According to the official biography of Mohammad Jafar Mahallati on the website of Oberlin College (United States), where he lectures, he has a remarkable academic education. He studied Islamic theology at Khan Seminary in Shiraz, Iran, earned a BA in economics from the National University of Tehran and a degree in civil engineering from the University of Kansas. He completed a master’s degree in political economy from the University of Oregon and a doctorate in Islamic studies from McGill University. He is fluent in English, Persian and Classical Arabic and can communicate in French.
His academic career is no less remarkable. He is Professor of Religion and Middle Eastern and North African Studies at Oberlin College. He was visiting professor of Transregional Studies at Princeton University and adjunct professor of international relations at Georgetown, Yale and Columbia. Quite an impressive progress since he began teaching in Iran in the early 1980s, where he was chairman of the Department of Economics at Kerman University.
He teaches no less than ten courses, including: “The ethics of conflict resolution and peacemaking in Christianity and Islam”, “Introduction to Muslim cultures and civilizations: a humanistic approach”, “Forgiveness in Christian and Islamic traditions”, “Ethics in Islam: a historical and theoretical perspective”, “Ethics of war and peace in Muslim cultures: a comparative and critical perspective” and “Friendship: perspectives on religion, politics, economy and arts.”
He created interdisciplinary studies on friendship in America and the Middle East and established Friendship Day in Oberlin. His profile assures that “Mahallati believes that because the contemporary world still takes war and loneliness as ‘normal,’ it is unaware of ‘the astronomical costs of unfriendship’.” Due to his areas of interest and teaching, he earned the nickname of “professor of peace.”
An additional biographical detail: he was Iran’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations between 1987-1989. It is precisely because of this diplomatic role that Professor Mahallati is currently in trouble.
On October 8, 56 relatives of victims and former political prisoners executed in Iran plus another 577 signatories, including human rights activists and international jurists, sent an email to the president of Oberlin College, Carmen Twillie Ambar, asking that Mahallati be fired, the process that facilitated his hiring be reviewed, and an apology be issued to “the victims of the 1988 massacre and their families for hiring and promoting a person who (…) was involved in hiding crimes against humanity perpetrated against them.”
Basically, the signatories allege that in his role as Iranian ambassador to the UN in the period when the Ayatollah regime executed thousands of political prisoners, Mahallati misled public opinion by denying the commission of that massacre and sought to discredit the allegations. They note that Amnesty International issued at least 16 Urgent Action notices between August and December 1988 and mobilized its activists to send letters to the Iranian authorities calling for an end to the extrajudicial executions of political prisoners. They emphasize that thousands of telegrams, telexes and letters were sent to the president of the Supreme Court of Iran, the Minister of Justice and the diplomatic representatives of Iran in their respective countries. The signatories say that “it would be impossible to believe that some high-ranking leader in Iran, and certainly not its ambassador to the UN, was unaware of the atrocity that was unfolding in that country.”
Furthermore, they maintain that Mr. Mahallati “did not use his unique position at the United Nations to draw public attention to these crimes, nor did he publicly implore Iran’s government to end this criminal activity. Instead, he issued statements and delivered speeches denying these crimes, refuting the extent of the executions, and disputing the validity of the names provided in the reports.” The signatories presented United Nations records showing that Mahallati called the accusations about the mass executions “political propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and that when the United Nations passed a resolution expressing “grave concern,” the Tehran delegate rejected the resolution, calling it “unjust” and based on “fake information”.
Professor Mahallati denied these accusations. He said he did not know anything at the time, that Tehran never sent a cable reporting on the executions and that he was focused on achieving peace between Iran and Iraq. And he added a half-conspiratorial allegation: “During my years at Oberlin, and because of my long anti-war activism, I have come under attack by a spectrum of war-lobby protagonists both in the US and in the Middle East.” Oberlin College has so far endorsed him and claimed to have conducted its own investigation that did not produce evidence to support the allegations. The complainants demanded that this internal investigation be made public, but until mid-October at least the authorities had not agreed to do so.
As critical as it may be to establish whether Mr. Mahallati knew or did not know about what was happening in Iran while he was in New York, it misses the point. At the end of the day, no matter how just or unjust the cause being defended, protecting the global image of the countries they represent is the job of all diplomats, democratic and tyrannical alike. What is quite astonishing here – the real scandal I would posit – is that an emissary from a monstrous regime like that of revolutionary Iran has risen so easily in the ranks of American academia, and that elite universities in the United States had no qualms about hiring an Iranian diplomat from 1991 onwards, when the notoriety of the Ayatollah regime was already known worldwide. The post of ambassador to the United Nations is one of the most important for any foreign ministry and it is therefore reasonable to assume that those designated are figures close to the power. Mohammad Javad Zarif, for example, was Iran’s ambassador to the UN before being appointed foreign minister. The question we should be asking ourselves is why did Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Georgetown and Oberlin open their doors to a representative of a fundamentalist, theocratic, terrorist, misogynist, homophobic and anti-Western regime?
Indeed, Mahallati was not the only Iranian official to be well received in the cloisters of US academia. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, PhD in international relations from the University of Kent, UK, teaches at Princeton. He was an absolute cadre of the Iranian regime. According to his official biography on the Princeton portal, he served as Iranian Ambassador to Germany (1990-1997), was Head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Iranian National Security Council (1997-2005), Spokesman for Iran in its nuclear negotiations with the international community (2003-2005), Foreign Policy Advisor to the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (2005-2007), Vice President of the Center for Strategic Research for International Affairs (2005-2009), General Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for West Europe (1987-1990), Chief of Parliament Administration (1984-1986) and editor-in-chief of the official English newspaper Tehran Times (1980-1990). Mahallati is a pigeon next to him.
Iranian politicians were also invited to speak at American universities. Two come to mind. In April 2015 Zarif spoke at New York University, in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who did so at Columbia University in September 2007, where he famously said there were no homosexuals in his country. Note that these are the same spaces hypersensitive to any challenge to the progressive orthodoxies now in fashion, always ready to cancel the politically incorrect heretics.
Richard Holbrooke said that “Diplomacy is like jazz: endless variations on a theme.” The flirtation of US academia with representatives of Iranian despotism could also fit that definition. Mohammad Mahallati is today at the center of a great moral controversy, but it will not be the last. Just one more variation on an endless theme.