Dexter Van Zile
Dexter Van Zile

Oberlin Giving Haven to Iranian Diplomat (Who Can’t Keep His Story Straight!)

Oberlin Professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati
Former UN Diplomat Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. (Wikipedia)

In the years after the Holocaust, right-wing Catholic clergy living in the Vatican helped Nazis escape punishment for their crimes against humanity. In one instance, Catholic Bishop Alois Hudal provided false identification papers to Franz Stangl, a high-ranking Nazi from Austria who oversaw the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps. Stangl used these false papers to obtain a passport from the International Red Cross which he then used to obtain passage to South America, where he and other Nazi war criminals were able to hide in plain sight for years.

Writing for Deutsche Welle in 2020, Oliver Pieper reported that Stangl, Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Mengele, and Klaus Barbie were just a few of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity that were assisted by Catholic clergy and, in some instances, American spymasters, in their mostly successful effort to evade punishment for their crimes. Dozens of Nazi war criminals lived their entire lives in anonymity without ever having to face justice for their evil deeds. It was all part of an informal system of “ratlines” that was based on word of mouth, one source told Pieper.

Maybe we have the beginnings of a new ratline that allows accomplices to crimes against humanity in Iran to live out their lives, not in anonymity, but out in the open in the United States, where they are able to teach classes, grade papers, give church talks, and write books. Instead of being helped by officials from the Catholic church, a government official accused of covering up mass murders in Iran has been helped by college administrators in some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in North America.

The recipient of this help is Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, the former Iranian diplomat who currently serves as the Nancy Shrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.

Instead of giving Mahallati the identification papers he needed to pass as a guiltless bystander to mass murders in Iran, a number of prominent and well-respected universities including McGill, Harvard, Georgetown, Princeton, and Yale have gone the extra mile, helping him pass as a humanitarian intellectual despite having shilled for a brutal regime responsible for the deaths of thousands of religious minorities and dissidents.

According to his bio, Mahallati’s academic career is impressive, including a Ph.D. from McGill University, a fellowship at Harvard, and stints at Georgetown, Princeton, and Yale. The folks at Oberlin talk about him as if he’s a kindly neighbor who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

For example, when he gave a book talk at Oberlin in 2017, the school’s Director of Libraries described him as a “dynamic scholar,” a “brilliant collaborator,” and “a dear friend who we affectionally refer to as Jafar.”

It’s a bit weird to hear this type of intimate praise for a man credibly accused of covering up a campaign of mass murder in Iran. Granted, Mahallati is not directly responsible for mass killings perpetrated by the Iranian government — he didn’t pull the trigger — but it seems reasonable to conclude that while serving as an Iranian diplomat to the UN, Mahallati was part of an effort to cover up the 1988 mass killings of Bahais and political dissidents by the Iranian regime. And that is what Mahallati has been accused of by the families of the victims in numerous letters, statements, and protests directed at Oberlin’s administrators.

“I Knew Nothing!” to “I Was Just Doing My Job!”

Mahallahti has offered two responses to allegations that he helped cover up these killings while a UN diplomat. In October 2020, Mahallati declared, “I categorically deny any knowledge and therefore responsibility regarding mass executions in Iran when I was serving at the United Nations.”

A year later, in a statement issued on Nov. 5, 2021, he declared, “I was doing my job, delivering the official statements of Iran to the U.N.”

So, over the course of a year, we’ve seen Mahallati’s defense go from “I knew nothing!” to “I was only doing my job!”

Is it reasonable to believe that Mahallati didn’t know about the killings?

Our would-be Sergeant Schultz was a prominent official in the government established by the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. He regularly tells his audiences that he represented Iran at the UN for 10 years and helped bring about an end to the Iran-Iraq War during his time at Turtle Bay, but he hasn’t been very forthcoming about what he said there.

It’s not pretty.

