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New Amnesty Report:Students Expelled, Jailed

            Iran’s higher education institutions no longer enjoy any meaningful degree of academic freedom, according to a wide-ranging report by Amnesty International. The security and intelligence apparatus has gradually taken control of universities, colleges and institutes since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005. His administration encouraged “Islamicization” of universities. Academics who were considered too Western or secular were dismissed and student activists were expelled or suspended. “This process then accelerated and intensified in the wake of the mass peaceful protests that punctuated the second half of 2009 when millions of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest against President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in June 2009,” according to the report.

      President Hassan Rouhani, who took office in August 2013, has only made marginal progress in opening up higher education so far. His appointment of Ja’far Tofighi as interim minister of science allowed some banned students and academics to return to higher education. The Ministry of Science announced that 126 students were allowed to resume their studies in August 2013. But hundreds more have not seen a change in their status. The following are excerpts from the report with a link to the full text.
            Since Hassan Rouhani’s election, most media and diplomatic attention has focused on the development of international negotiations relating to Iran’s nuclear programme and their progress. As yet, it still remains uncertain whether, and to what extent, the Rouhani presidency will see a significant reduction in tension and relaxation of the international trade, financial and other sanctions that have impacted Iran’s economy, reduced living standards and Iranians’ access to imported goods. Important though these issues are, however, they should not overshadow other problems that President Rouhani must confront if his government is to overcome the legacy of social, political and economic malaise under President Ahmadinejad and address the aspirations of its burgeoning population, more than half of which is aged under 24, with more than one quarter aged under 15.
            One of the most pressing of these challenges is to be found in Iran’s universities and other institutions of higher education, including medical schools, institutes of technology and community colleges. These institutions have a student population that numbers several million annually, with women reportedly comprising around half or a little more than half, yet the higher education sector no longer enjoys any meaningful degree of academic freedom. Under President Ahmadinejad, any role that the universities had managed to retain as centres of independent thought and critical analysis, or to re-establish after the so-called Cultural Revolution of the early 1980s, was all but eviscerated as the authorities took measures to bring them under closer state control, particularly by the state security and intelligence apparatus.
            This process began soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected President in 2005. He embarked on a new surge of “Islamicization” of the universities, in which courses deemed “western-influenced” were expunged from the curriculum, academic staff considered “secular” were dismissed or forced to retire, and student activists were expelled or suspended. At the same time, the authorities intensified gender segregation on campuses and tightened enforcement of dress and disciplinary codes for both students and teaching staff. This process then accelerated and intensified in the wake of the mass peaceful protests that punctuated the second half of 2009 when millions of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest against President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in June 2009.
             During the protests, in which many students and academic staff participated, the universities emerged as focal points of unrest and opposition to the re-elected President and his backers within the conservative clerical and political hierarchy, including the Supreme Leader. Clearly taken aback and unnerved by the magnitude of the protests, the authorities launched a brutal crackdown of several months’ duration. Spearheaded by the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, a paramilitary force, this succeeded in crushing the unrest through the application of a range of repressive measures, including unnecessary and excessive force; widespread arbitrary arrests and detentions; beatings, torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, several of whom died in custody, and a succession of grossly unfair “show trials” in which defendants were paraded before Revolutionary Courts before being sentenced to often lengthy prison terms. The trials were mostly held behind closed doors except for brief, televised sessions in which dozens of defendants, many of whom had been held incommunicado in extremely coercive conditions, were seen in humiliating conditions “confessing” to threatening national security and pleading for forgiveness. Scores received jail terms; some were released later before completing the full prison terms handed down in court.
            Some of the university academics and students and teaching staff had been among those who joined the protests against President Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Some had openly associated themselves with the principal “opposition” presidential candidates, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, or joined their election campaign teams, and so were particularly targeted in the security clampdown. Others were detained during protests or while making their way to or from demonstrations.
            Security forces also raided university precincts and student dormitories; allegedly causing the deaths of up to five students, and the authorities banned scores of student publications and student groups; these included the Office for the Consolidation of Unity (OCU), Iran’s largest student organization, which had branches in universities. Prior to its suppression, the OCU had spoken out to demand human rights and other reforms and urged the authorities to show greater respect for the country’s Islamic Student Associations (ISA).
            Many students were released uncharged after the chastening experience of detention; some, however, were then barred temporarily or permanently from returning to their university studies. Others were charged with public order offences, or accused of committing more serious, often vaguely worded and broadly defined crimes, such as “spreading lies in order to disturb the public opinion”, “acting against national security by participating in illegal gatherings, “insulting the Supreme Leader”, or “insulting the President”. Some were accused of committing “moharebeh” (enmity against God), a capital offence. Those facing charges were tried before Revolutionary Courts, where they did not receive fair trials, and were sentenced to prison terms and, in some cases, flogging, when convicted.
            Amid this new wave of persecution, thousands of students and academics left Iran, adding to the exodus of intellectual talent that has been a recurrent by-product of state repression under the Islamic Republic. Those who remained and were able to resume their higher education, returned to universities over which the authorities now assumed much closer control and imposed stricter surveillance and disciplinary regimes designed to root out and suppress any expression of dissent.
            Before 2005, universities had a degree of autonomy in appointing their own deans and academic staff but the first Minister of Science appointed by President Ahmadinejad withdrew these powers from state universities and took them under the direct control of his Ministry; henceforth, the Ministry was able to ensure that not only senior level administrative positions but even junior teaching posts in the universities were made according to its own criteria, including criteria other than academic merit, such as membership of the Basij or experience within the Iranian military. With state security officials also now effectively ruling the roost, university authorities moved to chill dissent, using a system of “starring” to put student activists, and those who failed to adhere to strict dress and behaviour codes, on notice that they had were under official suspicion and under threat of disciplinary penalties, including suspension or expulsion or worse, if they should be seen to continue their perceived transgression.
Women in Higher Education
            The renewed “Islamicization” process initiated under President Ahmadinejad had a gender-specific impact and came about as the number of women and girls attending university and other centres of higher education in Iran had outstripped the number of male university students. The gender segregation of campuses imposed during the Cultural Revolution of the early 1980s, which appears to have led some families to see universities as safe places for their daughters to attend, combined with the later lifting of certain restrictions on the courses available to women, contributed to a steady rise in the number of female students in higher education.
            Women comprise around half, or slightly more than half, of all Iranian students in higher education. The “Islamicization” of the universities during the Cultural Revolution had many negative aspects and consequences but, somewhat ironically, the strict gender segregation of campuses that resulted from it appears to have had a positive impact in leading many families to conclude that the universities were places to which it was safe to send their daughters.
      The number of women entering higher education increased progressively during the 1980s after the authorities decided to lift partially the restrictions imposed following the 1979 Islamic Revolution on women’s access to some courses. The steady rise in the number of women in higher education continued throughout the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century. By the academic year 2005-2006, the first under President Ahmadinejad, women were reported to comprise more than 55 per cent of the total number of students in higher education.4 In 2007, women were reported to comprise nearly 58 per cent of all students at universities and or other institutions of higher education in Iran.
            Official efforts to reduce the number and proportion of female students in higher education and restore the balance in favour of men began to be implemented after President Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, although the degree to which they succeeded remains open to question. The measures included quotas which some universities imposed to limit the number of female students who could enrol on specific degree courses while other courses, such as mining engineering, which the authorities perceived as suitable only for men, were closed to female students. As well, courses such as women’s studies were reformulated away from any focus on women’s rights under international law in order to give priority attention to women’s “traditional” roles and responsibilities within the family as wives and mothers, and to emphasize “Islamic values” as the key factor determining the position of women in Iranian society, and their rules of behaviour.
            Female students have told Amnesty International that, in their view, the university authorities’ stricter enforcement of dress and conduct codes, coupled with the curriculum changes and quotas limiting female enrolment in particular courses, had a disproportionate, adverse impact on women and may have deterred some girls from pursuing higher education.
Religious Minorities
            Members of minority religions unrecognized by Iran’s Constitution such as Baha’is, have been largely excluded from universities since shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and thereby, in many cases, denied access to higher education. To Amnesty International’s knowledge, the Iranian authorities have never openly acknowledged such discrimination, which contravenes international law and human right treaties to which Iran is party, or sought to justify or explain it. According to unofficial sources, such discrimination is maintained under classified official guidelines.
            What is clear, however, is that the exclusion of Baha’is and member of certain other religious minorities fits with the broader pattern of official discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities that are considered “un-Islamic” or of uncertain loyalty to the authorities, who deny them access to jobs in government service, freedom to exercise their religious beliefs or, in the case of ethnic minorities, use their own language as a medium of instruction in schools.
Higher Education Under President Rouhani
      Against this background, the period since President Rouhani took office has seen some, albeit limited positive developments. In particular, following the appointment of Ja’far Tofighi as interim Minister of Science, the Ministry allowed some banned students and academics to return to higher education, although they had to give written undertakings as to their future conduct and activities. In September 2013, the interim Minister announced that his Ministry had established a working group that would investigate complaints from banned students and academic staff, to which he invited recently banned students to submit complaints, and said those whose complaints were upheld would be allowed to resume their studies. He said that students who had been banned before 2011 should re-take the annual university exam if they wished to return to higher education.
            As yet, it is not possible to determine the impact of these measures, although the Ministry of Science said in August 2013 that 126 formerly banned students had been allowed to resume their studies. For hundreds of others, however, there appears to have been no change, and they remain barred from university either because of their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression or the rights to peaceful assembly and association, or because they are Baha’is or members of other officially unrecognized religious groups who continue to face discrimination.
            President Rouhani’s first months in office have raised hopes of a less repressive system in Iran and greater government respect both for the human rights of Iran’s people and for its obligations under international human rights law. The next months and years will be crucial to whether Iran’s universities will be liberated from arbitrary interference by the security police and their political masters and be given the opportunity to become centres of independent scholarship, free thinking and innovation. Many in Iran and from around the world will be watching to see if President Rouhani seeks to address this crisis in Iranian higher education, as his pre-election oratory as an advocate of reform suggested he may, and if so with what degree of energy, resolution and ultimate success.
Click here for the full text.

