Benjamin Weinthal and Alireza Nader argue that academic institutions should consider the background of their faculty members with regards to human rights.
Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, Iran’s former ambassador to the UN, is complicit in crimes against humanity by using his position as an Iranian diplomat to cover up the 1988 executions of 5,000 dissidents in Iran. Yet that record did not prevent him from securing his PhD in Islamic Studies from McGill University in 2006 and his professorship in religion at Oberlin College in 2007. McGill should revoke his PhD. Oberlin should dismiss him.
An exhaustive 2018 Amnesty International report titled “Blood-Soaked Secrets: Why Iran’s 1988 Prison Massacres Are Ongoing Crimes against Humanity” describes Mallahati as a senior official who helped Iranian leaders actively deny “the extrajudicial executions both in their media interviews and in their exchanges with the UN” in order to insulate the perpetrators from accountability.
Yet the executions were known to the US media and the global public. The New York Times reported in 1988 that Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran at the time, “accused Iran of serious human rights violations, including a wave of political executions last summer when Iraq got the upper hand in the war in the Persian Gulf.”
There was overwhelming evidence already in 1988 that Iranian leaders had committed unspeakable crimes in Iran’s vast penal system. When the UN released documents and passed a resolution in 1988 asserting that Iran’s regime carried out mass executions, Mahallati dismissed them as “propaganda,” “fake information,” and “unjust.”
Lawdan Bazargan, the sister of a victim of the 1988 executions, told us: “While Mahallati was enjoying a high-ranking position in an oppressive Islamic regime, my brother was behind bars fighting for human rights and human dignity. Why does a liberal art school such as Oberlin College, which must be the beacon of hope, protect the perpetrators instead of the victims?”
In October 2020, Bazargan and the prominent Canadian-Iranian attorney Kaveh Shahrooz, who lost his uncle in the 1988 bloodletting, tweeted: “In fact, we know that Mr. Mahallati was aware of the killings. Because he is quoted about them in UN reports. But he is quoted as denying and downplaying them. He effectively misled the international community so the killings could continue.”
Mahallati is complicit in other human rights abuses as well. In April, new disclosures by the student paper Oberlin Review show that Mahallati helped lay the ideological foundation for the violent persecution of the Bahai community in Iran. While at the UN in 1983, as the Iranian representative assigned to the UN Commission on Human Rights, Mahallati chargedthe Bahais with terrorism and denied the extrajudicial murders that Tehran committed against them. He also lashed out at the Bahais as “sexual abusers.” Mahallati has not shown a scintilla of regret over his language dehumanizing the Bahai community.
UN and US government reports have long documented the Islamic Republic’s arrests and forced exclusion of Bahais from public life. As far back as 1983, the regime executed 22 Bahais merely for practicing their faith. To this day, the Islamic Republic refuses to recognize the Bahai faith as a religion and tyrannizes its adherents.
McGill’s academic training of Mahallati should not be surprising, as the university has long received donations from Iran. The Alavi Foundation, a regime controlled “charitable” organization in New York, has funded numerous academic and cultural activities in the United States and Canada.
In 2009, US federal prosecutors disclosed that the Iranian government controls the foundation. It began to donate funds to McGill as early as 1987, said Christopher P. Manfredi, provost and vice-principal at the university, in 2013. McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies took in $270,000 between 2004 and 2010 from the Alavi Foundation. The university was the largest recipient of cash from the foundation in Canada. In 2014, the U.S. government seized a 36-story building in New York owned largely by the foundation, accusing the foundation of hiding its ties to the Iranian government in violation of U.S law.
Mallahati is but one example of former Iranian officials complicit in crimes against humanity who have found employment in Western academia. The regime’s former ambassador to Germany, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, teaches at Princeton University. On Mousavian’s watch as ambassador, the Iranian regime assassinated Iranian-Kurdish dissidents at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992.
Mahallati, who sports the moniker “professor of peace” at Oberlin, has blood on his hands. It is time that both Oberlin College and McGill University take action.
Alireza Nader is a senior fellow focusing on Iran and US policy in the Middle East at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow. Follow them on Twitter @AlirezaNader and @BenWeinthal. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
The opinions expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran International.