December 6, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 305

Human Rights in Iran (2): Persecution of Intellectuals

December 6, 2006
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 305


As the December 2006 elections for the Assembly of Experts and the regional councils draw near, there have been increasing reports of deliberate actions by the Iranian regime aimed at persecuting the intellectual elite and significantly restricting its activities. This is a general policy, apparently dictated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as part of what he has termed the Second Cultural Revolution.

On September 5, 2006, during a meeting with students on the Iranian National Youth Day, Ahmadinejad called to purge the Iranian universities of reformist and secular lecturers, saying: "Today, students have every right to criticize their president for the presence of liberal and secular lecturers at [the Iranian] universities... The task of replacing the secular lecturers has already begun... but bringing this change is very difficult... Our education system has been influenced by 150 years of secular thought... Changing the system is not easy, and we must accomplish it together." [1]

This statement followed a purge of the Iranian universities in May-June 2006. During this time, the regime forced dozens of lecturers whose views did not align with its policies to retire. University and faculty heads were replaced by associates of President Ahmadinejad, many of them lacking experience in academic administration. These moves evoked widespread protest on the part of university students and faculty, which have been brutally suppressed by the regime. [2] Today, a second wave of dismissals appears to be underway at the Iranian universities. [3]

In the past months, the regime has also targeted numerous websites and online papers affiliated with intellectuals and reformist dissidents. For example, the online dailies Sharq and Rouzegar and the monthly Nameh have been closed down, while the website Entekhab and the women's monthly Meidan-e Zanan have been blocked to readers inside Iran.

It should be noted that among the papers and websites shut down were several that had been supporters of the candidacy of Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - the ideological rival of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi - in the upcoming elections for the Assembly of Experts.

Reformist Intellectuals and Lecturers Purged from Universities

Among the faculty members recently dismissed from universities or subjected to various restrictions is Saeed Hajjarian, the ideologue of the reform movement who survived an assassination attempt in 2000. He was dismissed from the political science department of Tarbiat-e Modares University in Tehran. Others are intellectual and cleric Mohsen Kadivar, dismissed from the department of philosophy at the same university; Hashem Aghajari, formerly history department head at Tehran University, who has twice been sentenced to death for promoting religious reforms; [4] and dissident journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi.

On October 30, 2006, the Iranian news agency ILNA reported on the dismissal of Saeed Hajjarian and Mohsen Kadivar from the academic faculty of Tarbiat-e Modares University. Kadivar, formerly the head of the philosophy department in the humanities faculty, had previously been dismissed from other official positions in Iran's higher education system, including from the Supplementary Education Council and the Council for Supervision of the Universities. Commenting on his dismissal from the university, he said: "Since my age is not advanced enough for them to force me to retire, they started to target me this way. Even before [they fired me] they made it difficult for me to travel abroad or to meet with colleagues inside Iran...

"The political goal [behind this persecution] is to purge the [Iranian] universities of faculty members who think differently, or at least to place restrictions on them... Considering the number of disciplinary actions [recently] taken against students and faculty members, it seems that the [universities'] disciplinary boards have undertaken to persecute student activists, as well as university heads and administrators,... and to limit the activities of lecturers who think differently [from the regime]... Some of the lecturers were targeted because of their high academic standing or their popularity... " [5]

The reformist internet daily Rooz wrote that the dismissal of the lecturers was the first stage "in a campaign to purge the universities' academic faculties," and added that "this new round [of dismissals is part of] the 'cultural revolution' that has been underway since Ahmadinejad's government came into power."

According to Rooz, the Iranian regime has established a "headquarters" for purging the universities, focusing primarily on the humanities faculties, and on lecturers who have been imprisoned or who have been tried by a revolutionary court or a special court for clerics. The paper stated that the implementation of this plan began in October 2006, at Tarbiat-e Modares University. In the first stage its humanities faculty was purged of Mohsen Kadivar and Hashem Aghajari. According to Rooz, Dr. 'Abd Al-Karim Soroush is also on the list of lecturers to be purged, but since he has been under heavy pressure to leave Iran, and is planning to retire in Europe, the plan to dismiss him has been placed on hold. [6]

Intellectual Mohsen Kadivar: "Some [Regime Members] Who Believe in the Use of Force Want to Behave like Hitler in Nazi Germany..."

Commenting on the steps taken against him, Kadivar said: "The restrictions currently imposed upon me in the university are the result of a political decision [made at] a higher [level], which has been implemented [as a result of] pressure by the judiciary, by the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Clerics, and by the Prisons Authority... Individuals like ['Abd Al-Karim] Soroush have been subjected to [similar] pressures, and are banned from teaching in Iran or speaking in public. Today these pressures are escalating... The general headquarters in charge of this 'cultural revolution' is outside the university: either in the Education Ministry or in the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council." [7]

In an October 31, 2006 press conference, Kadivar said: "All my activities outside the university have been within the boundaries of Iranian law, and I regard them as my legal and legitimate right. I refuse to give up this unassailable right... This [purge] campaign started with the students... and has now reached the faculty... [Forcing] faculty members to retire, as we saw in the past months, has been part of this campaign... The [regime's] first step in restricting [the activities] of the lecturers was [the appointment] of university heads from outside the academic faculty... [These] university heads do not answer to the faculty, but to those in charge, who appointed them...

"One of the faculty heads at Tarbiat-e Modares University told me that certain [political] circles and the Ministry of Education were displeased by my views as I expressed them in some of my recent articles, and decided that 'someone with views of this kind' cannot be a member of the academic faculty, or a university lecturer. This is a clear violation of the [Iranian] constitution and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since it is [a violation] of freedom of expression and opinion. They may criticize my articles - but putting me on trial for my opinions and statements means denying my rights and imposing upon me the view of one particular faction..." [8]

The pretext used to dismiss Mohsen Kadivar from the university was apparently a speech he gave on the occasion of Eid Al-Fitr, in which he compared the current behavior of the Iranian leaders to that of Adolf Hitler. Kadivar also criticized the manner in which Iranian leaders are elected, namely the screening and monitoring mechanisms used by the regime to consolidate its power. [9] Following are excerpts from reports about Mohsen Kadivar's speech, published by ILNA and by the Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with Iran's religious intellectuals. The reports were quoted on Kadivar's website. [10]

"...[In his speech,] Kadivar pointed out that there are two different approaches to Iran's foreign policy. One assumes that Iran's power lies in its military capabilities, and that Iran can achieve dominance in the international arena by building up its military might. The other approach assumes that a country's might depends on the popular support [enjoyed by its government] and on the level of democracy [in it], and that a country's glory emanates not from the barrels of guns but from free and fair elections.

"Kadivar added that some [members of the regime] who believe in the use of force wish to behave like Hitler in Nazi Germany...

"[Kadivar also] strongly denounced [the closing of] independent newspapers, the limitations imposed on books and Internet [websites], and the closing of the dailies Sharq and Rouzegar... He characterized Iran under the present regime as 'a republic of the jurisprudent [jomhouri-ye velai]'... [and said that] this year can be referred to as the golden year of religious nonsense.'"

Saeed Hajjarian: "The Government Wants... to Interfere in [People's] Private Affairs..."; "Toppling [this Regime] is a Supreme Duty"

Reform movement ideologue Saeed Hajjarian, who is close to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and who, in 2000, survived an assassination attempt by the regime, told the conservative news agency Fars in an October 2006 interview: [11] "I distinguish between ideology and religion. Ideology is a modern concept, and ideologically [based] governments strive to [impose] uniformity [upon the people]. The [Iranian] government wants to control people's hearts, to interfere in their private affairs. It is not content with people [merely] keeping up a religious front...

"We must be very careful to avoid falling into this trap, for beyond the political, social and psychological implications, there are important moral implications, such as hypocrisy and flattery... It's not just that a regime of this sort should not be maintained - toppling it is a supreme duty...

"I fear that we are progressing from a 'religious government' to an 'ideological government,' and whether we like it or not, we will run into the same problems that existed in the Soviet Union and [in Iraq under the rule of the] Ba'th Party..."

Ahmad Zeidabadi: "If [the Regime] Expects Me to Keep Silent About the Violation of Iranian Citizens' Human Rights... It Is Wasting Its Time, Because This Will Never Happen... Even If They [Decide] to Execute Me, like Thomas More, I Will Not Relinquish [My Views]."

Dissident journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi recently posted an open letter in the internet daily Rooz denouncing the regime's policy of intimidating and silencing intellectuals and violating human rights. Zeidabadi was previously sentenced to five years' deprivation of social rights, and was banned from publishing in Iran. Recently, it emerged that the regime intended to press charges against him, and that the trial had been set for late November, a few weeks before the Assembly of Experts and regional councils elections.

The following are excerpts from Zeidabadi's open letter: [12]

"Two of my friends, who were recently released from the notorious Section 209 in Evin Prison, gave me a message from their interrogators: 'We have concocted a nice case against you, and we will [get] to you soon.' I don't know whether this is merely a threat, or they really have plans for me. But in any case, ever since my children smelled the rat [that the interrogators sent to my home], they have been full of bitter memories of [what happened to me in] 2000 and 2003... [Their] mother remembers when I was taken away for the second time; my son went to his friend 'Azin and whispered in his ear: 'Today they handcuffed my father and took him away to prison.' His mother recalls that that night, he wet his bed in fear eight times...

"[People] must take responsibility for their actions, but I ask: What have we [intellectuals] done [to deserve punishment]? We are writers and thinkers. We do not need, and are not able, to do anything [but write and think] - [yet] we are imprisoned under harsh conditions, as though we have established some dangerous armed guerrilla organization with a secret cache of weapons and ammunition.

"In the past years, I have said time and again that I have no quarrel with this group of people [i.e. the members of the ruling faction who restricted his freedom and imprisoned him]. I leave it to God to judge them according to His laws. That is why I accepted the social discrimination [imposed upon me], and did not even publicly demand [that they restore the rights] they took from me. I did not even complain about the hundreds of hours that I was forced to waste on trivial tasks like renewing my passport.

"All I was doing these days was writing on two news websites, [now] shut down [by the regime]. [13] On one, I tried to provide a professional and independent analysis of current affairs, and on the other, I occasionally expressed dissatisfaction, denounced the violation of Iranians' human rights, or warned of the [possible] consequences of the [regime's] current policy. But [the regime], it seems, cannot tolerate even this. They believe that because the U.S. and Israel commit crimes to promote their interests, nobody should [object to] violations of human rights in Iran. They also think that since they are fighting the U.S., they must oppose everything it says or does, lest they be accused of collaborating with the enemy.

"But this logic is completely invalid. Violations committed [in one country]... do not legitimize violations in another [country]. Moreover, the world is not all black and white [as the Iranian regime presents it]. Nobody can claim that everything a certain country does is destructive or [that everything it does is] positive. The world is more complicated than that...

"So if they expect me to keep silent about violations of the Iranian citizens' human rights, or to give up [and accept the regime's] black-and-white way of thinking, they are wasting their time, because this will never happen. Every individual has a set of beliefs which are an essential part of his humanity. Imam 'Ali and Imam Hossein [the first and third Imams according to the Shi'ite tradition] have taught me that one should first of all defend human dignity in one's own society, and only then [worry about] other societies. [One] must denounce violations [of human rights] no matter what government is responsible for them....

"I do not claim to have been a fearless warrior or an indefatigable activist in defending the rights of others - but I do have a set of values that I will not give up. Moreover, despite the political power they have gained, these gentlemen [i.e. the representatives of the regime] have no right to impose upon all the Iranians their ossified and dogmatic views [on] religion, history, philosophy, politics, economics, and international relations, and demand that the people follow them. This is Iran, not North Korea. True, we have been immersed in tyranny for a long time, but ours has never been a totalitarian society, and never will be.

"I remember asking my interrogator in 2000: 'So what do you want from me...?' He replied: 'We want you to repent.' I said: 'I understand, but that will never happen.' I asked him if he had read the book A Man for All Seasons. 'If you have [read the book,' I said], 'you can see me as Thomas More... There are spheres in which I allow myself [some degree of] flexibility, but there is also a sphere in which I make no concessions. Anyone who relates to me in the former sphere will find me easygoing and flexible, and with a sense of humor. But someone who tries to interfere in the latter sphere, with the aim of destroying my humanity, will find me tough, earnest, and inflexible. Even if they [decide] to execute me, like Thomas More, I will not relinquish [my views], and you are welcome to try it...'"

'Abd Al-Karim Soroush: "The Preaching Faction [i.e. the Ruling Clerics]... Is Placing A Deadly Obstacle in Society's Way"

Reformist intellectual and cleric 'Abd Al-Karim Soroush recently criticized the ruling clerics, saying: "The preaching faction [i.e., the ruling clerics], from the first to the last [of them], without any exception, are placing a deadly obstacle in society's way. I hope that we can eliminate this obstacle through appropriate action, and that [the ruling clerics]... will focus on serving the people by listening to the criticism [brought] against them... If [the regime] officially recognizes the people's criticism against it, and acknowledge the religious importance of this criticism, a positive process will be generated that will deliver us from social maladies." [14]

Ayatollah Yousef Sanei: "The Exploitation of Religion Must Be Opposed... Those Who Wish to Destroy the Universities or the Independence of the Religious Seminaries Are Sinners and Criminals"

In his recent meeting with members of the students' union in Tehran University, Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, who is known for his criticism of the regime and his progressive rulings, especially in the sphere of marital law, criticized the regime's persecution of the intellectuals. He said: "The exploitation of religion and the blatant deception must be opposed. Those who brutally deceive and swindle, or assist the swindlers and the forces of oppression and darkness - especially those who wish to destroy the universities and the independence of the religious seminaries - are sinners and criminals... Academic faculty members are being dismissed because individuals who identify with dogmatism, and who want the people to remain ignorant, wish to destroy the universities and to aim the spears of their oppression against them." [15]

Spokesman of the Reformist "Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e Eslami" Party: "How Can an Intellectual Be Tried for Expressing His Opinion?"

Mohsen Armin, spokesman of the reformist party Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e Eslami and former member of the reformist sixth Majlis, also denounced the regime's persecution of intellectuals. In a conference in honor of Dr. Hashem Aghajari, held at Tehran University by the Islamic Students' Union on November 12, 2006, Armin criticized the regime for purging the universities of the reformist intellectual elite, saying: "...How can an intellectual be tried for expressing his views?... Many religious scholars maintain, based on God's words [in the Koran], that people should be allowed to ask questions [and express their opinion on various issues]... since they have knowledge [which they may express based on their] freedom of thought and expression. This kind of knowledge cannot be enslaved or caused to stagnate. [People's] freedom of thought and freedom of assembly [cannot be] denied.

"The principle of human dignity precludes ideological oppression and tyranny, as stated in the Koran... Denial of the freedom of thought and opinion, especially that of the religious intellectuals, leads to nothing but narrow-mindedness and ignorance. Today we see a lot of superstition in our society, which is especially prevalent in [certain politically] sensitive military circles... Restricting freedom of thought will bring nothing but [intellectual] stagnation..." [16]

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] IRNA News Agency (Iran), September 5, 2006; Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), September 6, 2006,

[2] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1174, "Demonstrations in Tehran Universities: 'We Don't Want Nuclear Energy,'" May 26, 2006, Demonstrations in Tehran Universities: ‘We Don't Want Nuclear Energy’ ;

Sharq (Iran), June 19, 2006,

[3] The reformist online daily Rooz recently published an investigative article on the purge that has been underway at Iran's universities since Ahmadinejad became president (Rooz, November 22, 2006). The article reported that university and faculty heads have been replaced with associates of the president or with members of the university lecturers' Basij, and that student rallies attended by reformist intellectuals and politicians have been violently broken up by the authorities. In addition, it was recently reported that the regime had forced 53 professors from Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran to retire (Rooz, November 29, 2006), though this report was denied by the university president (Kayhan, November 11, 2006).

For information on a demonstration at Tehran University that was broken up by the authorities, see Rooz, November 14, 2006, ;

For information on protests at Lorestan University, see Rooz, November 21, 2006,

For statements by Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi denying the claims regarding lack of freedom of speech in Iran, see ILNA November 24, 2006, .

[4] For more on Hashem Aghajari, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 445, "The Call for Islamic Protestantism: Dr. Hashem Aghajari's Speech and Subsequent Death Sentence," December 2, 2002, The Call for Islamic Protestantism: Dr. Hashem Aghajari's Speech and Subsequent Death Sentence ;

MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 445, "The Call for Islamic Protestantism: Dr. Hashem Aghajari's Speech and Subsequent Death Sentence," December 2, 2002, The Call for Islamic Protestantism: Dr. Hashem Aghajari's Speech and Subsequent Death Sentence.

[5] ILNA news agency (Iran), October 30, 2006,

[6] Rooz, October 30, 2006,

[7] ILNA news agency (Iran), October 31, 2006,

[8] ISNA (Iran), October 31, 2006.

[9] All candidates for the Assembly of Experts, and for any other elected political body in Iran, must be approved by the conservative Guardian Council, which has disqualified thousands of reformist candidates. The exact criteria for screening the candidates have never been published, and the Guardian Council is required to provide only a general explanation for the disqualification of a candidate. Clearly, however, one criterion is the level of the candidate's religious observance.


[11] Fars news agency (Iran), October 29, 2006,

[12] Rooz (Iran), October 19, 2006;

[13] The online daily Sharq, and the online daily Rouzegar, which was shut down after publishing only three issues.

[14] Rooz, October 10, 2006,

[15] ISNA (Iran), November 5, 2006,

[16] ISNA (Iran), November 12, 2006,

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