The politics of academic engagement

Hot on the heels of the nuclear negotiations and the diplomatic détente between the US and Iran that many hope will follow, has been a call to increase academic engagement with Iran. This is undoubtedly a good thing and one that should be pursued with enthusiasm.

Iran remains a country with a high regard for the status afforded by education – witnessed by the absurd lengths some officials have gone to to forge qualifications from Western universities – a country which regularly achieves excellent results in international scientific competitions and enjoys a higher education sector that is both dynamic and open to engagement with the international community.

It is also, however, a country that suffers from one of the highest levels of emigration by its educated classes of any country in the world, and where the humanities, as compared to the sciences, continue to operate in a hostile political environment. Any enthusiasm must therefore be tempered by the political realities of the day and an acute awareness of the difficulties within which Iranian academics have to operate.

Academic freedom is a relative concept in Iran. It was so under the Shah and continues to be so today, with subject areas such as politics and history coming under the fiercest scrutiny.

International relations, insofar as it pertains to Iran’s foreign policy and tends to follow the nationalist narrative, tends not to attract as much attention, but the study of history can be as problematic as politics.

Indeed, much as with the Soviet Union, Iran’s rulers have always been more preoccupied with controlling the past than they have with determining the future and I have encountered many colleagues, whose seemingly anodyne theses on the history of Islam in Iran have met with the censor’s wrath.

Academic freedom

As with journalists, academics have to walk a fine line and similarly the red lines are neither clear nor consistent. Iran has witnessed two major downturns in academic freedom since the revolution, the first being in the initial aftermath of the revolution as universities and course syllabuses were purged of un-Islamic and anti-revolutionary material.

The second bout came during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, undoing much of the good work that had been achieved during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Indeed the latter period (1997-2005) is now regarded as a halcyon period in post-revolutionary intellectual life and it is worth remembering that academic engagement, even with the United States, was growing.

I remember encountering a couple of young American scholars on a flight to Iran en route to attending a conference on String Theory, an area of study in which they assured me, Iran was making significant progress.

The problems we encounter today are largely ones of Ahmadinejad’s making, both because wider political difficulties around Iran’s nuclear programme incurred sanctions that made any form of engagement impractical, from the securing of visas to the payment of expenses and honoraria; but more importantly because of the political corruption of the universities that ensued.

This was much more than simply a purge of politically unsuitable individuals, through dismissal or lack of promotion, but the wholesale promotion of individuals and departments intended to entrench new narratives and disestablish old (more critical) ones.

In some cases, for example, in the University of Tehran, this has led to bitter rivalries and confrontations as new, favoured, politically correct departments, flush with money, are encouraged to engage with international partners at the expense of old established schools that have struggled to maintain their academic integrity.

Historical revisionism

All this gathered pace in the aftermath of the presidential election crisis of 2009 where, under the direction of the Supreme Leader, a concerted effort was taken to ‘Islamicise’ the humanities and social sciences and indulge in a level of historical revisionism that put the ideology of the revolution back in the foreground of academic work.

Moreover, students who failed to toe the line were subjected to a ‘three stars and you’re out’ system by which political (that is, critical) behaviour was exorcised from the academy.

It says something of the tyranny of this process as well as the stoicism and resilience of the higher education sector that students and progressive academics alike were at the forefront of pushing for political change in the election of 2013 which ultimately witnessed Hassan Rouhani triumph against his hard-line opponents.

The pragmatic Rouhani has been careful not to provoke a reaction from his hard-line critics and consequently, while the atmosphere in the universities has steadily improved, the structural damage effected by the Ahmadinejad presidency has yet to be systematically addressed. It will take time.

Since the nuclear agreement was reached on 14 July the mood has become decidedly more optimistic and one can hope that the pace of change will gather; not so fast as to engender a reaction, but neither too slow to be dispiriting and counter-productive.

For better or worse, Western academia is regarded with esteem and admiration by Iranian colleagues. We should likewise take care to enhance this reputation going forward.

Ali M Ansari is professor of Iranian history at the University of St Andrews, United Kingdom.