What Iran Must Do to Protect Academic Freedom

The following is by Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, which promotes academic freedom and advocates on behalf of threatened scholars worldwide. The nonprofit organization is based at New York University and has member institutions in 35 countries.


Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, recently called for the lifting of restrictions on academic freedom in his country. He told students and professors at the University of Tehran that Iranian scholars should be allowed to participate in international conferences and that it was a “shame” that they were not able to express their views.

His comments follow his visit to the United Nations and the subsequent diplomatic engagement between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials. The moves have inspired optimism but also uncertainty over the sincerity of the Iranian government’s rhetoric. In response to Iranian openness, the United States has shown a willingness to engage but has been clear that significant work must be done in order to build confidence between the two nations. American officials have called for “concrete, substantive action” by Iran to demonstrate that its commitment to reform is genuine.

Mr. Rouhani’s statements on academic freedom are a good starting place to build such confidence—but he must offer more than words. He should take positive, concrete steps to protect intellectual freedom and higher education. Such steps should include:

Respect for intellectual freedom. Stop the continuing arrests and detention of students and intellectuals for nonviolent expressive activity. Lift employment, travel, and other restrictions based on such activity.

Release of prisoners. Release students and intellectuals who have been imprisoned, especially the following individuals whose cases are of grave concern to the international community:

•    Abdolfattah Soltani, a legal scholar known for representing human-rights activists in court proceedings. He was charged with co-founding a human-rights-defenders group and sentenced to 13 years in prison. His wife, a retired teacher, was recently sentence to a year in prison for accepting a human-rights award on her husband’s behalf.

•    Abdolreza Ghanbari, a scholar of Persian literature at Payame Noor University who was active in the teacher’s union. He was charged with enmity against God and was on death row for three years before his sentence was converted to 15 years in prison in this summer.

•    Ramin Zibaei, a scholar of psychology and dean at the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, established to provide higher-education opportunities to students of the Bahai  faith who are systematically excluded from state universities. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2011 on charges relating to his work at the institute.

•    Omid Kokabee, a laser physicist and doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, who was arrested in February 2011 at the Tehran airport after visiting his parents. He was sentenced in May 2012 to 10 years in prison for allegedly communicating with a foreign government, charges he has repeatedly denied.

Protect access to higher education. Lift restrictions on disfavored disciplines at affected institutions, end gender-based restrictions on fields of study and disparities in financing which limit female enrollment, remove restrictions and guarantee access for religious minorities to higher education, especially Bahai students, and remove hurdles and guarantee access for ethnic minorities to higher education, including refugees and migrants from Afghanistan.

These changes require affirmative reversal of decades of restrictive policies. They require assent not only of Mr. Rouhani, but also that of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and multiple layers of bureaucracy. Because of this, these steps provide the kind of concrete, substantive action that Iran needs to show. By ending the persecution of the exchange of ideas at home, Mr. Rouhani can show that he is sincere when he says Iran is ready for an open, honest exchange of ideas with the rest of the world.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia photo from]

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