Baha'i and Human Rights: Closure of Open University

Materials concerning the Closure by the Iranian Government of the Baha'i Open University in Iran, September-October 1998

Arrests of Baha'is in Iran

Author: Juan Cole

Date: Tue, 6 Oct 1998 01:55:24 -0400

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(Thanks to Rob Stauffer, who submitted a file of news wire stories on the recent developments in Iran. I have cut, paste and rewritten them so as to present the information without infringing copyright. Only the form, not the substance, of such reports is copyright).


(Compiled from news wires):

United Press International reported on October 1 that Gerald Filson, spokesperson for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Canada, said that Iranian authorities had arrested 32 Baha'is, according to Baha'is in other parts of the Middle East.

This was confirmed by U.S. State Department Spokesman James Rubin, who said that the U.S. urges Iran to allow freedom of religion to all.

Filson said that the persons arrested were teachers in the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education.

(This is the Baha'i Open University, made necessary because Iranian Baha'is have been forbidden entrance into state universities in Iran by the Shi`ite religious authorities.) Baha'i teachers have been giving university-level education to college-age youth in private homes. All Baha'is who had been faculty in Iranian universities had been dismissed from their positions shortly after the Islamic Revolution.

Those arrested included six members of the Institute Board, including Na`im Khazih-'i. The arrests began Tuesday and continued through midweek, and involved raids on Baha'i community property in 14 major cities. Filson said that the arrests were carried out at the behest of the Ministry of Information, "which coordinates intelligence and security affairs in Iran." Baha'i books, papers and furniture were seized, in an apparent attempt to close down the Baha'i Open University. One board member of the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education, Ghulam-Husayn Amini, was released in Tehran, and said he was told to convey the message that the Open University had to be closed down.

Six Baha'is continue to face execution in Iran, two for converting a Muslim woman to the Baha'i faith (she says she was brought up Baha'i).

In Mashhad death sentences were confirmed against Mr. Sirus Zabihi-Moghaddam and Mr. Hedayat Kashefi Najafabadi. They were arrested in the fall of 1997 for holding religious "family life" meetings. Along with the recently executed Baha'i, Mr. Ruhollah Rowhani, they were sentenced to death in January or February after secret trials at which they received no legal representation. A fourth Baha'i prisoner in Mashhad, who had also been sentenced to death earlier this year, Mr. Ataollah Hamid Nasirizadeh, was informed orally this week that his sentence had been commuted to ten years' imprisonment. State Department Spokesman James Rubin said the two had been condemned "for nothing else than the free exercise of their religion,' and that "The United States urges the government of Iran to exercise restraint and not to carry out these death sentences."

The Clinton administration has been attempting to engage Tehran in a dialogue for some months, since in the view of some senior U.S. officials President Mohamad Khatami is a relative moderate with regard to Iranian policy-making. The overture was dismissed Monday by Foreign Minister Kemal Kharrazi. He said that first U.S. policies must change.

Juan Cole


U of Michigan


H-Bahai Persecutions and Khatami

Author: Juan Cole

Date: Fri, 02 Oct 1998 19:11:48 -0400

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From: Juan Cole


I would suggest that the hardline judiciary and gendarmes, under the

control of rightwing clerics who hate President Khatami and everything he

stands for, are going after the Baha'is as a way of embarrassing him


That Mashhad, a provincial eastern city not known for its cosmopolitanism,

is the site of the two execution threats, suggests that these measures are

being taken at a local level and in institutions not under the direct

control of the president's office. (The president in Iran is really more

like the US vice president--relatively lacking in power and anything but

symbolic authority outside a narrow executive sphere that includes a few

bureaucracies such as the Interior Ministry--but which excludes the

judiciary, military and most forms of police).

The hardliners know that persecuting the Baha'is will provoke protests from

the U.S. and Western liberal forces with whom Khatami has sought a

rapprochement of sorts. If Khatami attempts to protect the Baha'is, he can

be painted inside Iran as soft on heretics and apostates, thus weakening

his support further with any Shi`ite religious forces who do support him.

