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

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.”

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers