After the protests that followed the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this past June, there was widespread agreement among Middle East analysts and Iran-watchers that these events were of great significance to the political future of Iran. The protests were brutally crushed by the Islamist regime, and snippets of video footage surfaced showing riot police beating protesters, and, in the case of Neda Agha Soltan, using deadly force against them. The death of Hossein Ali Montazeri, a leading dissident cleric, in December sparked a new round of protests, the biggest since the summer, which continued into the new year. Shortly after the unrest in January, the Iranian regime placed (yes, you are reading this right) Stanford University on the list of enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Despite being specifically targeted, this label does not appear to have had any negative effects on Stanford’s standing. Professor Abbas Milani, head of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, is well familiar with the regime’s “enemies list,” having been on the list since last year. The indictment last summer specifically mentions the Hoover Institution and the Iran Democracy Project as one of the “numerous foundations and institutions [that] came into existence through the Western countries’ spy agencies and other governmental institutions” in order to launch a “velvet coup” of the Iranian regime.
Putting together an “enemies list” is a feeble reaction to the growing dissent among the Iranian people that the people are more and more confident in expressing publicly. Milani says that these Western think tanks and organizations were targeted because “the regime had its bell rung after the protests, much like a boxer after taking a shot to the head. However, they quickly regained their bearings and began to crack down on protesters.”
Being placed on the Iranian regime’s enemies list will have little negative impact on the University’s reputation, and might even indicate Stanford’s prestige and influence when it comes to the study of U.S. relations with Iran. Stanford is in fairly good company. Also listed in the indictment are the Soros Foundation, the Berkman Center at Harvard, the Ford Foundation, and the Council on Foreign Relations. The BBC, Human Rights Watch, The Brookings Institution, and Yale University have also been targeted for allegedly advocating for the overthrow of the regime. “The ‘who’s who’ of Iranian scholarship has been placed on this list,” says Milani.
Milani says that the presence of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford was a major reason for the university’s being targeted. While the Iran Democracy Project does not overtly advocate for regime change in Iran, the stated goal of the project is to “map out possible trajectories for transitions to democracy and free markets in the Middle East, beginning with Iran,” language which might sound threatening to a regime disoriented from a summer of domestic unrest.
Being placed on this list might have the opposite of the intended effect on Stanford’s already impressive global standing. Milani reports that he has received a surge of emails from scholars requesting to come speak at Stanford or to learn more about the Iran Democracy Project.
The new label has not had much of an effect on the substantial number of Iranian students who have come to Stanford to study. Most of them arrive as graduate students in the engineering department from Sharif University of Technology, the top engineering university in Iran, and have proven themselves to be outstanding students. Given the quality and prestige of an engineering post-graduate degree from Stanford, it is not in the interest of the Islamist regime to prevent Iranian students from taking advantage of such an opportunity. “The regime is not going to embarrass itself even more by forbidding students who get into Stanford from attending,” says Milani.