If he does not act at least behind the scenes to protect the Baha'is, then

the human rights community in the West will attempt to punish Iran in ways

that will set back Khatami's attempts at rapprochement. Either way, he

faces a potential loss of support and prestige, from internal and external


It seems to me that there is a parallel between this sort of tactic on the

part of the Iranian Khomeinist Right and the red-baiting engaged in by the

American Right during the height of the Cold War.

In retrospect, the Iranian Baha'is have most frequently become 'national'

issues when the conflicts among political forces inside Iran have been most

severe. During the Constitutional Revolution, Baha'is were attacked by

Fadlu'llah Nuri and he attempted to tar all liberals with the 'Baha'i'

brush. The aftermath of the failed Musaddiq attempt at left of center

republicanism opened up a space again in the 1950s where ambitious ulama

and military men could use the Baha'is to shift public political discourse

substantially to the right. The Revolutionary period of the early 1980s,

of course, witnessed the execution of 200 Baha'is (alongside 10,000

'Islamic Leftists' of the Mujahidin party and many liberals)--again, in an

attempt to push national political discourse to the far right.

The Rafsanjani-Khamenei condominium of 1989-1997 was a period of relative

consensus in Iran's political elite, and so they could agree to cease overt

presssure on the Baha'is (only one Baha'i was executed under Rafsanjani, I

think, and he was a high-profile agent of the Universal House of Justice

who attempted to liaison to the UN Commission on Human Rights). Of course,

they developed a plan for putting more subtle pressures on the Baha'is such

as denying them a university education, forcing them into the working class

and marginalizing them.

The election of Khatami in May, 1997, signalled a new era of divisiveness

within the political elite, with Khatami's relative liberalism polarizing

the political debate and provoking the fierce opposition of Khomeinist

theocrats. I would argue that the latter are broaching the Baha'i issue

again, as a means of putting Khatami in an impossible situation.


Juan Cole


U of Michigan


Date: 06 Oct 98 17:45:41 -0500

From: US Office of Public Information


Organization: New York Baha'i Offices

To All Public Information Representatives

October 6, 1998

Dear Baha'i Friends,


The National Spiritual Assembly has received an update about the

situation of the Baha'is in Iran. We now know that at least 36

faculty members of the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education were

arrested between September 29th and October 3rd in cities across the

country. Most of these faculty members have now been released, but

seven, five in Tabriz and two in Tehran, remain in custody.

The arrests were carried out by officers of the Iranian government's

intelligence agency, the Ministry of Information, and also involved

the seizure of textbooks, scientific papers and document records, some

70 computers and school furniture, including tables and benches.

Those who were arrested were asked to sign a document declaring that

the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education had ceased to exist as of

September 29th, and agreeing that they would no longer cooperate with

it. The detainees refused to sign the document.

Intelligence officers raided more than 500 Baha'i homes throughout

Iran. When queried about the seizure of personal household effects,

like television sets and pieces of furniture, these officers claimed

that they had been authorized by the Attorney General to take anything

they wished.

The wave of arrests and harassment bears the marks of a centrally

orchestrated campaign intended to lend impetus to the declared

policy of the Iranian Government to nullify the Baha'i community

and force its members to convert to Islam. This policy became

widely known in 1993 when it was accidentally revealed that

the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Council had earlier adopted a

position on "The Baha'i Question" in a secret document dated

February 25, 1991 and signed by Ayatollah Khamenei. The document

contained such declarations as the following:

The Government's dealings with them must be in such a way that

their progress and development are blocked.

They must be expelled from universities, either in the admission

process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes

known that they are Baha'is.

A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural

roots outside the country.

Deny them employment if they identify themselves as Baha'is.

Deny them any position of influence, such as in the educational

sector, etc.

It is evident that the Iranian Government has worked at various means

to achieve these ends; among them are the banning of the

administrative institutions of the Faith, the disruption of the

moral education classes for Baha'i children and young people, the

economic strangulation of the Baha'is through such means as the

dismissal of Baha'i employees, the denial of pensions and the

confiscation of properties, and the prohibition of Baha'i youth

from entering institutions of higher learning in Iran. The

recent attacks by Iranian authorities can be viewed as effecting

only a part of this policy.

You are encouraged to incorporate this updated information into all

of your future press releases and media contacts.

Many rumors have been circulating about the situation of the Baha'is

in Iran. Some of these are true and some are false. The situation in

Iran is changing rapidly, and until you hear otherwise from the

National Spiritual Assembly, you should continue to act on the

information that has been released by the National Assembly. Public

information representatives, and the local Spiritual Assemblies that

they represent, should follow the instructions and guidance already

received from the National Assembly, and should not allow rumors to

deter them from acting swiftly.

The institutions of the Faith are verifying information coming out of

Iran, and as soon as new and reliable information is available, it

will be conveyed to the friends. In the meantime, public information

representatives should not rely on the statements and rumors of

individual Baha'is, no matter how reliable these may seem.

With loving Baha'i greetings,

Office of Public Information

Baha'is of the United States



The following is from Auxiliary Board Member Mrs. Angelica Huerta:


Subj: Fw: [Fwd: names of those arrested]

Date: 10/15/98 2:51:22 PM Pacific Daylight Time

From: Angelica Huerta <

Subject: Fw: [Fwd: names of those arrested]

Forwarded for your information and prayers


Dear friends,

Please keep these dear servants

in your prayers.

Warmest regards,


Names of arrested persons and places where properties seized

Places where raids against property took


29 September to 1 October 1998







Khurramabad Hamadan,

Tonokabon Arak Birjand Chalus Tabriz

Qaimshahr Zanjan

Names of those arrested

Members of the Board of the Institute

1. Dr. Naim Khaze

2. Engineer Sohail Golkar

3. Engineer Rezwan Ashraf

4. Engineer Gholamhosain Amini

5. Engineer Riyaz Ighanian

6. Dr. Enayatullah Mazlumi

Members of the Institute in Tehran

7. Engineer Kamran Mortezai

8. Engineer Fuad Sanei

9. Mr. Zabih Fakhr-Tusi

10. Mr. Hosain Fanaian (Qaimshahr)

11. Mrs. Faranak Iqani (Khadimin, Babul)

12. Engineer Faizullah Roushan (Khadimin, Sari)

13. Engineer Daryush Faez (Khadimin, Gowhardasht)

14. Mr. Missagh Laqai (Khadimin, Babulsar)

15. Mr. Mokhfarii (Khadimin, Tonokabon)

16. Mr. Nasser Mansur (Khadimin, Chalus)

17. Mr. Rezwan Tavakkuli (Registrar of the Institute, Tehran)

18. Mr. Payman Ghiyami (Institute, Kermanshah)

19. Mr. Nematullah Shadabi (Khadimin, Kermanshah)

20. Dr. Abbas Kuhbor (Institute, Kermanshah)

21. Mr. Kambiz Moradipur (Institute, Kermanshah)

22. Mr. Arash Kowsari (Institute, Kermanshah)

23. Mr. Rafi (Khadimin, Kermanshah)

24. Mr. Vahid Haghighi (Khadimin, Zanjan)

25. Mr. Shahab Torabi (Zanjan)

26. Mr. Sohrab Rowshan (Indiana University, Tehran)

27. Mr. Hutan Kassivi (Secretary, Tehran)

28. Mr. Fraidun Khodadadeh (Representative of BIHE, Tabriz)

29. Mr. Khayrollah Bakhshi (Tabriz)

30. Mr. Aref Aqdasi (Tabriz)

31. Mrs. Eltefat Missaqi (Tabriz)

32. Mr. Nayyer Iqani (Tabriz)

note: It has not been possible to verify spellings)


Washington Post

Iran's Crimes at Home

Sunday, October 25, 1998; Page C06

SINCE THE election of President Khatami more than a year ago, Iran watchers have been hoping for signs of new tolerance in that nation's policies. But if treatment of the most vulnerable minority is any indication, there is little reason to cheer Iran's recent record. Members of the Baha'i faith, a religion that claims about 6 million adherents worldwide and 300,000 in Iran, have been facing increasingly vicious persecution.

