Iranian tensions shake Durham's ivory towers

February 10, 2010 in Journals / Articles

It’s a long way from Iran to north-east England, but anger about the crushing of opposition protests by the Islamic regime has generated a furious row at Durham University, where one academic has condemned the British government for turning “the slaughter of innocent teenagers in Iraq and Afghanistan into an art form”.

Dr Colin Turner, co-director of Durham’s Centre for Iranian Studies, lashed out after supporters of Iran’s green movement campaigned against a seminar on culture and politics that was funded by the Iranian state, but boycotted by the main speakers and all Iranians at the university.

The seminar was held on 28 January, the day the authorities in Tehran announced the execution of two young men it described as terrorists, in the presence of Durham’s mayor and the university vice-chancellor. Iranian students in the UK are also enraged by the fact that a Durham postgraduate colleague is missing, presumed in detention in Iran after having had his passport confiscated. Feelings are running high in advance of this week’s 31st anniversary of the 1979 revolution.

Protests began shortly after the seminar was announced. Dr Homa Katouzian, an Oxford-based academic who was billed as the keynote speaker, decided to pull out to avoid controversy. A Paris-based colleague followed suit. The event was addressed briefly by the cultural attache at the Iranian embassy in London, Ali Mohammad Helmi, who is described as a hardline supporter of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The result, Turner admitted afterwards, was that the seminar was “monopolised by pro-regime speakers”.

But he rejected “wild and damaging allegations” of support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that had been made against colleagues by green activists. “These same people who denigrate us have absolutely no problem in accepting scholarships from the British government – which has turned the slaughter of innocent teenagers in Iraq and Afghanistan into an art form. Before they accuse us of receiving what they term ‘blood money’ from our Iranian funders, maybe they should look a little more closely at the source of their own funding.”

Turner also referred to the “barbarism” of the British government in the Middle East.

Green supporter Roya Farazman said: “It is crystal clear that the Iranian government supported this event not for the sake of academic discussion. Rather they are desperate for attention from reputable US and British universities.”

Afshin Shahi, a Durham doctoral candidate, told the Guardian: “This regime is one of the greatest enemies of the freedom of expression. Iran has the greatest number of jailed journalists in the world. Lecturers are forced to resign. These people are just not interested in debate and dialogue.”

Shahi’s fellow student, Ehsan Abdo-Tabrizi, was apparently detained after flying to Tehran before Christmas. He has not been heard from since being ordered to meet government officials.

Turner, who supervised Tabrizi, insisted he was “completely aware that conferences … are seen as propaganda opportunities by the Iranian regime” and would not accept funding from the same sponsors again. “Iranian money comes with strings attached, as we have found to our chagrin,” he wrote.

The centre’s director, Dr Reza Molavi, said the seminar had been funded to the tune of around £5,000 by Iran’s equivalent of the British Council but insisted there had been no promotion of the regime. “We don’t think that by isolating them we will do any favours to Iran or Iranians. These students who have raised Cain about this are young and temperamental and may have made decisions that are not in tune with what realities dictate.” He was “not aware” of Abdo-Tabrizi’s whereabouts.

“Things are getting bad,” Katouzian said. “People like me want to get on with their academic work in a way that maintains their integrity.” Katouzian’s star student, doctoral candidate Mohammadreza Jalaeipour, was arrested on a visit to Iran during the unrest after last June’s disputed presidential election. He is now on bail but unable to leave the country.

Even critics of the Durham centre acknowledge that financial difficulties played a part in this row. “Who’s going to fund Iranian studies?” said another student, who asked to remain anonymous because he needs to be able to travel freely to Tehran. “If universities want to hold events they don’t have the resources in-house. This highlights how British universities are forced to turn to authoritarian regimes for funding.”