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Why Are Some American Academics Legitimizing the Iranian Regime?

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Repressive regimes the world over are fond of offering press and academic junkets to pliable Western journalists and professors. The mere presence of intellectuals from the free world allows tyrants to burnish their otherwise stained reputations and overcome their sense of isolation -- all the more so if the luminaries in question are committed to anti-Western and illiberal ideologies.

The annals of Western useful idiocy are as voluminous as they are revolting, stretching from the Stalinist apologetics of Sidney and Beatrice Webb to recently disclosed ties between the London School of Economics and the Qaddafi regime. Even so, the participation of American academics in a conference on the Occupy Wall Street movement organized earlier this year by Tehran's murderous theocrats stands out as particularly grotesque.

According to a February 22 report broadcast by PressTV, the Iranian regime's English-language organ, three American professors were among the attendees at a Tehran University confab devoted to discussing "various aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement." They included Heather Gautney, an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University, who boasted to PressTV that the Occupy "movement is going to be incredibly active in pressuring politicians to start addressing issues of social inequality" in the lead-up to the November elections in the U.S.

Also in attendance was John Hammond, a sociology professor at the City University of New York. "I know that I will be returning to the United States on February 25, and on February 29, there is a big movement planned in New York City, called Occupy the Corporations," Prof. Hammond told PressTV's correspondent. "Down the road from there, in May, the G-8 Summit will occur in Chicago, and many groups are planning to converge on Chicago with some kind of demonstration."

Finally, there was Alex Vitae, who was identified as a professor at Brooklyn College but who does not appear to have a permanent post there. "We know [Occupy has] had some impact both locally and nationally, but the impact has still been limited," Prof. Vitae conceded in his PressTV interview. "I think many people are waiting to see what effect it may have on this year's national elections, and whether or not this will have momentum that could have more far-reaching implications."

All three should be ashamed. Ever since the Occupy movement emerged last fall, the Iranian regime has sought to wield it as a moral shield against criticism of its own abhorrent human rights record, particularly with respect to freedom of speech and assembly. There is of course no comparison between, on the one hand, clashes between American police and Occupy protestors and, on the other, the merciless crackdown dished out by the regime to millions of Iranians after the country's stolen 2009 election. Unfortunately, some leaders of the Occupy movement have been all too eager to address Iran's state-run media, bolstering the mullahs' narrative of a violently repressive American government beholden to shadowy Wall Street power.

Academics, however, should know better. They should know that Iran is far from a model of "social equality" and, in fact, boasts one of the world's worst records when it comes to basic labor rights. Less than two months after the academics' departure from Tehran, for example, Iranian authorities sentenced Reza Shahabi to six years with flogging for helping organize the country's first independent trade union. His colleague, Mansour Osanloo, was only recently released after a long stint in Tehran's hellish Evin prison. Prior to detaining him, regime thugs sliced Osanloo's tongue to silence him.

American academics should also know that the mullahs frequently terminate and sometimes jail their Iranian counterparts for expressing dissenting views. Indeed, academic freedom as such does not exist in the Islamic Republic. "During the past few years, Iranian universities have been experiencing a new phase of government intervention in academic affairs," the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reports. "The present government policy is demonstrated on several fronts and is resulting in severe infringements on academic freedoms."

Just last march, the "Security Unit" at Payame Nour University in Mashad informed history lecturer Seyed Hossein Javdani that he would not be allowed to teach any more courses after he published articles critical of the government. Meanwhile, dozens of Iranian student leaders continue to languish in Evin and other political detention facilities for demanding the same rights enjoyed by their counterparts at Fordham, CUNY, and Brooklyn College. One such leader, Ahmad Batebi, had his head shoved into a bucket full of feces, his arms slashed and salted, and his testicles flogged by Evin torturers, before fleeing to America.

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 regime's PR campaign.

It is the professors' worldviews -- as distorted as funhouse mirrors -- that are to blame. Consider an article Prof. Gautney published on CNN's GPS blog not long after returning to the U.S. Recounting her less than 100 hours in Tehran, Prof. Gautney betrayed not the slightest suspicion that the rosy picture of Iran she absorbed may have been stage-managed by her regime handlers.

Most tellingly, Prof. Gautney concluded her reflections with an ode to the Islamic Republic's founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who, she worried, had been unjustly maligned in the West "as an evil dictator." In reality, Prof. Gautney claimed, "Khomeini eschewed simplistic East versus West narratives of inequality. His was a framework of Arrogance versus The Oppressed." In that framework, Prof. Gautney heard echoes of the Occupy movement: "I thought of OWS. The 1 Percent is not just a statistic. It is a concept that speaks to the arrogance of power."

The mind reels. Would that be the same Ayatollah Khomeini who ordered the summary execution of thousands of his erstwhile leftist and liberal allies in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution? Would that be the same Khomeini who issued a religious edict blessing the murder of the novelist Salman Rushdie for having penned The Satanic Verses? Would that be the same Khomeini who commanded that virgin female political prisoners be raped before execution, so as to prevent their souls from reaching paradise?

CUNY officials did not immediately reply to my emailed request for comment. A spokesman for Fordham told me in an emailed statement that "while the University has no doubt that the government of Iran initiated or allowed the conference for calculated political gain any attempt to prohibit faculty attendance would be counter to the principles of academic freedom." That freedom is a testament to an open political culture that these academics were happy to denounce before representatives of the most repressive regime in the world's least free region. Let's hope their colleagues, students, and alumni communities will hold them accountable.