Iran's 'Think Tank' Outreach
by Stephen Schwartz
On August 24, 2012, the German daily Tagesspiegel reported a dismaying decision by the German Academic Exchange Service, or Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD). The agency decided in favor of continued cooperation between the University of Potsdam's Institute for Religious Studies (IRS) and Iran's University of Religions and Denominations (URD), located in Qom, the center of Shia Muslim theological studies and of indoctrination by the Tehran regime. Margret Wintermantel, president of the DAAD, declared that common projects involving the two schools should be maintained "as long as genuine academic activities are possible."
The DAAD had been consulted about the relationship after a controversy beginning early last year. The University of Potsdam announced that 20 faculty and students from the URD had visited and agreed to produce a memorandum of understanding for a faculty exchange beginning in May 2011. The Iranian delegation also visited the Free University of Berlin and a Dominican monastery in Hamburg.
Charles E. Grözinger, the former director of the Potsdam Institute for Religious Studies and Jewish Studies, wrote to the Potsdam university authorities expressing his "great concern" about an affiliation between the German and Iranian establishments. Closer in time to the DAAD ruling, on August 9, 2012, Benjamin Weinthal, in the Jerusalem Post, detailed criticism of German-Iranian academic relations articulated by Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, a well-known German-Iranian scholar. Wahdat-Hagh, a member of a German Interior Ministry commission on anti-Semitism and fellow of the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels, cautioned that the Iranian clerical elite seeks to use Iranian students and professors for espionage and influence operations in the West. This should surprise nobody, but has been afforded scant public scrutiny.
Potsdam religion professor Johan Hafner replied to queries from the Jerusalem Post, "We are aware of the lack of religious freedom and the doctrinaire influences in Iran, and consider an academic exchange with qualified intellectuals to be possible." Hafner declared, "we expect from the dialogue with Muslim colleges a critical reflection . . . and we will pay very close attention that intellectual exchange with Jewish scholars is possible."
Wahdat-Hagh responded to Hafner's remarks in the Israeli newspaper. Denying that the URD was a religious institute, he described the Iranian facility as "a propaganda academy . . . worse than the Marxist-Leninist Institute" of Communist East Germany. Wahdat-Hagh accused the University of Potsdam of "currying favor with the totalitarian dictator in Iran."
Then, on August 31, University World News quoted Potsdam's Hafner in a more aggressive defense of the Iranian university. Hafner described criticism of the URD as an "insinuation" by Wahdat-Hagh that "cannot be proven." He praised the URD for an "openness" to dialogue unusual in Iran, and went on to denote the University of Qom as Iran's only institution of higher education treating other religions neutrally. This is an opinion contrary to that of most observers, who view the University of Qom, notwithstanding its array of management, scientific, and technological faculties, as a primary legacy of Khomeinism, founded in 1980 as a vessel of radical ideology. (It is not the same as the hawza, or Shia religious seminary, of Qom, which is older and in which dissidence may be detected.) The website of the University of Qom boasts that it is "the only university with segregated sections for male and female students"—presumably meaning the sole example of such discrimination in Iran, since separated-gender education functions elsewhere in the world.
Hafner asserted that URD lecturers hold fellowships at Harvard University and are pursuing research sabbaticals at the Pontifical Gregorian University, the major Jesuit school at the Vatican, but did not identify the individuals by name. He further disclosed that the University of Potsdam would hold a conference on "configurations of evil" this month with a panel on the Holocaust and a representative of the University of Qom in attendance.
The DAAD supervises another German-Iranian academic exchange program with the University of Qom, connecting it to the University of Paderborn in North Rhine-Westphalia. DAAD president Wintermantel summarized, "No doubt there is a difficult situation in Iran. The country's official policy is highly problematic, and international links are under considerable pressure. . . . Especially in this situation, it is important to maintain the few existing channels of communication with Iran."
These include the "Islamic Center for the Study of Religions and their Different Interpretations"—separate from the URD—and the "International Center of Ahl-e Beyt." The latter concentrates on propaganda among and about Shia Muslims—Ahl-e Beyt or "People of the House of Muhammad" is the common self-descriptive used by Shias. It refers to their history as partisans of Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali Ibn Abi Talib during the succession conflict, after Muhammad's death, that produced the Shia sect. It is also claimed by supporters of the Hashemite king Abdullah II of Jordan and other Sunni descendants of Muhammad.
Both the "Islamic Center" and the "International Center" are coordinated by the "World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought," which advocates ostensibly for better relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims and is close to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet another element in the apparatus is the "Center for the Study of Religions and Sects in Qom"—again distinct from the URD. The network is redundant, convoluted, and therefore difficult to obstruct.
Wahdat-Hagh and Azmayesh point out that through the Qom think tanks, the Iranian tyranny continues its repression of spiritual Sufis, although Sufism is a major element of Iranian culture. Wahdat-Hagh writes, "these centers are the ideological backbone of the regime, representing their interests, when they do 'religion researches.' They not only attack the Sufis and mystics . . . but all other religions are also represented as deviant and their followers depicted as devil worshipers. According to Dr. Azmayesh, even mullahs who are interested in Islamic philosophy and logic are attacked."
Wahdat-Hagh adds, "The Sufis have established cooperatives, homes for the elderly and hospitals, and are successful, especially in large cities of Iran. The rulers of the Islamic Republic, who are against such diversity, have a serious and intractable problem with the Sufis." Last year, Ayatollah Khamenei removed Hojatoleslam Seyed Abolhassan Navvab as head of the URD for appointing a Sufi teacher to the faculty, even though Navvab is a follower of a notorious hard-liner, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.
Azmayesh offers self-evident explanations for Iranian interest in sending students and academics to universities like Potsdam and Paderborn in Germany: "[T]o observe the [Western] universities. . . . The aim of the URD in Qom is to . . . persuade Western intellectuals that Iran speaks the truth and that the opinion of others is wrong."
Germany's academic hierarchy, like its business and political elite, has wavered on Iran. Germany has declared a nuclear-armed Iran unacceptable and supported, with Britain and France, "sharper" sanctions on the theocratic state, but maintains that a negotiated solution to the nuclear challenge is possible.
The verdict of Azmayesh on the Iranian political elite is pessimistic: "Some groups [in the ruling elite] are slightly less fascist than others." The sanctions, negotiations, and attempts at benevolent dialogue between universities and think tanks approved by Germany are all likely to produce the same outcome. That is, more opportunities for evasion of sanctions, manipulation of negotiations, and expansion of its field of action in the West by Iran, its bloodthirsty Syrian ally, Hezbollah and other Iran-subsidized terrorist militias, and, above all, Ahmadinejad's treasured nuclear weapons program.