Despite unprecedented domestic dissent over its brutality, corruption, and manifold existential crises, the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to be emboldened globally. The theocracy exerts soft power internationally as a means to ensure its survival, sustain its capacity for terror operations and kinetic military attacks, and provide cover for its advancement of a nuclear weapons program. It is a regime that regularly calls for the destruction of the “Great Satan” and Israel. In this sense, it is a more overt enemy to America and to freedom writ large than even the regimes of Russia and China. 

Hamas, a chief proxy for the regime’s imperial Islamist ambitions, is at war with Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy and America’s chief ally in the region. While claiming plausible deniability over direct involvement in the October 7 attack on Israel, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei quickly celebrated as a victory the pogrom in which Hamas killed more Jews than have been killed in any single day since the Holocaust, raped girls and women, took over 200 innocents hostage, and released social media video of its savagery, including to babies, pregnant women, the elderly, and the disabled. 

The Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian met just days after the terror attack with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Doha. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force in particular are overseers to Hamas, providing it funding, training, intelligence, ideological backing, and global propaganda, including on American social media platforms such as X. The IRGC is the only government department ever designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). 

The regime’s hard power includes attacks on US bases and the killing of US soldiers and contractors stationed in the region, the taking of US hostages, the attempted kidnapping and killing of US citizens on US soil, the targeting of former US officials for assassination, and cyberwar on US entities. The regime’s soft power abroad is more difficult to spot than these open manifestations of nefarious power but is arguably more potent because of its pervasive, insidious effect on American attitudes and policymaking toward a state opposed to the West’s most fundamental liberal values.

How does a regime so openly hostile to the US develop a robust influence network on US soil? How does it manage to have American think tankers, scholars, civic groups, peace activists, media outlets, celebrities, elected officials, and even the very diaspora it has expunged spread its messaging? I have written elsewhere about the varied soft power nodes of the regime. In this article, I will focus on America’s universities.  

An overarching strategy of the Islamic Republic is one inspired by the USSR and its KGB, which Khamenei has been known to study and emulate, and not only for the need to avoid perestroika and glasnost type reforms that brought an end to the communist dictatorship. His regime, like other anti-American regimes, has learned to capitalize on and reinforce America’s own internal weaknesses to thwart policies that advance the security interests and values of the world’s democracies. America’s growing tendency for self-loathing, division, isolationism, and cynicism toward – if not outright opposition – to its global leadership and the unique capacity of liberal democracy to safeguard human freedom may provide repressive regimes like Iran’s their greatest opportunity for sustaining their rule.

American institutions of higher learning are providing fertile ground for discourses that hamper scrutiny of the world’s top sponsor of terror. The more elite and progressive the school, the more its curricula and culture can resemble political indoctrination rather than open exploration and learning. Narratives such as about the CIA’s involvement in the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mossadegh and naming it – not Islamist and Marxist radicals – as the driving force for the 1979 revolution, vilification of the Pahlavi monarchy, and facile theories about Western imperialism, revolutionary resistance, Islamism, Marxism-Leninism, anti-capitalism, anti-Zionism, Palestinian liberation, Islamophobia, Orientalism, white racial dominance, radical violence, cultural relativism, Islamic feminism, and anti-colonialism fill syllabi, campus organizations, and student social networks and are the very ideas the regime teaches and propagates inside the country to justify its totalitarian ideology. 

It is impossible to know how much of this thinking is the natural output of an open society and how much may be being propelled by Iran, China, Russia, and other undemocratic states. The federal government requires universities to report their foreign donations, and the regime’s ally Qatar tops all other countries, giving $4.7 billion to American universities between 2001 and 2021. 

Even at Brandeis, founded as a Jewish university, condemnation of Hamas came late, and some of the most horrific footage of the persecution of Jewish students was recorded at Harvard University, where the administration has been criticized by the university’s former president Larry Summers, alumni, and donors. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – code for the annihilation of Israel – is chanted and displayed on college campuses across the country.

Students who subscribe to the progressive worldview are likely to be highly critical of Israel and America. Iran’s revolutionary cause, because it is anti-Israeli, anti-American, and anti-modern, is seen as authentic even as the state grows ever more repressive, corrupt, and belligerent. Tellingly by contrast is how Saudi Arabia, a US ally, is subjected to heavy scrutiny despite the fact that – or perhaps because – it is liberalizing, opening to the West, and confronting Iran’s regime, as well as coming close to forging a historic peace with Israel before the Hamas attack. 

The issue of the hijab plays a key role in this moral confusion. The left views the hijab as a matter of diversity, inclusion, and even feminism, a visual rebuke to the right wing. The left self-censors admission of the inherent oppression of the hijab, the fact that even inside the West, it is imposed on Muslim girls from a young age as part of a larger ideology of control, subjugation, and inequality, and that it is the single most important symbol of global Jihad. The reality that girls and women in Iran are being beaten to death for showing some strands of hair does not fit the progressive narrative about the hijab, neither does the willingness of Iranian girls and women to risk their lives to overthrow the regime that forces them to wear it. 

“Regime change” is, in the ethic of these educated elites, contemptible, particularly for peoples of the Middle East. And yet the Woman-Life-Freedom uprising has forced them to face the fierce power of Iranian girls and women and the silence of Western feminists about their decades-long struggle to throw off the real world Handmaid’s Tale that suffocates them. It has compelled them to see, if still not admit, that in the eyes of the Iranian people, wholesale democratic transition is the only means to solving the problem of the Islamic Republic.

One reason for the dissonance between the truth of the lives of the Iranian people and the progressive outlook is cancel culture’s shutting down of opportunities for questioning, critical thought, and exposure to a plurality of perspectives. In one instance at the London School of Economics, I was shouted at incessantly by a group of angry, bearded young men while giving a public talk about the regime’s human rights abuses. They called me a warmonger because I support international sanctions and other pressure on the Islamic Republic, a talking point about me taken straight from the regime itself. The men had taken seats in the auditorium like everyone else. It is impossible to know if such agitators are paid regime agents whose job it is to intimidate and defame dissidents abroad and to shape Western public opinion, or if they are merely misguided students who have absorbed a mindset intolerant of those insisting that regimes like Iran’s are an existential threat to their own freedoms and way of life.     

The Islamic Republic’s soft power strategy prioritizes university scholars, giving those of Iranian descent in particular access to regime insiders while grooming them to provide a whitewashed version of even the most brutal aspects of clerical rule. 

The University of Maryland produces polls on Iranian public opinion that claim the Iranian people strongly support the regime, its top officials, its handling of the economy, and its nuclear and missile development, while also claiming a majority have a positive view of the Taliban, Russia, and China, and a negative view of the US. These results are laughable for Iranians, not least of all because they pay with their lives to protest and strike against the regime and also to show their affinity for the United States. The results run counter to opinion polls conducted even inside the country, such as a famous opinion survey conducted by regime insiders together with Gallop, which resulted in imprisonment of the pollsters because it showed a majority of Iranians want good relations with the US, or other polls that show high levels of dissatisfaction with the regime, its foreign policy, its handling of the economy, and the policy of mandatory hejab.

Scholars at America’s top academic institutions are close to those Washington think tank analysts who promote appeasement of the Islamic Republic. Recent exposés by Semafor and Iran International show how the Islamic Republic’s foreign ministry created an “Iran Experts Initiative” to push Tehran’s positions in Washington, particularly on its nuclear program, and managed to have three of its top members land posts as advisors to Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy to Iran, who is now under State Department and FBI investigation. Their reporting has prompted Republicans in both the House and Senate to press the Biden administration, including the Department of Defense, to account for the hiring of individuals to highly sensitive US national security positions who took direction from Tehran. 

For those of us who have long been sounding the alarm about the regime’s international lobby and propaganda network, the investigative reporting substantiated with email trails between the regime and the experts what we had long alleged: a cadre of English-language scholars, analysts, journalists, and advocates, including at America’s most respected institutions, feign independence but in fact take their talking points straight from an evil cabal fundamentally opposed to human liberty.

If America truly intends to counter the Islamist threat, it must become wise to the corrosion of its own democratic values and the integrity of its universities, and to the exploitation of its freedoms by the world’s leading Islamist force. War between Iran’s imperial terror state and America is already being fought on American soil – it is a war for the minds of young Americans who will soon run our country’s national security establishment, serve in Congress, report the news, and teach future generations.

Mariam Memarsadeghi is founder and director of the Cyrus Forum for Iran’s Future, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a leading advocate for a democratic Iran. 

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