Mahallati’s shilling for the Iranian regime at the UN dates back to 1982, when he defended the Islamic Republic of Iran against complaints that it was persecuting members of the Baha’i faith. In response to this allegation, Mahallati asserted authoritatively that “a set of documents had been discovered in a former Savak centre providing irrefutable evince of the connection between the Baha’is and the Zionist regime” and that “[t]here was evidence that in 1967 the Baha’is had provided the Israelis with help amounting to millions of dollars,” and that Israel had expressed gratitude for this help to a former Prime Minister of Iran who was also a Baha’i.

Let’s talk about the Iranian Prime Minister, a Baha’i, who was helping Israel. Wasn’t he just doing his job? Why use that as a pretext to target Baha’is in Iran? If Mahallati can invoke his responsibilities as a government official to evade the consequences of his statements, why should the Baha’is in Iran be held accountable for the Iranian Prime Minister who was fulfilling his responsibilities as an official in the Iranian government? In retrospect, Mahallati offered a justification, not a denial, for the mistreatment of Baha’is in Iran.

Then there is a 1983 statement in which Mahallati suggested that Iran wasn’t persecuting Baha’is but was merely punishing members of this community because they engaged in acts of sexual abuse and terrorism, just like any other country would. “The problem was not religious but political,” Mahallati told the UN. “The Baha’i community conducted immoral activities under the cover of religion.”

And then there’s the stuff Mahallati has said about Israel. In 1989, implicitly called for the destruction of the Jewish state, in the name of Islam.

“Palestine is an Islamic territory, an Islamic heritage and it remains an Islamic point of identity. […] Its occupation by Zionist usurpers is a transgression against all Muslims of the world and its liberation is therefore a great religious obligation and commitment,” he said.

Taken together, these statements sound like they are coming from a well-connected and committed official in the Islamic Republic of Iran who had a pretty good idea of what was happening in his home country and relished his role in justifying and downplaying the violence that was taking place in the country that he represented at the UN.

Clearly, Mahallati was well aware of the hostility directed at the Baha’is in post-revolution Iran. In his lawyer’s statement quoted in a “fact sheet” issued by Oberlin, Mahallati is quoted as saying, “The Bahai community must remember that it was [my father] Ayatollah Mahallati in Shiraz who risked his life to save their lives against mobs in the Sa’di village of Shiraz in the early revolutionary days of the 1980s.”

Someone needs to tell Mahallati that you can’t claim credit for your dad’s courage in the face of a murderous, bigoted mob intent on killing Baha’is in the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran and then tell us you had no idea of what was happening to the Baha’is a few years later.

Apparently, with a fellowship at Harvard, stints at places like Georgetown, Yale, and Princeton, and a Ph.D. from McGill, all these hateful things Mahallati said at the UN are wiped clean from historical memory, except of course in the minds of the relatives of the people murdered by the Iranian regime who have protested against Mahallati’s presence at Oberlin. This isn’t just another instance of “cancel culture.” This is people trying to hold an official from a murderous regime accountable for his role in said regime.

His Book and Teaching

These days, Mahallati is trying to pass himself off as having the magic formula for peace in the Middle East and the rest of the world. In his 2016 book, Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shi’I Islam published by the University of Toronto, with help from the Canadian Arts Council which is funded by the Canadian government, tells us that Islam and Persian culture have a number of resources available to critique and warn against the use of violence in the international arena. He also states that the suffering caused by the Iran-Iraq War (which he helped bring to an end while working at the UN), has prompted attempts to bring these resources to bear in Iranian political life.

If the Iranian government is guilty of anything, it is of sending “mixed signals” into the international system, Mahallati suggests. The intellectual undercurrents in Iran are about peace and pluralism, but the government keeps sending contradictory messages about its role in the international system, Mahallati reports. The Iranian people condemned the violent attacks on 9/11, Mahallati claims, before he admits that it is “difficult to reconcile the compassionate and sympathetic Iranian public with images of Iranians marching by the hundreds and burning flags on the anniversary of the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979.”

In his book, Iran’s bad actions are the result of clumsiness and ineptitude, not willful hostility. The actions of other actors in the region are the result of evil intentions. A close reading of the text reveals it is more of an effort to exculpate Iran and Shi’i Muslims for their bad acts while highlighting the actions of Sunni and Arab Muslims as great sins. Mahallati condemns ISIS, a Sunni terrorist organization, but makes no reference to Hezbollah. And of course, there’s not one word about the persecution of the Baha’i community in his book.

The clues are all right there, but Mahallati’s colleagues and students at Oberlin apparently cannot see what is going on: Mahallati is doing for Iran at Oberlin what he did for the country at the UN in the 1980s. He is downplaying its sins and trying to portray its adversaries in the Middle East as the real source of conflict in the region. Look at how he compares Iran and Israel’s impact on the region in his text:

The hazardous potential of Iran’s conventional arms cannot be compared by any measure to the monumental risks of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. But Iran’s image has been marred by the clumsy political literature emerging from President Ahmadinejad’s populist government and his outdated, Cold War-style posturing.

Through its proxies, Iran has been fomenting misery in Syria and Lebanon for decades and Mahallati condemns its leaders for “posturing”?

Judging from the writings of his students, it’s clear that his propagandizing has been effective at Oberlin. In essays previously posted on Mahallati’s blog at Oberlin, one student describes Israel as having “cut off” negotiations with the Palestinians in 2001, when in reality it was Arafat who said no to the Clinton Parameters.

Another paper prepared for one of Mahallati’s classes portrays Israel, which treats its religious and ethnic minorities better than any other country in the Middle East, as oppressing Arabs and Muslims within its borders. This same paper portrays antisemitism solely as a result of nationalism, without acknowledging the role anti-Jewish polemics inherent in Christianity and Islam have played in fomenting Jew-hatred in Europe and the Middle East. Another paper falsely reports that under Islam, “Jews were a protected class, and all people of the book were granted religious liberty and legal equality.”

Mahallati says he supports a two-state solution, but has promoted a narrative that portrays Zionism as an unnecessary and unjust response to the challenges Jews have faced in the Middle East and Europe. It’s exactly the story he told when he worked as a diplomat at the UN in the 1980s. And as recent history has demonstrated, anti-Zionist propaganda in the classroom results in hostility toward Jews in the quad.

It should come as no surprise that Oberlin has been the target of a Title VI complaint filed by Melissa Landa, founder and Executive director of Alliance4 Israel.

“For almost six years, Oberlin administrators have failed to address the concerns of Jewish students and alumni who have presented ample evidence of antisemitism on the Oberlin campus,” she said. “They have characterized virulent expressions of antisemitism as ‘freedom of speech,’ represented the steady stream of anti-Israel propaganda on the Oberlin campus as student prerogatives, and failed to hear our explanations that for the vast majority of Jewish students who arrive at Oberlin, support for Israel –Zionism — is not merely a political statement, it is an expression of their Jewish identity. Failing to protect those students from harassment, intimidation, and indoctrination from anti-Zionist bullies like Mahallati […] and their student minions resulted in my decision to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.”

Something is seriously wrong at Oberlin.

In 2016, the school’s administration put everything on the line when one of its students attempted to steal a bottle of wine from a local store and was confronted by one of the store’s employees.  After a physical confrontation between a store employee, the student, and two of the student’s friends, Oberlin’s student senate passed a resolution calling for a boycott of the local store. Students, under the watchful eye of an Oberlin administrator, protested outside the store, distributing fliers stating it was a “racist establishment” with a “long history of racial profiling.”

At one point, the school stopped buying goods from the store for 28 days, and during the controversy, administrators at the school suggested that peace between Oberlin and the store could be achieved with the store agreeing to give its students a free pass for the first shoplifting offense!

Eventually, the store sued Oberlin for defamation and won a preliminary judgment which is now under appeal. The upshot is that Oberlin sure went the distance to attack a local store when three of its students were accused of shoplifting.  And get this – the students eventually pleaded guilty!

It’s bad enough that tuition fees at Oberlin covered the cost of running a protest campaign on behalf of students arrested for shoplifting a few years back, but now these fees are used to protect and defend an accused war criminal who can’t keep his story straight about his role in covering up mass killings in his native Iran.

I’m sure glad my kids don’t go there!

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.
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