Soon after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s leaders shut down the entire country’s university system to purge it of Western influence. Scholars were removed; “West-toxification” — a term coined in the 1960s to decry the loss of Iranian authenticity — was brandished as an enemy; the regime even established a new university, Tarbiat Modarres, to imbue new scholars with the values of the Islamic Revolution.
Echoes of such calls could be heard last month in the raucous Iranian parliamentary debate to remove Iran’s Minister of Science, Reza Faraj-Dana — guilty, for his accusers, of tolerating dissent and moral laxity among university professors.
But, as it frequently happens in corrupt autocracies, what’s not right for thee, is good for me. Today, Iranian leaders still chant “Death to America,” see Great Britain behind every conspiracy theory they can concoct, and consider their country’s relations with the West in antagonistic terms.
Meanwhile, their children — the privileged offspring of Iran’s ruling elites — are flocking overseas to study, without fear of moral and intellectual contamination.
Mr Fereydoun has been a stalwart of the Revolution from the beginning. He was responsible for the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s security when the revolutionary cleric who founded the Islamic Republic returned to Iran in 1979. He served as provincial governor and later as Iran’s ambassador to Malaysia for eight years, before joining Iran’s delegation to the UN in New York and eventually becoming one of his brother’s advisors after his electoral victory last June.
Living in New York no doubt exposed Fereydoun and his family to the perils of West-toxification, but not enough to prevent Maryam from attending Columbia University for her undergraduate studies. After Columbia, she attended the prestigious London School of Economics thanks to a Lord Dahrendorf scholarship — a Deutsche Bank-sponsored award for students from emerging countries.
This scholarship for emerging countries’ financially needy students was probably not designed to boost the career chances of the Iranian president’s niece. But this is precisely what happened.
Eventually, she landed a job in the City of London at the German banking giant — though, it appears, not in the sanctions’ compliance office (A Deutsche Bank spokesperson declined to comment).
While in New York, Ms Fereydoun may have met Mahdi Zarif, the son of Iran’s Foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, and Seyed Ahmad Araghchi, a nephew of Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Seyed Abbas Araghchi. They both earned their degrees at the taxpayer-funded City University of New York.
Mahdi spent over a decade in the U.S., completing his education and eventually working for an aerospace company and a telecom company before returning to Iran in 2013. Araghchi is also back in Iran, after years spent in Paris and New York.
Sometimes, degrees are not completed. That was the case with former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s son, Mehdi, who briefly moonlighted as an Oxford Ph.D. candidate, but eventually returned to Iran to serve a short prison sentence.
Achievements are sometimes inflated as well. Mahdi Zarif claims to have worked for Verizon — but Verizon has confirmed that he only worked for one of their contractors.
Clearly, as Sting would lyrically put it, Iranian regime officials must love their children too.
In a way, one can understand their educational choices: they must have bankrolled their studies in the decadent West while chanting “Death to America” at Friday prayers in order to hedge their bets. After all, who, better than these autocrats, knows that the future may hold nasty surprises?
Today their children could rise to the top even without an elementary school diploma — but one day the chants of “Death to America” may subside, along with the ruling clique’s privileges.
But why should the children of Iran’s rulers, whose affluence is the direct result of political repression, injustice, corruption, and abuse of power, benefit from a life of luxury and privilege in the West that their parents are still busy denying to their less-fortunate peers back at home?
Western governments and academic institutions should not give them visas, work permits, green cards and study grants so easily — especially when, for all those ordinary Iranians who hate their country’s government and long for a better life in the West, getting out of Iran is almost impossible.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
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