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Beheshteh Farshneshani Headshot

A Neocon Upstart Attacks Academic Freedom and Iranian American Views

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I thought it would be a typical Thursday at work last week, but as soon as I arrived to the office, an associate pulled me aside and pointed to a series of defamatory tweets against me and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the organization for which I intern.

The tweets were directed at me by neoconservative upstarts Sohrab Ahmari and Peter Kohanloo in response to comments I tweeted (here and here) regarding an article written by Ahmari demonizing American academics who had recently travelled to Iran.

At the time, I was completely unaware of the author's ideological affiliation and only later was it revealed to me that Ahmari is a fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a neocon think tank in London. In a recent article, MJ Rosenberg provides a wonderful exposé revealing the agendas of Ahmari and some of his associates:

"Ahmari, the neocons' favorite Iranian, is very much in the mold of the neocons' favorite Iraqi. During the run-up to the 2003 invasion Ahmed Chalabi was their darling because, as an Iraqi émigré, he was thought to have unique credibility. Neocons loved hearing an Iraqi say that invading Iraq would not only prove successful but would be welcomed by his fellow Iraqis. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a fake, whose agenda was almost entirely personal. The war he and his friends promoted was an infamous catastrophe. And, to put it mildly, the invasion he told us that Iraqis would welcome was not welcomed."

To neoconservatives' disappointment, Iranian Americans, including myself, are unlikely to be familiar with the names of Ahmari or Kohanloo, let alone give those who argue for war on their motherland any credibility. As Rosenberg correctly observers, "Neither of these spokesmen [Ahmari and Kohanloo] have a following, either among Iranian Americans or Iranians, a fact that probably makes them deeply resentful of the Iranian-American organization that does, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC)."

It is no wonder Ahmari was so quick to take my personal tweets and turn them into a diatribe against NIAC. I simply assumed he was either an angry neo-royalist or an amateur journalist fixed on very superficial notions of liberty which, as an Iranian American, I felt compelled to confront. Therefore my comments were and proudly remain to be a reflection of my own views, not NIAC's or anyone else.

In his article, Ahmari condemns three American professors, stating that "all three should be ashamed" for participating in a conference on the Occupy Wall Street movement held at Tehran University in Iran. "The mere presence of intellectuals from the free world," Ahmari says "allows tyrants to burnish their otherwise stained reputations and overcome their sense of isolation."

Arguments of this nature which seek to limit the scope of academic freedom are very familiar to me. As a graduate student at Columbia University, I recall similar arguments made by various conservative groups against the University's decision to invite Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to speak at a public forum in 2007. I was appalled by these arguments, not because I supported what President Ahmadinejad had to say, but because I did not think merely listening to ideas we deplore translated to our endorsement of those ideas. Similarly, I do not condemn these professors for maximizing on the academic freedom granted to them in this country, which in fact sets America's democracy apart from Iran's authoritative theocracy. Unlike Ahmari, I have faith in the strength of the American democratic resolve to resist even the most warped ideas.

Among the professors that partook in the conference was Dr. Heather Gautney, an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University, and steadfast supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who upon returning from the conference, published a piece on CNN.com recounting her experience in Iran.

In her piece, Dr. Gautney breaks many of the anti-American stereotypes attributed to Iranians and conveys a nuanced account of her experience in Iran. She portrays academics and students at Tehran University in a pro-American light with "desires to know America, study in its universities, and experience its unique culture."

In reproaching her article, Ahmari claims, "Prof. Gautney betrayed not the slightest suspicion that the rosy picture of Iran she absorbed may have been stage-managed by her regime handlers." In fact, in reflecting on whether to accept the invitation from Tehran University, Dr. Gautney wrote she was, "naturally filled with suspicion" but with encouragement from her friends and academic colleagues, she decided to accept the invitation.

Dr. Gautney also acknowledged that the short 100 hours she spent in Tehran, did not foster enough understanding to give her agency into deeper issues; such as the election fraud, the repression and the lack of freedom imposed by the Iranian regime. But Ahmari ignores this and continues with absurd reductionism to assert that "mere naivete cannot account for how these gruesome realities eluded professors Gautney, Hammond, and Vitae, or how they allowed themselves and their institutions to be co-opted by a theocratic regimes PR campaign."

