Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

The Silence of the Lambs

For American Iran scholars, fighting the right is more important than criticizing the regime—or listening to Iranians

Arian Khameneh
August 10, 2023
Activists from Woman, Life, Freedom, a New York-based Iranian women’s rights group, attend a rally in New York on March 11, 2023

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Activists from Woman, Life, Freedom, a New York-based Iranian women’s rights group, attend a rally in New York on March 11, 2023

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Ladan Zarabadi, a gender studies scholar at UCLA, first began her academic career in the U.S. in 2010, after participating in Iran’s Green Movement protests the year prior. Initially receiving a Ph.D in architecture, she proceeded to transition into women’s sudies with a focus on Iranian feminist movements. Her experiences in her new academic environment, however, took her by surprise. She struggled to recognize the Iran she had lived in with the Iran that was portrayed by her peers.

“I was shocked. Why is there such a gap? What’s happening here?” she says.

Zarabadi is an unabashed critic of the Iranian regime and its human rights abuses—an attitude well within the mainstream of the Iranian diaspora. But on her affluent, Southern California campus, she felt that her critical stance toward the Iranian government placed her on the margins. 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,” she tells me. While Zarabadi found that she was ostensibly welcomed as a woman of color, her colleagues tended to dismiss her actual lived experience and perspectives as an Iranian woman. Instead, she was told to “read the books.”

Over the last decade, progressive opinion on Iran has tended to be defined by a belief in gradualism and the stability of the Iranian regime. Wary of the potentially destructive effects of regime change in Iran, many American progressives have instead put their trust in “moderate” and “reformist” elements of the Iranian government, represented by individuals like former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and former President Hassan Rouhani, to form a bulwark against so-called “hardline” elements of the Iranian state. Central to this reading of Iran have been an acute concern with “militarization” of the U.S.-Iranian rivalry, a tendency to blame U.S. foreign policy for the excesses of the regime, and an aversion to criticism of Iran’s mandatory hijab policy, which American progressives see as Islamophobic—and overly reminiscent of the rhetoric of Republicans like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.

The progressive understanding of Iran, however, has increasingly come into tension with the realities on the ground—tension exacerbated by the recent “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, which featured Iranians calling for regime overthrow, burning hijabs, attacking “reformists” as part of the same rotten system as the “hardliners,” and chanting “Our enemy is here, they lie to us when they say it’s America.”

According to Zarabadi, these tensions have largely been ignored by Western academics, who have continued to repeat the same convenient narratives or retreated into deafening silence. During the National Women’s Studies Association’s conference in November 2022, which took place at the peak of the anti-regime protests, Zarabadi says, certain Iran scholars at the conference almost exclusively focused their talks on American sanctions while criticizing Iranian diaspora opposition. She took to Twitter and denounced her colleagues for “spreading misinformation,” “manipulating reality,” and putting academic freedom at risk to fulfill dogmas of anti-Americanism and anti-Islamophobia.

Progressive scholarship on Iran has also been significantly influenced by a so-called “humanization narrative,” which seeks to demonstrate how normal life goes on for the average Iranian. The aim, in the eyes of these scholars, is to counteract a “neoconservative agenda” that “demonizes” Iran in order to cultivate support for regime change. Often, however, this requires academics to pull their punches in order to preserve career-building sources within the country. For example, Laudan Nooshin, an ethnomusicologist at City University London, claims to have threatened legal action against the publisher of a book she contributed to, Rough Guide to World Music, after they edited her section to include words that might offend the clerics, which imperiled her access to fieldwork in Iran.

In recent years, some of the most revered activist voices in Iran have taken aim at this Western progressive impulse to “humanize,” on the grounds that it whitewashes the regime’s crimes. Take the sarcastic lyrics of the rapper-activist Toomaj Salehi:

Yes sir! Life is normal, we don’t say otherwise lest we get in trouble.
For the deeply corrupt regime apologists in the US
Those who compensate for their inferiority by debauchery
There is no Left and Right here, they are all the same
We say we are trapped in a swamp, they say they hope to reform it.

Leading activist Hossein Ronaghi has devoted outsize energy to hounding American scholars and experts in between regular stints as a political prisoner. His frequent complaints have included a dismissal of the Johns Hopkins University’s Rethinking Iran project as “false Islamic Republic propaganda” and accusing Iran experts in the West of misleading the international community by “undermining the severity” of their situation. Most notably, the longtime activist and current prisoner of conscience Bahareh Hedayat sent a letter from Evin prison in December 2022, in which she lampooned progressive intellectuals in the West for their aversion to being critical of Islam and the hijab:

This current [in the West], which occasionally sees itself as anti-imperialist, in a precisely imperialist process, covers its ears when confronted with the voices of a Middle Eastern, Muslim-born woman, and from outside of these conditions accuses us, who are living within these conditions, of Islamophobia; meaning I, as a Middle Eastern woman have no right to cry out against a subservient fate that I’ve been subjected to due to [compulsory] hijab, because according to the ‘progressive’ rules that have been issued by and exported from the intellectual circles of the West, this act of lamenting under the pressure of historical oppression that hijab has enforced upon me signifies fear of Islam, and no one has a right to fear Islam.

While Iranian activists are increasingly disinterested in the perspectives of progressive American academia, the Iranian regime frequently co-opts academic anti-colonial discourse to deflect from international scrutiny. When a Swedish MP demanded answers regarding the regime’s violence against its citizens, Iran’s envoy to Sweden, Ahmad Masoumifar, responded that she needs to familiarize herself with “the unethical implications of orientalist, imperialistic, and chauvinist attitudes”.

According to Saeid Golkar, a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute and associate professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, there are rapidly growing secular, pro-American and even in some cases, pro-Israeli, sentiments in Iran, due to a strong desire to oppose the regime’s talking points. He says this tendency does not sit well with many Middle East departments in the United States, as they are dominated by what he calls “leftist liberational studies,” marked by “anti-colonial” perspectives. “They see what is happening and they cannot handle it. Their ideas are very different and they have their own ideological view. That’s why they either ignore it, or they change [the reality],” he says. “There is a sunk cost fallacy, where you invest a lot in a theory and your identity is based on that. If you undermine that, you’re undermining your entire life.”

Perhaps the most infamous case of altering reality occurred in the aftermath of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force, who was killed in 2020 on the orders of Donald Trump. At the time, many Iranians were either indifferent to or pleased by his death, considering Soleimani to be a butcher and war criminal. But prominent scholars such as Johns Hopkins’ Narges Bajoghli produced chest-thumping, defiant narratives claiming that Soleimani was very popular and that his assassination would cause Iranians to rally around the flag. Pouya Alimagham, an Iran historian at MIT, applauded the heroics of Soleimani for being on the frontlines, “unlike US generals,” and asserted that his “death will only make his legend grow akin to [Che] Guevara’s.” In reality, Soleimani was regularly burned in effigy by protesters over the last year, and Iranian netizens developed a “Qassem check” meme, in which they assessed the credibility of Western Iran experts by checking to see whether they described Soleimani as a national hero at the time of his killing.

Indeed, progressive aversion to staunchly criticizing the Islamic Republic can occasionally reach comical heights. For instance, in a UC Berkeley panel discussion devoted to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in October last year, Sima Shakhsari, a University of Minnesota scholar, avoided talking about the movement almost entirely by throwing out a kitchen sink of leftist talking points on indigenous sovereignty, settler colonialism, Black Lives Matter, Israeli violence against Palestinians, racist cops, American imperialism, and how the pre-revolutionary bourgeoise in Iran stole from the working class. Finally, she concluded by criticizing the homophobic nature of protest chants against Ayatollah Khamenei, who she claimed has become a “queered enemy.”

“We impose our own context on a discussion about supposedly what’s happening in Iran, but it’s not really about what’s happening in Iran. It’s really about us. Iran just becomes an object. A reference point for us to position ourselves within our own politics, our own cultural wars and our own debates,” said one Iran scholar, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “There’s a real lack of courage to take a principled position because of the fear of the consequences that it’ll have within the generally left-wing academic world.” The scholar argues that political positioning has taken precedence over Iran expertise, highlighting the appointment of Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, whom he described as having “very modest academic credentials,” to a senior role at Princeton. “If you’re very au fait with the politics, they will look the other way on your lack of knowledge, as far as Iran is concerned,” he said. “It’s very cynical. It’s all about getting jobs and positions and tenure and fellowships. There’s no intellectual substance to it. It’s a game that people are playing, and they want to win the game.”

Maral Karimi, a Canadian Iran scholar, has experienced what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the politics in Middle East academia. Her 2018 book on Iran’s Green Movement protests argued that gradual change is unlikely to lead to democracy in Iran, that the “reformist” wing of the government is not democratic, and that cyclical protests will continue until a genuine democratic alternative arises. Today, Karimi’s conclusions are the consensus in mainstream political discourse on Iran. Yet Karimi says that when her book came out, she was marginalized, frozen out of panels, and ignored by her fellow Iran scholars, due to the uncomfortable political implications of her book. She says that her colleagues accused her of “being brainwashed by U.S. narratives and policies” and called her a “warmonger.” While many have shifted their positions after the recent uprising, Karimi has little sympathy for what she calls “overnighters.”

“There’s something quite oppressive about saying: ‘None of us knew, we all thought that way.’ No, we didn’t all think that way. Many of us stood up and voiced our concerns. Many of us were marginalized. Many of us were silenced by you people,” said Karimi. “Whether it was in the activist arena, or whether it was in academia or in the media, we were sidelined.”

Karimi argues that the gradual change and reform narrative colonized the public space in Western media and academia, leaving little room for dissenting voices who were staunchly critical of both the Islamic Republic and the hegemony of the United States. “A lot of everyday Iranians, not academics, were also against reform. They just weren’t ever heard. They were never given a voice,” she said. “What’s the point of scholarship if I gather a whole bunch of people who think the way I do and we just reiterate each other? What’s the point? What are you afraid of?”

Arian Khameneh is a freelance journalist based in Copenhagen.