Activists Emboldened to Seek Ouster of Ex-Iranian Officials From US Academia After Ex-Diplomat’s Suspension

Washington — Iranian-American activists seeking to oust former Iranian officials from U.S. academia to hold them accountable for the Islamic republic’s poor human rights record say a U.S. college that suspended one former official last month needs to do more. 

Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists (AAIRIA) also tells VOA that the suspension of Mohammad Jafar Mahallati at Ohio’s Oberlin College has emboldened the nonprofit group to target a second former Iranian official for removal from another U.S. higher education institution. 

Oberlin told U.S. media earlier this month that it put Mahallati on indefinite administrative leave on November 28. It provided no reason for the move. 

Mahallati served as Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. from 1987-89. He then left the Iranian government for teaching and research roles at several U.S. and Canadian universities, including New York’s Columbia University in the 1990s, before joining Oberlin as a religion professor in 2007. 

AAIRIA activists, who include former political prisoners and relatives of executed dissidents in Iran and other human rights advocates, had campaigned for years for Oberlin to remove Mahallati. They accuse him of covering up Iran’s 1988 mass killings of jailed dissidents while he served as its envoy to the U.N. 

In an October 2020 statement to The Oberlin Review, a student-run weekly newspaper at the college, Mahallati said: “I categorically deny any knowledge and therefore responsibility regarding mass executions in Iran when I was serving at the United Nations.” He did not respond to a VOA email sent to his gmail address on December 15 seeking further comment for this report. 

AAIRIA member Lawdan Bazargan, whose brother was among those killed in the 1988 mass executions, discussed Mahallati’s case in the latest edition of VOA’s Flashpoint Iran podcast. She also elaborated on AAIRIA’s next demands of Oberlin and her group’s goal of securing the removal of former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian as a scholar at New Jersey’s Princeton University. 

Oberlin responded to a VOA email about Bazargan’s interview by saying it has no comment. The Oberlin Review reported earlier this year that in 2021, the college hired an “unnamed third party” to investigate whether Mahallati covered up the 1988 mass killings. It said the college concluded based on the findings that there was “no evidence to corroborate” the accusation.

Mousavian served as Iran’s ambassador to Germany from 1990-97 and then in a series of other diplomatic and national security roles until leaving the government to join Princeton in 2009. He did not respond to a VOA email, sent Friday to his Princeton address, seeking reaction to Bazargan’s comments. 

In an article published last month, Princeton Alumni Weekly said Mousavian sent it an email saying: “All my books, articles, speeches, and interviews during 13 years working at Princeton University are about peace, security, stability, and opposing wars and warmongering.”

The following transcript of Bazargan’s December 14 interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: What is your reaction to Mahallati’s denial that he covered up the 1988 mass killings in Iran when he served as Iranian ambassador to the U.N.?

Lawdan Bazargan, Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists: His position always had been that he did not know. So, we gathered more documents, sending them to [rights group] Amnesty International. 

Amnesty International in February 2023 issued its latest report that documented this atrocity. It previously reported [in 2018] that in the first three weeks of July 1988, the Iranian regime had killed members of [opposition group] Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) and then paused for two weeks [before starting a second wave of killings in late August 1988]. 

Amnesty International’s latest report says the organization released its first alert about the atrocity during that pause [on August 16, 1988]. So Mahallati had 11 days to save at least the opposition leftists [from being killed]. Four thousand MEK members already had been killed. But 1,000 leftists, including my brother, could have been saved if he had spoken up, which he did not. 

VOA: You said that you want to see Oberlin College do more than just suspend Mahallati. What are the next steps that you would like to see?

Bazargan: We want to make sure that he does not receive a pension, that Oberlin College creates a memorial in the memory of our loved ones, and that a course is taught at the college about the Iranian regime and its atrocities in the same way that we teach about Nazism and what Stalin did in Russia. We have to teach that the reason behind all the atrocities and wars in the Middle East is actually the Islamic republic of Iran, and they have to be punished for what they did. 

VOA: What is your expectation about whether the college will do these things?

Bazargan: For the past three and a half years, people have been telling us it is impossible [to remove Mahallati from Oberlin]. They said, ‘He has a tenure, there is no way you guys can do it.’ And we did it. 

I am sure that it will take time and effort [to achieve our next goals], but we will go for them. And we will go after other apologists of the Islamic regime of Iran, like Mousavian at Princeton and others.