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The Trials of an Educator in Iran

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"If your tea is too sweet, you can stir it the other way." This kind of quip was typical of Mahmoud Badavam and of Persian humor in general. I saw him frequently as a college student in the mid-1970s in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he gained a reputation for a quick, wry sense of humor. At that time, Iranians were few and far between in the U.S. So, it was an eye-opener to be exposed to the exquisite courtesy, humor, and hospitality that can be so prevalent in Iranian culture and that certainly was not lacking among the handful of Iranian students studying in universities in the Boston area at the time. None of us suspected then that revolution in Iran was just around the corner. With the large number of political and religious refugees it would bring in its wake, exposure to Iranian culture would soon become common place. But, at the time, Mahmoud and a small handful of others were novel and made a deep impression on me. I met Mahmoud in Baha'i meetings -- a religious faith we both shared. He returned home just before the revolution and chose, despite the difficulties it created for Baha'is, to stay.

On May 21 of this year and the days that followed, during raids on over 30 Baha'i homes in four cities in Iran, Mahmoud was one of 18 people arrested for teaching in or administering the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education. In late July, after the release of some of those arrested, Mahmoud and 7 others were reportedly charged with "conspiracy against national security" and "conspiracy against the Islamic Republic" by "establishing the illegal Baha'i Institute for Higher Education". The first of the trials is reportedly set to start this Monday, September 12. For years, he had used his Masters degree in engineering from M.I.T. and his earlier training in Iran to provide classroom instruction to Baha'i youth who had been barred since the revolution from Iran's system of higher education. The arrest on May 22 was not his first. He returned to Iran in 1978, married shortly thereafter, and held a job as an engineer in the government. Soon after the Islamic Revolution, he was fired, lived with relatives in different cities, was arrested for being a Baha'i and imprisoned for about three years.

In revolutionary Iran, among the many forms of persecution directed at their community, Baha'is were dismissed from university teaching positions and students were dismissed from institutions of higher education. After numerous failed appeals to the government to correct this injustice, in 1987 the Baha'i community organized what came to be known as the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education to provide university-level instruction to its youth. In recent years, BIHE was a central part of Mahmoud's life with regular classes in his small apartment in Tehran and administrative and curriculum review meetings held late into the night. He spent most evenings and weekends correcting homework and preparing for his classes. If planning with others to educate young people can in some contorted worldview equate with conspiracy against national security, I suppose Mahmoud and anyone else who has ever transferred skills in the arts or sciences to a student is guilty as charged -- and unabashedly so. Over the years, others in Iran and abroad learned about this endeavor and volunteered to assist with it.

Similar raids and arrests on BIHE were recorded in 1998, 2001, and 2002. The official government position was documented in a 2006 letter from Iran's Ministry of Science, Research and Technology addressed to 81 state run universities and institutions of higher education and in a 1991 Memorandum signed by Dr. Seyyed Mohammad Golpaygani, the secretary of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council, with a signature endorsement of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Each of these documents specifically mandates the expulsion from Iran's system of higher education of any student who is discovered to be a Baha'i.

The banning of Baha'is from higher education is a violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights to which Iran is a State Party. I hope that such a grievous assault on an entire minority group consisting of about 300,000 people will not go unprotested by the world community. In the meantime, from the bleakness of Evin Prison, far from the beautiful summer to fall change of seasons in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mahmoud Badavam can only pray that some day he will get back to correcting homework, preparing for classes, and perhaps even coming up with a new witticism about tea from time to time.