Since its religious revolution, Iran has made life difficult for all but its dominant Shiite Muslims. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians at least enjoy certain protections; not so Baha'is, who as followers of a religion that emerged in Iran and after Islam -- in the mid-19th century -- are viewed as particularly noxious apostates. In 1993 a United Nations official uncovered an Iranian government document outlining a policy amounting to the eradication of the Baha'i community. Iran's government said the document was a fake, but -- as the U.S. State Department noted in its annual human rights report -- "it appears to be an accurate reflection of current government practice."

Thus, Baha'i youth are denied access to universities; Baha'i marriages are unrecognized, opening women to charges of prostitution; Baha'i religious properties have been confiscated and desecrated; the community is not allowed to elect leaders; children are considered illegitimate and so cannot inherit property. In the past two decades, some 200 Baha'is have been killed or executed, including a prisoner hung last July allegedly for converting a Muslim woman to the Baha'i faith.

This month the government moved to shut down a Baha'i university created after Baha'i faculty and students were expelled from all other schools of higher learning. Officials ransacked more than 500 homes, most connected in some way with the university. Thirty-six Baha'i educators were arrested. Two more prisoners, jailed simply for participating in religious gatherings, have had their death sentences officially confirmed.

"Executing people for the practice of their religious faith is contrary to the most fundamental human rights principles," the White House said in response. How can such a self-evident principle even needs to be restated?

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company


The New York Times

October 29, 1998

With Raids and Arrests, Iran Signals New Effort to Suppress Bahais


One day in late September, Iranian security officials fanned out across their country and raided some 500 homes and several office buildings owned or rented by members of the Bahai faith, confiscating material and arresting dozens of people.

This was hardly the first time that Bahais, Iran's largest religious minority, felt the sting of attention from the Shiite Muslim government. As in the past, the United States condemned the action.

But what happened Sept. 29 was remarkable because it brought to an abrupt end an elaborate act of communal self-preservation. The materials confiscated were neither political nor religious, and the people arrested were not fighters or organizers. They were lecturers in subjects like accounting and dentistry; the materials seized were textbooks and laboratory equipment.

The enterprise that was shut down was a stealth university, with nearly 1,000 students, scores of volunteer faculty members, basements converted to biology and language laboratories and a network of couriers, foreign advisers and sympathizers.

Started in 1987 in reaction to the virtual banning of Bahais from Iranian universities after the Islamic revolution of 1979, the Bahai Institute of Higher Education operated so quietly over the years that many Bahai officials abroad and many Iranian intellectuals within were unaware of it.

Professors at Indiana University provided course materials and curriculum advice, and American Bahais on visits to Iran would carry suitcases stuffed with textbooks bought at the Harvard Coop.

Begun on a tiny scale, the institute grew to include 10 areas of major, including civil engineering, computer science, psychology and English. Courses were by correspondence but included sessions with lecturers in private homes.

Some 145 students graduated with bachelors' degrees. Some work in Iran and others have continued their studies abroad, their degrees sometimes accepted despite the university's lack of official recognition.

"We did everything with our own empty hands," reflected one former faculty member, who like virtually everyone interviewed requested anonymity out of fear for his safety and that of relatives in Iran. "It was like a miracle that brought hope to the Bahai youth."

Accounts of the university's activities and closing come from two dozen interviews with former faculty members and students, some of them still in Iran, others in North America.