Photo credits: University of Science and Technology by Americophile (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Isfahan University graduates by gire_3pich2005 (Own work) [FAL] via Wikimedia Commons


Obama at West Point : On Iran Diplomacy

      On May 28, President Barack Obama cited progress in diplomacy with Iran as an example of strong American leadership in his address to West Point military academy graduates. “It has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side” during nuclear talks, he said. The following are excerpts from his speech.

            Skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong. Let me offer just two examples why.
            In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined with us to impose sanctions. NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies. The IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy. OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias. This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions; yesterday, I spoke to their next President. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will be grave challenges. But standing with our allies on behalf of international order has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future. 
            Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the United States, Israel, and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for years. But at the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government. Now, we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully. The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement – one that is more effective and durable than what would be achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.
            This is American leadership. This is American strength. In each case, we built coalitions to respond to a specific challenge. Now we need to do more to strengthen the institutions that can anticipate and prevent them from spreading.

Kerry on Amir Hekmati’s Detention

            On May 26, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement marking the 1,000th day of U.S. citizen Amir Hekmati’s detention in Iran. Iranian authorities arrested Hekmati—a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen born in Arizona and a former Marine— in August 2011 for allegedly working for the CIA. A 2012 retrial overturned the espionage conviction and instead charged him with “cooperating with hostile governments.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But on May 25, Hekmati’s lawyer said that he plans to appeal the sentence. The following is the full text of Kerry’s statement.

            On this Memorial Day, we honor brave Americans who gave their lives for the notion that someone else's freedom is connected to our own. But this Memorial Day also marks another milestone: 1,000 days since an American veteran, Amir Hekmati, was unjustly detained while he was visiting his family in Iran.
            Mr. Hekmati has spent almost three years in an Iranian prison on false espionage charges. We remain especially concerned about reports of Mr. Hekmati’s health in prison.
Mr. Hekmati’s family in the United States has endured the hardship of his absence for too long. He is the eldest son, and his family misses him and needs him home.
            We respectfully request that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran release Mr. Hekmati so that he may be reunited with his family in the United States.

UN: Iran Complying with Interim Nuke Deal

            On May 23, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed in a new report that Iran is fulfilling its commitments under the interim agreement. Iran has halted its most sensitive activities and rolled back its program in other key areas. Tehran, for the first time since 2008, has also provided the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with additional information related to past activities that may have been related to weapons research. The following are excerpts from the Arms Control Association’s analysis of the IAEA report by Kelsey Davenport.

            Taken together, Iran’s actions on the Joint Plan of Action and the November 11 agreement with the IAEA that are outlined in this report demonstrate that Tehran is fulfilling its obligations and willing to be more transparent about its nuclear activities. The cooperation provides some positive momentum as the P5+1 and Iran enter the final rounds of talks on a comprehensive agreement by July 20.
Key Findings:
•Iran provided the IAEA with information on exploding bridgewire detonators, one of the activities with possible military dimensions (PMDs), laid out in a November 2011 IAEA report. The IAEA is assessing that information.
•Iran agreed to an additional set of actions to provide the IAEA with more information regarding PMDs and outstanding concerns, including information on neutron initiators and explosives.
•Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride gas has dropped to 38.4 kilograms, down from 160 kilograms in the February report.
Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent has increased to 8,475 kg, up from 7,609 kg in the February report.
•Iran commissioned a facility that will convert 3.5 percent enriched uranium from hexaflouride gas to a less-proliferation sensitive powder form.
•Iran declared a new facility to the IAEA, a light-water reactor to produce medical isotopes that will be constructed near Shiraz.
•Iran and the IAEA are making progress on an updated safeguards approach to the Arak heavy water reactor.
Progress on Possible Military Dimension (PMDs)
            The May 2013 IAEA report shows progress on the agency’s investigations in the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program for the first time since 2008. The IAEA laid out its suspicions about past military activities related to weapons development in detail in a 2011 report, but discussions on these issues predated the public release of this information.
            Under the November 11 agreement, Iran agreed to complete six actions by February. More actions were agreed to at that point, including Iran’s agreement to provide the IAEA with information related to its development of exploding bridgewire detonators by May 15.
            While progress is being made on the questions related to PMDS, a number of other issues remain unresolved. The May report said that satellite imagery indicates further activity at Parchin, a site of interest in the IAEA’s investigations. Continued construction activities will make it difficult for the IAEA to conduct their investigation into the activities at this site.
            In addition to the PMD issues, the IAEA reported that Iran completed an additional six steps as part of the November 11 agreement. These steps include vists to a uranium mine and uranium concentration plant. Access to a laser enrichment center, updated information on the Arak heavy water reactor and discussions on its safeguards agreement, and information about uranium source material not being enriched.
            This information will help the IAEA evaluate whether or not Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and build a baseline that can help ensure that materials are not being used for covert activities.
20 Percent Enriched Uranium Stockpile Drops
            Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has dropped dramatically since implementation of the Joint Plan of Action. Iran now has 38.4 kg of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent in its stockpile.
            The reduced stockpile of 20 percent enriched material to 38.4 kg puts Iran even further from the 250 kg which, when enriched to weapons grade, is enough material for one nuclear weapon. The continued downblending and conversion extends the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it choses to do so.
3.5 Percent Enriched Uranium
            Iran is allowed to continue enriching uranium to 3.5 percent under the November 24 interim agreement, but agreed to convert the uranium enriched to that level during the six months of the initial deal to a powder form that can be used to fuel nuclear power reactors. Delays to that facility caused concern that Iran may not be able to meet this deadline, but the new IAEA report says that the facility was commissioned on May 10.
            According to the interim agreement with the P5+1, Iran will need to reduce its stockpile back down to less than 7,500 kg by July 20 by converting the excess from hexafluoride gas to the enriched uranium powder.
New Arak Safeguards Underway
            As per the terms of the November 24 agreement, Iran has halted installation of major components at the Arak heavy water reactor (IR-40), and provided the IAEA with updated design information on the reactor.
            According to the May 23 report, Iran and the IAEA met on May 5 to continue discussions about an updated safeguards approach for the reactor. They agreed to conclude the safeguards approach by August 25.
New Facility Declared
            Iran also updated its declaration to the IAEA by adding a new facility. In the previous report, Iran provided information to the IAEA about a planned light water reactor to produce medical isotopes. The May IAEA report says that Iran is planning to build that reactor at Shiraz. However, no timeline for construction was provided in the report.
Centrifuges Unchanged at Natanz
            The May IAEA report confirms that the number of centrifuges installed at Natanz remains unchanged at 15,420 IR-1 machines in 90 cascades, and 1,008 IR-2Ms machines.
            The number of IR-1 centrifuges enriching uranium to 3.5 percent at Natanz also remains unchanged from the prior two reports, with about 9,400 IR-1 machines operating in 54 cascades.
            Under the November 24 agreement, Iran committed not to install any further centrifuges at it Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and not to operate any additional centrifuges beyond the number that were enriching at the time of the November agreement.
Research and Development Continues
            According to the May IAEA report, Iran has not begun testing a new centrifuge, the IR-8 at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz. Similar to the February report, the IAEA noted that a centrifuge casing for the IR-8 was installed, but it was not yet connected for testing.
            The IAEA noted that Iran is continuing to test other advanced centrifuges, the IR-4, IR-6, and IR-6s machines in single centrifuges and cascades at the facility.
            Iran is allowed to continue these research and development activities under existing IAEA safeguards as part of the November 24 deal.

Click here for the full brief.
Click here for the IAEA report.

Zarif & Ashton Announce June 16-20 Talks

      On May 26, E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that a new round of nuclear talks is scheduled for June 16 to 20 in Vienna. The last round of negotiations on May 16 between Iran and the world’s six major powers —Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States —ended without any tangible progress. The following is a statement released by the European Union after the meeting in Istanbul.

            The High Representative held very long and useful discussions with Foreign Minister Zarif in order to inform the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme.
            They explored different possibilities as part of an ongoing process.
            The next formal round of E3/EU+3 talks with Iran will be from 16-20 June in Vienna.
In the meantime, the High Representative and Minister are recommending that an experts’ meeting should take place soon.
            Other political discussions will continue as and when needed.



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