subject to political manipulation and as serving the state in other ways.
For example, the European Union released a new list on 22 December of companies and organisations that would be subject to sanctions, and included Iran’s top technology institution Sanati Sharif University in Tehran. Its inclusion on the list is reportedly based on suspicions that the university is involved in Iran’s nuclear programme.
Some Afghan officials and civil society activists have expressed discomfort at the increased politicisation of universities and Iran’s growing influence on Taliban members and Afghan Shiites at universities in Kabul, according to regional media reports.
Such concerns are not unusual, with regional analysts seeing a similar bid by Iran for influence in other countries.
In 2009, Syria agreed to set up Farabi University in the north-western Syrian port city of Latakia in conjunction with Tishreen University – Syria’s third largest university – as an international branch of Iran’s Tarbiat Modares University, a postgraduate institution in Tehran.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite minority has roots in Shi’ite Islam, is Iran’s main regional ally against Sunni rebels, according to Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo's National Research Centre.
The Farabi University project “is clear evidence of a political motive” he told University World News.
However, according to Syria’s higher education action plan for 2012-12, higher education projects including Farabi University have been hampered by the country’s security situation and limited funds.
Other analysts say Iran has research strength in several scientific areas that could help countries like Syria and Afghanistan.
"Iran has been establishing branches of its universities abroad for several years in an effort to encourage scientific cooperation with other countries," Arsalan Qorbani, a top official at the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, was quoted by IRNA as saying.
For example, the stated focus of the Iranian-Syrian Farabi University is on natural resources, marine sciences, animal and plant sciences, agricultural economics, forest science and environment, medical sciences, engineering and Earth sciences.
Iran’s University of Applied Science and Technology, which has a number of branches in several Iranian provinces, has also been in the planning stage of opening branches outside the country.
Ali Karami, an associate professor at the Research Centre of Molecular Biology at Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences in Tehran, told University World News: "Iran's scientific development and capability is the main reason to expand science and technology to the Islamic world.
"It has nothing to do with nuclear or other issues," Karami insisted, adding that even if the expansion of scientific, technological and cultural ties via universities had political advantages, it was not the main reason.
Pakistan’s Atta-ur-Rahman, a former coordinator general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the 57-country Organisation of the Islamic Conference, told University World News that Iran was a growing power in science and technology in the Islamic world and was using this advantage “to help other countries and develop strong linkages with them.
“It is further ahead in scientific research than any of the Arab states, or Malaysia and Indonesia,” according to Rahman. “It can therefore help set up universities of high quality, which other Islamic countries cannot do.”
"Iran will benefit from the positive effects of developing collaborations with Pakistan via these branches – this will lead to long-term collaborations in academia, agriculture and industry," Rahman said.
IRNA reported in recent years that overseas branches of Iran’s Elmi Karbordi would be set up in the Comoros and in Venezuela, and Tehran University plans a branch in Lebanon. Branches of Payame Noor University would be set up in Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and the Comoros.
Islamic Azad University
The private non-profit Islamic Azad University, which has Iran’s former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as chair of its board, has also expanded outside Iran, including in Dubai – where it caters for a large Iranian expatriate community – Beirut in Lebanon, Yerevan in Armenia and Zanzibar in Tanzania.
New campuses are planned in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and reports also point to plans for campuses in Canada and Malaysia.
The university boasted that a campus in Oxford in England was its first in Europe.
However, according to reports in April 2012 by the Persian-language Iranian Labour News Agency, quoting the head of Islamic Azad University Farhad Daneshjoo (brother of the science minister), the Oxford branch had been suspended and its staff – including Mehdi Hashemi, son of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani – had been asked to return to Iran.
There had been no activity and no enrolment of students at the Oxford branch, Farhad Daneshjoo was quoted as saying.
Mehdi Hashemi was arrested on his return to Iran last September but later released. Last week he was indicted by the Iranian judiciary on undisclosed charges, according to official media.
Islamic Azad University had been embroiled in a battle with the government, which has attempted to gain control over its substantial endowment funds.
The Oxford debacle could be an indication that overseas branch campuses would not be immune to the politicisation of universities within Iran, according to an analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
* Shafigeh Shirazi contributed to this article.
Hardliners tighten grip on moderate university
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters