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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 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).

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