The Magazine

A Ph.D. in Torture

Why is Rafsanjani’s son studying at Oxford?

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

When NATO planes launched their air campaign over Libya’s skies last spring and Western leaders said that Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi had to go, the first regime to change was at the London School of Economics. Its director, Sir Howard Davies, resigned following embarrassing dis-closures about LSE’s financial links to Libya and sizable donations from Qaddafi’s anointed heir, his son Saif al-Islam, who’d been awarded a doctoral degree from LSE. It seems that British academic institutions have yet to learn the lesson. For now it’s the United Kingdom’s oldest and most distinguished university, Oxford, that has brought scandal upon itself by giving a place to a Middle Eastern despot’s son—a scion of the Islamic Republic of Iran who has already distinguished himself as a human rights abuser and a torturer.

Photo of Mehdi Hashemi Bahramani Rafsanjani

Mehdi Hashemi Bahramani Rafsanjani

Oxford University’s Wolfson College, which the late Sir Isaiah Berlin helped establish, is now the academic home of 42-year-old Mehdi Hashemi Bahramani Rafsanjani, the fourth child of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. These days, Rafsanjani the elder styles himself a champion of Iran’s reformists. But having tied the family fortune and its connections to the cause of challenging current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not make Rafsanjani a liberal democrat. In addition to the violence and repression he is responsible for inside Iran, he has also been one of the Islamic Republic’s chief exporters of terrorism. As president, Rafsanjani dispatched Iranian hitmen to kill Iranian exiles across Europe. There is an arrest warrant against him from Argentinian prosecutors for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. The son it seems has followed in his father’s path.

When Rafsanjani was president, he lent a hand to his youngest boy, Mehdi, who was trying to make a living in the oil industry. In 1992, a former Iranian oil ministry official, Houshang Bouzari, managed to line up a $1.8 billion contract for the exploration and development of Iran’s offshore natural gas resources in South Pars field, and Mehdi wanted a cut. He approached Bouzari and demanded $50 million in exchange for his services—presumably, access to the sitting president of Iran. Bouzari turned the offer down and found himself thrown into jail in June 1993. He spent several months at Evin prison where he was tortured. He was released after his family paid ransom and the state had taken away his contract. Eventually, Bouzari managed to flee the country and, after taking up residence in Canada, sued Iran for damages in an Ontario court. According to the Ontario Court of Appeal judgment in the case Bouzari v. Iran

In the summer of 1993, the National Iranian Oil Company cancelled the contract it had with the consortium. Iran then incorporated the Iran Offshore Engineering Construction Company, appointed the president’s son as its managing director and caused the new company to enter into a contract with the consortium for the South Pars project that was identical to the one that Mr. Bouzari had obtained. Not surprisingly, he was entirely excluded from the new arrangement.

Although Bouzari failed to get a favorable judgment in this first round, Ontario judges accepted the facts of his circumstances and dismissed the case only because state immunity laws applied to a foreign government. Neither Iran nor Mehdi ever contested the case. Bouzari did not give up, and eventually his efforts bore fruit. In August 2011, Ontario’s Superior Court handed down a default judgment for torture against Mehdi, with an order to pay damages of around $6 million, plus interest at 5 percent from 1994. Mehdi dismissed the judgment and indicated it was so ludicrous he did not plan to fight it. If unchallenged, the judgment is final—which is to say that Oxford University is educating a torturer to whom it may one day wind up granting a doctoral degree.

How Mehdi ended up parked in one of the world’s most prestigious universities not only highlights the moral torpor of British academe, but also offers a window onto the dark universe of Iranian political backstabbing.

During the 2009 presidential election, Rafsanjani backed Mir Hussein Moussavi, which gave President Ahmadinejad cause to retaliate. Unable to go after the much too powerful father directly, Ahmadinejad targeted his proxies, family included. Mehdi was a natural choice. He ran an electoral center at Islamic Azad University, a giant academic institution offering affordable higher education across the country and at campuses abroad to over 1.5 million students. It trains the future cadres of the Republic and can mobilize student protests. Rafsanjani is one of the founders of Azad University and currently a governor. Recently, Azad has served as a battleground pitting Rafsanjani’s camp against Ahmadinejad, who tried to snatch it from his adversary’s control. Eventually, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told both sides to back off.

Ahmadinejad had other means. He had already targeted many Rafsanjani loyalists and an institution considered Rafsanjani’s personal think tank, the Center for Strategic Research. Now he zeroed in on Mehdi, whose judicial problems began in August 2009. Accused of economic malpractice, corruption, and embezzlement, Mehdi skipped town before the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani (brother of Ali Larijani, the current speaker of the parliament), could get his hands on him. 

Having engineered the show trial of the late Ayatollah Montazeri’s son-in-law in the 1980s, Rafsanjani is familiar with the practice of going after an adversary’s close relatives. He found a convenient excuse for his son to leave the country. Mehdi was made an external inspector for Azad University and sent to tour campuses in faraway places, like Eynsham, a sleepy hamlet in the Cotswolds, just up the street from Oxford University. It did not take long before rumblings began to make their way into Iran’s public sphere. What was taking the younger Rafsanjani so long that he had to stay in the United Kingdom for months? Rafsanjani the elder put the matter to rest on December 5, 2009, when he told an audience in Tehran that his son was still traveling world campuses, adding that he had advised him to get a Ph.D. Soon after, Mehdi applied for a DPhil at Oxford.

Mehdi Hashemi was not in the Cotswolds for a prolonged inspection, then, but was actually staying for a doctoral degree. His focus was “the Iranian constitution,” a peculiar subject of inquiry for a man who tortured a recalcitrant business partner, and a vague topic for an Oxford doctoral dissertation. But in British academe, it appears, nothing can stand in the way of the son of a powerful Middle East notable. For mortals wanting to study at Oxford, there are some stringent qualifying criteria. Candidates must speak good English. They must complete an application process that includes submitting a résumé, three written references, transcripts, and other proof of proficiency in their subject, and their research must be their own original work. None of this, it appears, applied to Mehdi, who allegedly benefited from waivers, discounts, and solicitous help from some of his father’s loyal lieutenants. 

First, Mehdi’s English: Ali Reza Sheikholeslami, a retired Oxford professor of Persian studies, wrote in a sworn affidavit that “Mr. Hashemi Bahremani did not have the minimum requisite level of English mandated at Oxford.” Mehdi contends that he had studied English in Australia, at “Canberra’s State University”—an institution that does not exist. 

Next, his three referees are all Rafsanjani loyalists. According to Sheikholeslami, the three academics are: Nasser Hadian, formerly director of the political development program at the Center for Strategic Research, the Rafjsanjani-affiliated think tank; Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former Ministry of Intelligence operative who was deputy foreign minister during Rafsanjani’s presidency, later became Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. thanks to Rafsanjani’s patronage, and is now the vice president for international relations at Azad University; and Hossein Seif-zadeh, a professor at University of Tehran. It is doubtful that any of his referees would be familiar with Mehdi’s scholarly skills since he holds a degree in engineering, not in political science. As Sheikholeslami pointed out, “Mr. Hashemi Bahremani’s academic background and his university degrees had no relevance to his proposed field of study and on this ground alone he was not a suitable candidate for admission.”

 Most important, it is alleged that someone else wrote Mehdi’s research proposal. Sheikholeslami noted in his affidavit that the current Persian instructor at the faculty of Oriental Studies, Mohammad Javad Ardalan, “had been asked by my successor, Edmund Herzig, to help Mr. Hashemi with his application.” When I queried Professor Herzig, he refused to comment. Ardalan, according to Sheikholeslami, met Mehdi in Oxford’s poshest hotel—the Randolph—where over tea they negotiated his fee and the nature of his services. Ardalan replied to my queries through Oxford University’s press office by denying the allegations.

When these accusations surfaced, the university launched an investigation and appointed a former vice-chancellor of the university, Sir Peter North, to head it. University authorities have not released its findings to the public. According to Oxford’s press office, “The university does not publish investigations relating to individuals.” Asked if, based on the North report, they considered Sheikholeslami’s sworn affidavit to be false, the press office did not rebut his accusations, but only said,

To the extent that we have made ‘claims’ and ‘assertions’, they go no further than this: Sir Peter North investigated allegations made about the admission of a postgraduate student and found no evidence to support claims that he paid someone to assist with his application. The investigation also found no evidence of impropriety on the part of the admitting tutor.

