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
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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.

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