This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 20.
Critics of the Israel boycott resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) sometimes ask why the ASA doesn’t also boycott Chinese or Iranian universities. (I make the double-standard argument myself, in a post at Foreign Policy.) Even the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, admits that Israel’s neighbors have worse human rights records, but adds that “one has to start somewhere.”
But the Israel boycott resolution isn’t the ASA’s first “start” in the Middle East. In fact, the ASA had an earlier foray, in Iran. More precisely, it coddled one of Iran’s most prominent America-bashing academics, at the very moment when Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was busy purging Iran’s universities.
In 2005, the University of Tehran established a Department of North American Studies, as part of a new Institute for North American and European Studies. The notion was that Iran needed to school experts on America, but in a way that wouldn’t pollute them with traces of sympathy for their object of study. For that, the project needed a regime loyalist knowledgeable about America but appropriately contemptuous of it.
Meet Seyed Mohammad Marandi. Born in the United States to an exiled Iranian physician, Marandi came to Iran at the age of thirteen, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, did an English lit Ph.D. in Britain, and worked his way up the university ladder, becoming director of the new department. Marandi is familiar to every Iran news addict. He’s the fellow the international networks can always depend upon to defend every action of the regime, from suppression of the “Green Revolution” to the shocking execution of dissidents (sorry, “terrorists”). This is a man capable of acclaiming Ayatollah Khamenei (a “just, pious, and courageous” leader) as being perhaps even greater than Ayatollah Khomeini himself—”as he did not have the advantage of being the Founder of the Revolution.”
The ASA brought Marandi to the United States for its annual conference in 2005. An American academic who knew Marandi in Iran at the time told the story:
Someone suggested to the leadership of the ASA that the organization invite him to attend the annual meeting that year in Washington, D.C., all expenses paid. The ASA paid for him to come and gave him a free registration and money for a hotel, and it didn’t ask him to do anything other than roam the corridors of those opulent hotels.
So Marandi got a taste of “state of the art” scholarship in American studies. As it turned out, this wasn’t as valuable as it might sound, or so his American friend reported:
The topics that this director found himself learning about, as he made his way through the hallways of this grand hotel, were so esoteric as to be of no help to him in planning how to teach himself American studies so that he could teach his students. He would stay for a few moments at each panel, trying to relate it to the needs of the institute he was building back home, before he staggered on to the next.
The ASA’s patronage of Marandi’s shop didn’t end there. In 2006, the Center for Distance Learning at SUNY Empire State College received a “partnership grant” from the ASA to promote its ties with Marandi’s department—”seed money” for a full-blown exchange. (It didn’t happen.) And in 2007, Marandi was back at the ASA, at its annual meeting in Philadelphia, to present a paper savaging literary memoirs written by Iranian critics of the regime, some of which had become popular in the United States (e.g., Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis).
If anyone had any doubt about Marandi’s standing as a regime stalwart, it should have been dissipated by the regime’s simultaneous purge of university faculty, at the University of Tehran and elsewhere. In September 2006, President Ahmadinejad launched a tirade against “the continued presence of liberal and secular professors in the country’s universities.” Word came that these professors were being retired en masse. The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) issued a letter urging that “Iran’s universities use transparent and non-discriminatory criteria in any decisions regarding compulsory retirement, and that no academics face dismissal solely or mainly because of political views that they express peacefully.” In May 2007, MESA issued another letter, noting that over the previous year, “students and professors from numerous Iranian universities have been disciplined, fired, forcibly retired, expelled, and otherwise harassed on grounds that are clearly related to their political opinions and associations.”
After suppression of the “Green Revolution,” the dismissals accelerated, provoking a flood of protests by human-rights organizations. In October 2009, MESA wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei, protesting the “harassment and dismissal of university faculty on grounds of political and ideological dissent,” and lamenting that “the abuses of power by the Iranian state and the atmosphere of fear to which students and faculty are subjected on and off the university campuses [are] by far among the most dismal in the world.”
Yet through all this turmoil, Marandi and his university program flourished, and he became the go-to man for the official point of view in the world media. At times, his slavish fealty to the regime, expressed in perfect American English, exasperated even the most indulgent interviewers. In one particularly memorable exchange, at the height of the street violence, Fareed Zakaria lost his patience, asking Marandi this question:
Do you worry that you will be seen in history as a mouthpiece for a dying, repressive regime in its death throes? That twenty years from now you’ll look back, and the world will look back at you, the way it did some of those smooth-talking, English-speaking, Soviet spokesmen who were telling us right in the middle 1980s, that the Soviet Union was all just fine and democratic and wonderful?
When Marandi retorted he was an academic and no one’s mouthpiece, Zakaria asked why “the only person we are allowed to speak to [via satellite from Iran] is you.”
Marandi’s performance during the “Green Revolution” seems to have put him beyond the pale, perhaps even for the ASA. But the episode casts a harsh light on the ASA’s latest decision to boycott Israel’s institutions of higher education. Israeli academe is chock-full of people who make names for themselves by lambasting the Israeli government of the day and the “occupation,” if not the very premises of Israel itself. Take Tel Aviv University, where I spent twenty-five years. There I was a colleague of the late Tanya Reinhart, a linguist who habitually accused Israel of genocide, and Shlomo Sand, a historian who has written two books insisting that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are Zionist fabrications. (He’s also written a tract on when and how he stopped being a Jew.) These Israeli professors have no remote equivalents at the University of Tehran. But the ASA now boycotts Tel Aviv University, not the University of Tehran, and even worse, it has a record of legitimating the very faction on the Tehran campus installed by the regime as part of a purge.
Now that I think about it, the ASA boycott resolution of Israel provides a perfect opportunity for the ASA to renew its links with Marandi and the regime’s “American studies” project. After all, it’s the Islamic Republic of Iran that leads the world in promoting the isolation of Israel, as a prelude to its eventual dissolution. It’s a natural partner. So what if institutional members of the ASA like Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg drop out? There’s always the University of Tehran to take their place.