The Iranian government has said nothing about the operation and has not responded to requests for comment.

The Bahai faith, whose adherents number 300,000 in Iran and 5 million worldwide, began a century and a half ago in Iran. Among its central principles are full equality between the sexes, universal education and the establishment of a world federal system.

Bahai representatives say that while the university was begun in secret, the government became aware of it in the early 1990s and permitted it to continue.

Within the Bahai community and among political scientists who watch Iran, there has been speculation about why the university was closed now, given the more liberal approach advocated by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami since his election in May 1997.

"There has always been very active discrimination against Bahais," said Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University who is a specialist in Iran. "It would be very difficult for even the most well-meaning leader to deal with such a university openly and tolerantly."

In July a Bahai was hanged on charges of having converted a Muslim, the first execution of a Bahai in Iran since 1992. Two other Bahais have been condemned to death.

Bakhash noted that the Iranian security forces are not controlled by Khatami but by the country's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is far more conservative.

One possible explanation for the university's closing is that Khamenei and his followers want to discredit or defy Khatami.

A second theory is that Khatami is permitting the crackdown as a gesture to the traditionalists as he tries to improve relations with the West. A third possibility is that Khatami, who comes from a clerical background, has no disagreement with tightening up on the Bahais.

Whatever the explanation, for the Bahais, the closing is ominous.

"I see this as a reactivation of general pressure on the Bahai community," said Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh, a retired professor of history at Yale University and secretary for external affairs of the Bahais in the United States.

In 1993 the Bahais revealed a 1991 Iranian government document signed by Ayatollah Khamenei on containing the community by barring adherents from universities and treating them so "that their progress and development shall be blocked."

Baharak Norouziani, 23, an Iranian Bahai now living in Santa Monica, Calif., and one of the few interviewed for this article willing to have her name printed, said that before she graduated from high school in Tehran in 1993, she had to state her religion to apply to a university. She wrote "Bahai."

The principal of her school told her that unless she changed her stated religion, she could not take the exam. So she signed up for the Bahai university and studied pre-dentistry by correspondence.

"Once a week we would get together in someone's house to get materials and books and sometimes listen to a lecture," she said.

For now, the university remains shut, its 17,000-book library confiscated, its computers and equipment gone, its administrators freed on bail. But Bahais say it will not be long before they begin the process of setting up the university again.

"Education is such a central goal for us," said one, "that we must rebuild. It is like a light at the end of a tunnel."


Date: 11:19 PM 11/13/98


From: Juan Cole

When the crackdown on the Open University in Iran began in early October '98, it occurred to me that this was an academic issue, since college professors (even if purged ones) were being arrested for teaching students!

I did three things: I contacted my professional organization, the Middle East Studies Association, about writing a human rights protest letter to the government of Iran protesting this action. (I believe a letter is forthcoming). I circulated a petition throughout the Net, to usenet groups and elsewhere, which garnered hundreds of grass roots signatures by academics and others at institutions from Harvard to the University of Michigan protesting the crackdown on the Open University and the exclusion of Iranian Baha'is from university in general. (This I sent by land mail to President Khatami, Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, and the Iranian ambassador to the UN, along with the signatures).

Third, I contacted the Chronicle of Higher Education and told them I thought that they had a duty to report on this issue. They put me in touch with Burton Bollag, who reports on Iran for them, and I sent him all the information from the Office of External Affairs and told him how to contact the Baha'is there, as well as sending him my analysis of the situation from H-Bahai. (I didn't get quoted in the end, but a sidebar that says: "Some observers say the raids may be part of a power struggle between conservatives and the country's moderate president, Muhammad Khatam" is a reference to my analysis.) This week, in the November 13 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bollag's article appeared. Since Talisman is a small list dedicated to Baha'i studies . . ., I feel comfortable sharing the article here for educational purposes (more especially since so much of it comes from material I sent the author!). But it is under copyright . . .

I have sometimes been accused of lacking in objectivity. I am very glad to admit that I have very strong views on some issues. One of these issues is freedom of conscience and speech, freedoms that the Iranian Baha'is have had abridged in the most monstrous fashion, by a theocracy. All religious regimes have a problem with freedom of speech, which is why separation of religion and state is a fundamental basis of true liberty. I'm just one person, and don't have many personal resources, but I'm glad to have responded in a small way to this outrageous denial of basic human rights. I urge all my friends to take the initiative and engage the grass roots similarly. Much can be accomplished that way, if initiative is not quashed.

The grass roots are the life of any organization, any movement. Mowing them down leads to stagnation. When I was a Baha'i, a professor of Middle East at a major university and director of its Middle East Center, I was never contacted by the Open University for my help and had no idea it existed. The External Affairs Office likewise only ever called on me once for help with regard to the persecution of the Iranian Baha'is. I would have been glad to help, but felt constrained, as most Baha'is do, not to act until called upon. Ironically, I now feel free and liberated to 'volunteer' my help on this human rights issue. I'd be glad to help the Open University, too, but I doubt my help is wanted.

cheers Juan Cole


The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13, 1998

36 Professors Arrested in Iranian Crackdown on Underground Baha'i University

by Burton Bollag

The Baha'i Open University in Iran, which for the past decade has offered classes in private homes and offices across the country, remained closed last week following a series of raids by Iranian authorities in October. Officials of the Baha'i faith in the United States said that at least 36 faculty members were arrested in the raids, and four were still being held.

According to the Baha'i officials, 532 homes were raided by security officers under the direction of Iran's Ministry of Information, a government intelligence agency. They confiscated computers and other equipment, as well as literature and files. The faculty members who were arrested were asked to sign a declaration stating that the institution no longer existed. All reportedly refused to do so.


The Iranian authorities in Teheran have declined to comment on the raids. Iranian diplomatic representatives in Geneva and at the United Nations also have not responded to requests for comment.

Since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, the authorities have taken a hostile and often repressive approach to the country's 300,000 Baha'i followers. Baha'is say Iran's latest moves may be part of a power struggle between conservatives and the country's moderate president, Muhammad Khatami, who was elected last year.

Although Iran recognizes the rights of Christians, Jews, and members of other minority religions, the country's Islamic establishment considers the Baha'i faith, which was founded in Iran int he last century, to be heretical and not a legitimate religion.

In response to limits placed on their educational rights in Iran, members of the Baha'i in 1987 established the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education, which became known as the Baha'i Open University.

A secret government memorandum, drawn up by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council in 1991, spelled out plans to marginalize Iran's Baha'i followers. It called for Baha'i children to be given a strong Islamic education and said Baha'is should be barred from the country's universities. The document was made public in 1993 by the United Nations Special Representative investigating human-rights abuses in Iran, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl.

This year, the Baha'i Open University had an enrollment of more than 900 students, and a staff of some 150 volunteer academics. Among them are many university professors who were ousted from posts in Iran's state-run university system following the Islamic revolution.

Courses at the university, which is essentially an underground institution, are taught via correspondence as well as in private homes. The university also operates several science laboratories, discreetly located in rented spaces in Teheran, and 45 specialized libraries, housed in private residences across the country.

Although not recognized by the Iranian educational authorities, the Baha'i university offers bachelor's degrees in 10 disciplines: accounting, applied chemistry, biology, civil engineering, computer science, dental science, law, literature, pharmacology, and psychology.


Nader Saiedi, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton College, is one of many Iranian Baha'i academics teaching in the United States who have been helping the institution. He has produced Persian-language curricula for use by the Baha'i Open University, and has provided a steady supply of up-to-date literature. He says the quality of the open university "is above the norm of higher education in Iran."

Because the degrees awarded by the Baha'i Open University are not officially recognized, graduates generally find work in the private sector. Some have gone on to do graduate work at U.S. institutions.


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