Sociology professor Mohammad Fazeli was widely reported in Iranian media this week to have been dismissed from his post at Shahid Beheshti University. Fazeli himself has since clarified that he lost his job in September 2021: the same month that Azad University philosopher Bijan Abdolkarimi was also fired for alleged pro-monarchy sentiments.
Then this week, Arash Abazari, a professor of sociology at Sharif University of Technology, lost his job without explanation. It came weeks after Saeed Madani, a sociologist and faculty member of the University of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation Sciences, was barred from leaving the country by the IRGC to attend a year’s sabbatical at Yale.
What is going on in Iranian academia? Why the sudden de-platforming of a cluster of lecturers, all working in the humanities? As rumors swirl and student protests gather pace, some ex-officials of the Rouhani administration have publicly demanded an explanation, calling the expulsions a “repetition” of an insidious trend seen during the time of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
IranWire spoke to Ali Akbar Mehdi, a professor of sociology at California’s Northridge University, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, to get their take on the recent dismissals.
News of Mohammad Fazeli’s dismissal made waves in Iran, just as Bijan Abdolkarimi’s did last year. He explained to the website Jamaran that he had been given a letter of termination back in September, but students had only learned about it after the list of courses for the new semester was uploaded online.
Born in 1974, Fazeli and is from the city of Arak in central Iran. A graduate of industrial engineering from Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran, he worked at the University of Mazandaran before moving to the Expediency Council’s Strategic Research Center. After Hasan Rouhani took over the presidency in August 2013, he was appointed by Hesamoddin Ashena, the government's media adviser, to a role at the Presidential Center for Strategic Studies. During the same period he became a faculty member at Shahid Beheshti University.
Fazeli has also had something of a media career, launching a series of podcasts as well as a Telegram channel called Iran's Concerns, in which he writes and talks about social issues and the findings of his own research. In a recent post, he discussed the fatal 2017 fire and part-collapse of the 17-storey Plasco Building in Tehran. As a co-author of the National Incident Report into the disaster, he demanded to know why none of the report’s recommendations had been implemented and criticized the judiciary’s unwillingness to engage with its findings.
Like Saeed Madani, Fazeli has also spoken out on Tehran’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. In one of his interviews with Iran newspaper in April 2021, he explicitly criticized the centralized nature of governance in the Islamic Republic, saying effective management required the involvement actors at the local level, as well as transparent data.
Rouhani-era officials including Hesamoddin Ashena, Abdol Nasser Hemmati, a former governor of the Central Bank, and ex-education Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei, have lined up to protest against the dismissal on Twitter. Ashena called the move “unfair” and a consequence of “revolutionary rationality”. Hemmati went further, calling it “a decision to dismantle the structure of the country’s manpower”, and demanding that President Ebrahim Raisi and his wife, Jamileh Alam al-Hoda, who is on the recruitment committee at Shahid Beheshti University, intervene to get the decision reversed.
Dismissals Come Regardless of Political Ties
Northridge University sociology professor Ali Akbar Mehdi told IranWire that in his view, neither Fazeli nor Abdolkarimi would have intended to appear “subversive” – unlike Saeed Madani, who had been jailed in the past for his work. “Abdolkarimi is a friend of the [Islamic] Revolution and was not a man who wanted to overthrow the regime. In his own words, he made ‘sympathetic criticisms’. He was expelled because he took a different view to that of the ruling power toward society and the world."
Bijan Abdolkarimi’s expulsion from Islamic Azad University was said in Iranian media to have been because he supported the Pahlavi regime. In an interview with Asr-e Iran, Abdolkarimi revealed that he had not been paid for six months because of a speech he had made on the “polarization” of Iranian society, which he said was brought about by disenfranchisement and people’s alienation from the decision-making process. He also said he had been “set up” and used the interview to plead with the IRGC and Intelligence Ministry to “intervene” in his case.
The sidelining of these two professors, but also of Abazari and Madani in the last week, are – in the assessment of Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor at Virginia Tech – late manifestations of “a longer story of violations of the rights of Iranian cultural figures and academics. They are nothing new."
He added: "It seems that these people were fired because they were intellectuals in the public domain and had presented their challenging views in TV debates, on social networks and in the press. A state that is reluctant to accept different views has made up its mind to expel these people, regardless of whether or not they have been close to the government in the past. The circle of insiders, the circle of what is acceptable, has been narrowing for years in all areas. It seems the government intends to continue this approach.”
Boroujerdi also believes Ali Khamenei and the recent, more hardline bent in education policy played a role in the universities’ decisions. “Changes to the curriculum, and the Islamization of the humanities, have been raised at the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, and at seminaries – influenced by Mr. Khamenei's talk about why so many students are being accepted into the humanities."
Here he was referring to a speech given by Ali Khamenei in September 2009, a few months after the outbreak of the Green Movement protests in Iran. The pro-democracy rallies attracted large numbers of students and university lecturers. In his address, Khamenei demanded to know why 2.5 million Iranian students were focusing on the humanities, and ordered that “serious consideration” be given to the “Western nature” of the humanities as taught in Iran.
"The new government is trying to better follow the leader's orders,” Boroujerdi says. “It’s to be expected now that if sociology professors take a different view about, say, population growth to that of the ruling power, the circle will narrow on them.” The dismissals, he says, convey the message to the wider Iranian intellectual community that the system “does not need expert advisors, or more rational and moderate critics, but only wants obedient teachers who’ll say 'Yes' at every level."
Ali Akbar Mehdi fears the same: that policymakers are not interested in engagement, but in PR moves. “It shows the regime does not tolerate criticism. It accuses those who scrutinize societal issues of trying to present a bleak picture instead. This intimidation of researchers and professors creates an ominous cycle that encourages demonstrative behaviors, and pushes the social issues under the skin of society – so much so that they’ll only turn into upheavals, and create bigger crises for the system."