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Comment | Iran Bullies Its Own Scholars into Avoiding Istanbul Conference

by EDEN NABY

10 Aug 2012 23:41Comments
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State media claims academic assembly a plot by "Baha'is and royalists."

Dr. Eden Naby is the author of The Assyrian Experience (with Michael E. Hopper) and Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid (with Ralph Magnus).
[ opinion ] This past week, the Ninth Biennial Iranian Studies Conference was held in Istanbul. Founded by the North American-based International Society for Iranian Studies, this year's five-day meeting was copresented by London's Iran Heritage Foundation. The focus this time around was historical relations between Turkey and Iran, though many other topics were covered, both ancient and medieval.

The scheduled program of 125 panels brought Iranian scholars from around the world. Special care was taken to include scholars who live and teach in Iran; to assure their ability to participate, Istanbul seemed a natural choice, as Iranians do not need visas to enter Turkey. Alongside English, Persian was promoted as an official presentation language to offer further incentive to Iranian-based scholars. Yet at least 13 panels had to be cancelled, and at least 20 others were truncated due to the absence of Iranian scholars.

How was an event geared to include scholars from Iran sabotaged in this way? Intimidation by Tehran's cultural henchmen is the answer.

Iran's Kayhan newspaper, which operates under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader's office, carried an article last month that claimed the conference was a tool of Baha'is and royalists. As a consequence, potential participants naturally anticipated that they would be accused of collusion with those regarded as Tehran's enemies if they attended. Fearing that they would lose their jobs and pensions or even be sent to prison -- as happened to investigative journalist Akbar Ganji after he attended a Berlin conference in 2000 funded by the respected Heinrich Boll Foundation -- a number of scholars backed out.

Two days prior to the start of the conference, a broadcast on Iranian state television repeated the claims about the Istanbul meeting. As a result, another group of potential participants withdrew. Others arrived in Istanbul from Iran but, learning that so many had withdrawn, left the venue as fast as they could.

Such brazen attacks on scholarship speak to the intensity of the cultural and social intimidation now at work within Iran. Even beyond the nation's borders, self-censorship and intellectual compromise among scholars and experts of Iranian origin living and working in the West is a natural outcome for those who hope to travel to Iran, have family or retain property there, or even fear for their lives. Indeed, several Iranian intellectuals and their associates at home and in the West have violently lost their lives in circumstances that were suspicious or directly tied to the regime, including Ahmad Tafazzoli, Kasra Vafadari, and Manouchehr Farhangi.

For years, academics in both Iran and the West have criticized the U.S. Department of State for refusing visas to Iranian-based scholars, severely restricting their ability to participate in the free exchange of ideas with colleagues outside the country.

The amount of U.S. bashing that has occurred over the decades in Iranian academic settings and intellectual circles has fed the anti-American bias already prevalent among scholars in the country, who often project the legacy of colonial prejudice onto American-Iranian relations. But now they must acknowledge the regime in Tehran as the culprit in the stifling of the rights of academics. There can hardly be a question that Iran uses fascist techniques to prop up its theocratic rule. The Islamic Republic intimidated its leading scholars of Iranian studies from going even to Turkey on a baseless pretext.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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