Mehdi Hashemi is enrolled at Wolfson and at the Faculty of Oriental Studies not with his father’s city-of-origin name, Rafsanjani, but with the family’s village-of-origin name, Bahramani. Perhaps Oxford University’s admission offices, as well as British visa authorities, may be able to plead ignorance concerning the provenance of Iranian names. Less certain is Professor Homayoun Katouzian’s claim that he did not know of Bahramani’s pedigree. Katouzian, who alongside Herzig evaluated and approved Mehdi’s application, is the Iran Heritage Foundation research fellow at St. Antony’s College, and a member of the Iran Heritage Foundation’s academic council. Katouzian has published extensively on 19th- and 20th-century Iranian history and is a fluent Farsi speaker. Not knowing the identity of his prospective tutee is inconsistent with Katouzian’s encyclopedic knowledge of Iran and his academic stature. The same goes for Herzig, a professor of Persian studies at Oxford and is Medhi’s thesis supervisor. How could they be fooled?

In the middle of November 2011, Oxford’s student paper, the Oxford Student, reported Mehdi’s problems with the law and challenged Katouzian’s claim that he did not know Mehdi Bahramani was a Rafsanjani. The paper also discussed a possible link between Katouzian and Rafsanjani allies and interests. It argued that Katouzian may have been asked to fix up something for a friend, namely Vahid Alaghband, the chair of the board of trustees of the Iran Heritage Foundation, which supports Katouzian’s research at Oxford. Alaghband is also the chairman of the Balli Group, a British-based business conglomerate with a vast international presence, reaching even the United States. Balli’s portfolio includes Balli Aviation, which in 2007 leased three Boeing 747 airplanes through an intermediary to Mahan Air, a private Iranian carrier linked to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and accused by U.S. authorities of being a vector for Iranian proliferation and terror activities. 

To some, the links suggest that Rafsanjani leveraged his Balli Group connections to find shelter for his fugitive son at Oxford. In any case, this is no longer simply a matter of doing a favor for the privileged son of a blood-soaked official from a faraway dictatorship, where the boy is wanted for some white-collar crimes, probably on trumped-up charges. The judgment of the Ontario court makes plain that the son himself is a criminal. Why would Oxford University admit a torturer?

As Robin Simcox documented in a 2009 report for the Centre for Social Cohesion entitled “A Degree of Influence”: “The U.K.’s finest universities are taking money from some of the world’s worst dictatorships—Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, all nations with appalling human rights records, are significant contributors to venerable U.K. institutions.” 

Money usually comes with strings attached. As the Simcox report’s most significant and disturbing findings indicate, “There is clear evidence that, at some universities, the choice of teaching materials, the subject areas, the degrees offered, the recruitment of staff, the composition of advisory boards and even the selection of students are now subject to influence from donors. These problems are heightened by the undemocratic nature of certain donor governments.”

Academic institutions often bend their ethical code to accommodate the dumb children of rich princes in exchange for a generous donation. There is no evidence of Oxford profiting financially by enrolling Mehdi—and yet the fact is that it is not just greed that numbs the judgment of those who bow before tyrants. In many cases, it is something equally or even more sinister. It is the morbid fascination with dictatorial regimes, one that is especially strong in Middle East Studies departments, where a peculiar blend of postcolonial rage against the West and a grievance-driven pseudo-scholarship cloaked in the language and footnotes of the late Edward Said has taken hold of scholars and their pupils. This angry worldview, in turn, has offered the moral pretext for getting sanctimonious about Western governments’ mistakes and imperfections while getting cozy with tyrants, dictators, satraps, and their prodigal, violent children.

As Dennis Hayes, the founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, told Simcox, “British universities are funded by a government that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Does that make their funding suspect or a dangerous influence?” This is a convenient way to suggest a moral equivalence, and an argument designed to quell the consciences of those who are tutoring torturers.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (FDD Press, September 2011).

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers