The Iran Lobby Buys a Friendly Face for Despotism

The funding of a significant pro-Iran lobby that funnels money to American universities was disclosed to the wider public for the first time during the U.S. Senate's recent confirmation battle over Chuck Hagel's successful nomination as secretary of defense.  By far the largest grantor is the Alavi Foundation, now under federal investigation, which has given Harvard University $345,000 over nine years ending in 2011.  Other institutions in the U.S. and Canada have also benefited from Iranian largesse.

Hagel, who represented Nebraska as a Republican U.S. Senator from 1997 to 2009, has long advocated a soft line toward the brutal theocratic regime, as exemplified by his call in 2007 for "direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran."

He has participated in at least one Middle East Studies event organized by Tehran's tenured apologists and subsidized by the Iranian regime.  As described by Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, Hagel addressed a March 2007 conference at Rutgers University co-sponsored by the school's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and the shadowy group that, as pointed out by the WSJ's Stephens and others, helped pay for the Rutgers AIC event: the Alavi Foundation.

Alavi is an arm of the Tehran government that has granted substantial sums to American and Canadian universities.  Its 2010 Form 990, filed in compliance with its nonprofit status with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, listed assets of $39,082,555.  Alavi's "Direct Charitable Activities" were limited to four, all school-related: "Farsi Schools in Various Universities and Schools," "Information Education Centers," "Publication and Book Distribution," and "Interest Free Loans to Education Centers."  Its total grant outlay for that year was $2,148,630.  The 2007 Form 990 from Alavi included a line for Rutgers, indicating that Alavi's investment in the Rutgers CMES and, presumably, the event with AIC and Hagel, was $72,500.

Alavi's support for the 2007 Rutgers event at which Hagel spoke offers a profile of its academic outreach.  Hooshang Amirahmadi, currently a professor of development and international relations at Rutgers, was director of the CMES in 2007.  He is also founder and president of the American Iranian Council.  Amirahmadi was succeeded as head of the Rutgers CMES by Peter B. Golden, an emeritus professor with a background in Central Asian studies, whose views are cautious and measured.

But the recipient of choice for Alavi's financing of American Middle East Studies is Harvard, with its $345,000 in publicly reported gifts from the ruthless oppressors of Iran over nine years, with the tax form covering the remainder of 2011 unavailable at this time.  As disclosed in other Alavi publicity, the foundation gave $40,000 to Harvard for its Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) in January 2011.  This was followed by $10,000 later that year for a Harvard tutoring program by Mahdavi Damghani, a graduate in Shiite theology from Tehran University who has taught there from 1966 to 1985 and who now teaches at CMES, which received $24,000 from Alavi in 2012. 

In its Form 990 documentation from 2004 to 2010, Alavi gifts to Harvard were:

  • $41,000 (2004 and first quarter 2005);
  • $36,000 (2005 to the end of March 2006);
  • $36,000 in 2006 and early 2007;
  • $41,000 in 2007 through the first quarter of 2008;
  • $41,000 for the remainder of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009;
  • $41,000 in 2009 and early 2010; and
  • $75,000 in 2010 and the first three months of 2011.

In 2011, Alavi cosponsored, with three Shia Muslim theological bodies, a conference at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut on "The State of the Study of Shi'ite Islam."  The top featured speaker was Ingrid Mattson, the former president of the Muslim fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), who at that time taught at Hartford and now holds an Islamist-funded chair at Huron University College in Ontario.  Mahmoud Ayoub, a native of South Lebanon and Hartford faculty member, also participated.  Alavi provided Hartford with $47,000 to pay for the event, according to an announcement by the foundation.  In 2012, according to a press release, Alavi gave Hartford $35,000 more to support Ayoub's teaching on Shiism. 

Alavi's generosity north of the border includes $90,000 in 2011 and $30,000 in 2012 to McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies, in Montreal, Quebec.  A statement (in awkward English) accompanying the 2012 gift proclaimed:

In the past twenty-five years, Alavi Foundation has distributed over several millions of dollars in the form of grants to over thirty colleges and universities in North America. Support for Colleges and Universities is one of the Foundation's nine core programs.

Alavi is currently under investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department.  In 2009, its former president, Farshid Jahedi, pleaded guilty to two counts of felony obstruction of justice for destroying documents subpoenaed by the Treasury in 2008.  American authorities were concerned that the Alavi Foundation disguised its relationship with Bank Melli Iran, an official Tehran financial institution.  In the Alavi case, which remains unresolved, the U.S. government also sought to take over Iranian-controlled properties, including mosques and schools, in New York, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, and California.

A third co-sponsor of the 2007 Rutgers meeting was the American Iranian Council (AIC), which keeps a low profile.  Its honorary board includes America's most candid academic enthusiast for radical Islam, John Esposito, founder-director of Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU).  Hagel has taught as Esposito's colleague at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, though Hagel's profile page is, curiously, blank.  A Georgetown press bulletin celebrating his Defense nomination states he is a "Distinguished Professor in the Practice of National Governance." 

The controversy stirred up by Secretary Hagel's history as an apologist for the Iranian clerical rulers offers an opportunity -- and obligation -- to explore in greater depth Iran's infiltration of America's Middle East studies establishment from Harvard to Hartford and beyond.  The U.S. must contend not only with Arabist and general Islamist activities on its campuses, but with Iranian propaganda sponsored by an apocalyptic despotism that seeks hegemony over its neighbors, the destruction of Israel, and intimidation of the West.  It's past time to stem the flow of these tainted funds.

Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.  He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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