The outbreak of anti-Israel sentiment in American universities after the Hamas attack of October 7 has been widely documented. Students as well as professors rushed to celebrate the atrocities: one Cornell professor found the murders “exhilarating,” while a Columbia colleague declared the slaughter “awesome.” Then when the inevitable Israeli response began, with a forcefulness that should have surprised no one, the Hamas enthusiasts protested on campus and off, often with violence. This has been a sorry episode in the history of American universities, and it has contributed to the already widespread public skepticism toward once-revered institutions of higher education.

There would be much to be said about the events of October 2023 as indicators of the systemic antisemitism in American progressive culture, but that is for another time. In the context of this Caravan concerned with Iranian soft power, the point is the contrast between the voluble outcry with regard to the Gaza War and the deafening silence on American campuses concerning the repressive character of the Iranian regime. No atrocity committed by the regime in Tehran, no matter how vile, interests the idealists on American campuses. As other contributors to this discussion show, some institutions of higher education have turned into mouthpieces for Tehran and do their best to silence criticism. Yet if universities have become incubators of extremism and advocates of America’s enemies, why should society support them? We should first ask how did we come to this. How has Tehran been able to impose its point of view on American institutions?

Of course, there are some brave dissidents on campus and elsewhere in our public sphere who oppose the regime. There are plenty of protests from the Iranian-American exile community which is largely hostile to the regime in Tehran, as is public sentiment in Iran itself.  But campus progressives who otherwise rally against every microaggression have had nothing to say about the attacks on Iranian women who refused to wear the hijab, just as they had nothing to say about the rapes carried out by Hamas, which they may have found “exhilarating.  Nor do campus progressives, faculty or students, speak out against the torture of political prisoners in Iran, the intentional blinding of protestors or the execution of critical journalists. Even Iranian attempts to assassinate critical voices in the United States have left the progressive community cold. The soft power of the Islamic Republic has its knee on the throat of the academic left, unable to utter the smallest word of critique. How come? Why is it that scholars and students, who otherwise claim to be keen to engage in critical thinking, fall obsequiously silent in the face of repression in Iran?

Answering this question requires a diagnosis of the multifaceted malaise that pervades much of higher education. Some of the explanations are specific to Iran and the relationship of Iran specialists to the regime, and some are a function of particular political constellations in the U.S. Yet the success of Iranian soft power in the U.S. is ultimately also about a much broader failure of U.S. higher education to live up to its mission of free inquiry, which is now too often subordinated to ideological allegiances, vacuous virtue signaling and an obligatory hostility toward the U.S. embedded in curricula. The Iran problem–the silencing of Iran critics by higher education– is very much a piece of a larger problem in the academy. Fixing it will not be easy and will require perseverance, courage and vision.

One can distinguish three dynamics specific to Iranian soft power in the academy. The first and most innocent version of scholarly silence with regard to the policies of repression carried out by Tehran pertains to those U.S.-based experts whose specialized research requires them to travel to Iran to conduct interviews or to consult archives and the like. These academics know that if they express public criticism of the Iranian regime here, the regime may refuse to grant them a visa, and their research would therefore come to an abrupt halt. This extortion is similar to the problem of Western journalists reporting from any authoritarian contexts who know that they have to watch what they say or report, or otherwise risk being expelled.  No wonder that some journalists and academics begin to sound like parrots of the dictatorships that they should be scrutinizing critically: in order to do their job, they have to do it poorly. Add to this the fact that Iran ranks among the lowest countries for press freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranks it 177 out of 180.

Secondly, there is a different kind of professional misconduct, when scholars based in the U.S. and therefore not in fear of being imprisoned like their colleagues in Iran nonetheless choose to trim their accounts in order to accommodate political pressure here. Thus there are some scholars who reportedly refrain from criticizing the Islamic Republic for fear of appearing to agree with conservative or neo-conservative policy positions. In the Democratic-dominated academy, if a scholar’s research demonstrates the validity of Republican policies, that scholar may face pressure to suppress those facts or to reinterpret them fancifully in order to come to other, politically more acceptable conclusions. Such is our academic freedom today: scholars refrain from criticizing the Iranian regime in order to avoid offending their own largely Democratic colleagues.

Writing in Tablet, Arian Khameneh discusses Ladan Zarabadi for example, a gender studies scholar at UCLA with a focus on Iranian feminism. Not surprisingly, her concerns reportedly put her at odds with the misogynistic policies of the Tehran regime. Khameneh labels her “an unabashed critic.” However, her progressive colleagues were not at all welcoming. “Zarabadi found that her colleagues in U.S. academia were less interested in seeing Iran through the eyes of Iranians and more prone to positioning themselves in a dichotomous ideological battle between American progressives and conservatives–one in which excessive criticism of the regime in Tehran can be perceived as ‘right-wing’ and even ‘imperialist.’ ‘It is not just about interpreting reality, it’s about interpreting reality in a certain way to fulfill a specific ideology or a specific discourse.’” For Zarabadi’s colleagues--so argues Khameneh--the fact that U.S. conservatives criticize Tehran means that academic criticism of Tehran must be prohibited. The facts concerning the repression of women in Iran are worth a whole lot less than the political calculus in the U.S.

The political opposition of American conservatives, especially the Trump administration, toward Iran pushed progressive academics to defend Tehran. Yet earlier, the Obama administration’s policy of appeasing Iran acted as a pull factor for the same scholars: siding with the Obama-Biden vision required endorsing the Mullahs. President Obama, supported by Secretary of State Kerry, famously tried to move the U.S. away from alignment with the Arab states and Israel and toward a model in which Saudi Arabia would “share” the region with Iran. The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the “nuclear deal,” was always a key part of this effort to appease the regime in Tehran, which otherwise had demonstrated consistent hostility toward the U.S. Underlying the Obama administration's appeasement policy lay the naive assumption that Iranian hostility would be reduced if the U.S. offered preemptive concessions. In the promotion of this softer approach to Iran, an Iran-created network of policy makers, the Iran Experts Initiative, was formed and succeeded in placing some of its members in influential positions in the State Dept and the Pentagon as well as in key think tanks. This third version of Iranian soft power proceeded thanks to some very successful personnel placements.

Yet these three specific factors–academics with their need to have access to Iran, the impact of political polarization on scholarly discourse, and the influence of Iran-friendly agents in government–would not have shaped academic discourse as extensively were it not for profound changes that had already been taking place in higher education for decades. The various pressures to refrain, at the least, from criticizing the Islamic Republic fell on fertile ground in the relevant university disciplines–parts of the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, and especially Middle East Studies–that have embraced a fundamental hostility to the West and an exclusively negative estimation of the role of the U.S. in the world.  In large swaths of these fields, the West is viewed as marked by indelible sins, the worst moments of which are deemed to be always present, with no regard to positive achievements or improvements, only permanent guilt. European history is therefore reduced to colonialism, just as American history is always only slavery, never a beacon of freedom. The role of the West and in particular the U.S. in the world is therefore judged to be exclusively negative. Of course universities ought to be the site in which students develop skills of critical thinking, including criticism of their own societies, but that legitimate project of criticism has morphed into oppressive indoctrination. Hence curricula built up around the dogmatic rejection of the ideas of the Western tradition or the policies of the U.S., which are presented as a priori to blame for all that is wrong in the world.

This malaise pervades important parts of the university, and it is in this milieu that Iranian soft power has found a welcoming audience eager to have its biases confirmed. The propagandists of the Islamic Republic of Iran present it as a revolutionary regime hostile to the West, exactly what ideology-driven scholars can view as confirming their ideological assumptions. For those students for whom “revolution is the answer” and who want to pursue it “by any means necessary,” the brutality of the Iranian regime turns out to be attractive: no wonder they do not protest when Iranian demonstrators are shot down. For campus progressives, the aspirations of Iranian women to have the freedom to choose whether to cover their hair or not are nothing more than an expression of a decadent western liberalism; they therefore side instead with the regime because they view the mandatory hijab as the uniform of a heroic revolt against the West.  Progressives who stand firmly on the liberal side in our domestic culture wars quickly drop their commitment to gender equality or gay rights in order to embrace terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah or states like Iran, whose “anti-imperialism” is more than sufficient to provide an excuse for their reactionary cultural values.

The success of Iranian soft power in U.S. higher education is therefore not only a matter of a pro-Iran network of professors. It is also a symptom of a wider rot, a pervasive anti-western, and especially anti-American belief structure. It is this mindset that fueled the eruption of anti-semitism in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack. Such is the grim diagnosis: A robotic ideology fundamentally hostile to liberal values and serious scholarship has a stranglehold on parts of our institutions of higher education.

The real challenge, however, is to figure out how to solve the problem and save our universities. That is easier said than done, given traditions of faculty governance: ideologues on the faculty get to appoint new ideologues. Curing the universities will not come quickly, but it is a project worth taking up. It will require leadership and vision by university leaders who can exercise considerable shaping power through appointments of level-headed department chairs and program directors, but especially through decisions about the allocation of funds. Resources should be withheld from units that have become irrevocably politicized, and new hires are only allowed if the political deck is not stacked in advance. In some cases, new units–centers, departments or even schools–could be initiated, in order to bypass the hotbeds of academic anti-Americanism. There will be howls of protest, but reform is possible with the right leadership. Trustees also have to pay attention when choosing presidents, and donors must be careful with the funds they make available. There are smart ways to give that can prevent resources from flowing in the wrong direction.

Taken together such steps could shift established ideological alignments in higher education and move American universities back toward a seriousness of thinking and a commitment to the common good. The country needs an intellectual rearmament.  Institutions of higher education need to be able to withstand the malign influences of foreign soft power, Iranian or otherwise. Our universities can be regained, but only if we decide to fight to retrieve them.

overlay image