Ahmari gives much credit to the Islamic Republic's power of persuasion and propaganda and deliberately ignores the basic reasoning power and liberties that America's academics and citizens have to accept or reject the knowledge that they consume. If it were left to Ahmari, he would extend the "No Contact Policy" of the State Department that bars U.S. diplomats from communicating with their Iranian counterparts to the academic arena.

Three decades of growing strife in U.S.-Iran relations is a testament that our current silent treatment has failed as a tool of statecraft, yet Ahmari wishes to contaminate our academic institutions with similar dubious limitations that would restrict the free flow of information and make vigorous debate and exchange of ideas impossible. His imperious remarks are a reminder that our academic institutions are under grave threat from neoconservative forces that wish to impose political constraints on freedom of academic inquiry. Mindful of Ahmari's desire to limit academic freedom, I don't see why he left Iran in the first place; for that is where such repressive measures are welcomed, yet Ahmari is here, promoting them in America.

Constrained by the White House's resolve to find a diplomatic solution, the neocons have resorted to using whatever coercive means available to intimidate and discourage any level of engagement, including greater academic exchange, between Iran and the U.S. for fear that such exchanges will foster a more human perspective of Iranians, which is exactly what Dr. Gautney does at the end of her article: "After we said goodbye to our new friends in Iran, Glenn [her husband] said, 'We can't go to war with this country. We just can't.'"

It is precisely this message the neocons fear will be conveyed to the American public and threaten the potent political climate conducive to their war-driven agenda, and replace it with a nuanced understanding that just might pave the path for a peaceful resolution.

Dr. Gautney's message is clear -- it is one of peace and those who are displeased with it are not of the same view as those peace-loving Iranians, film director Asghar Farhadi refers to in his victory speech at the Oscars.

In a recent Zogby poll views of Iranians useful to the neoconservative cause, like Ahmari and Kohanloo, placed well outside the fringes of mainstream Iranian-American thinking. To the neocons' disappointment, the polls showed that the majority of Iranian Americans prefer to see a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to hostilities between the U.S. and Iran, while only 3% of Iranians would like to see military action taken against Iran. Ahmari is clearly part of these three-percenters who desire attacking Iran, as he himself admits in an issue of Commentary:

"The likelihood of an all-out Western land invasion aimed at toppling the mullahs is low. But a limited military intervention aimed at destroying their nuclear facilities may nevertheless precipitate regime collapse. Iran's nuclear sites are spread out over a wide geographic area; an intervention aimed at disabling them must be wider in scope than the Israeli strikes that destroyed Iraq's facilities in 1981 and Syria's in 2007. A successful strike will require destroying much of the country's national defense and security architecture. Having invested so much prestige, moreover, in one signature national project -- the nuclear program -- the regime stands to lose what little legitimacy it has left should a week-long airstrike rubble its nuclear sites."

Later in a podcast, Ahmari's lackey, Peter Kohanloo, was asked how he, as an Iranian American, can support a war that will hurt Iranians. Kohanloo responded: "I would say the Iranian American community is not in any position to initiate or prevent a war, that is up to the president and the U.S. government."

It is evident that the ultimate objective here is to silence the voice of Iranian Americans and smear those who attempt to fairly represent them. In this regard, Ahmari and Kohanloo serve as useful tools in promoting the neoconservative war agenda against Iran. As 'native informants', they shamelessly exploit serious issues of human rights as a lubricant to promoting their employers' broader agenda.

In the markets of opinions, ethnic heritage can easily be conflated with expertise, and it is not surprising that these Iranian American outliers have chosen to sell their heritage to causes unpopular to the community they purport to represent. By employing these native outliers as 'analysts,' the neocons present the illusion of credibility in order to diffuse representative voices and slowly inject divisive war hawk jargon into the debate.

Be it the voice of Iranian Americans, the freedom of academics, or the decision of diplomats, neoconservatives will attempt to set fire to any bridge that attempts to mend the people of Iran and America. American academia is only the latest victim of this wicked witch hunt.