The Trump administration, for its part, has rightly condemned the sentences. But rhetoric is not enough. To send a stronger message to Tehran that its miscarriage of justice will carry a price, Washington should sanction Mansour Gholami, the minister of science, research, and technology, who presides over Iran’s higher education system. The fate of Iran’s young protestors reflects his ministry’s decades-long campaign of repression against Iranian students, who routinely face imprisonment, expulsion, and denial of admission for defying Tehran’s radical Islamist ideology.
In the regime’s view, Iranian universities aim not merely to prepare citizens for careers or to transmit knowledge for its own sake. Rather, higher education also functions to inculcate students with the values of the Islamic Revolution, thereby ensuring their perpetuation. In a 2015 speech, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that universities retain “the purpose of creating the new Islamic civilization.”
“The goal,” he said, “is to establish an Islamic government that can turn society into the ideal society that Islam wants.” University administrators, he added, “should plan all tasks on the basis of this.”
This objective guides the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology (MSRT), which screens university applicants for loyalty to the regime. The ministry also shapes curricula, administers entrance exams, and appoints and dismisses faculty in accordance with Tehran’s revolutionary creed. In a 2012 open letter, 17 human rights and student groups criticized the MSRT for instituting “a program of ‘adapting’ certain fields of study to Islamic ideology,” which violates “academic freedom through direct censorship and ideological control.” To enforce its policies, the MSRT routinely collaborates with Iran’s brutal Intelligence Ministry, which monitors and arrests students and faculty on campuses.
The Bahai, which the UN has described as Iran’s “most severely persecuted religious minority,” confront the greatest challenges in obtaining an education. Unlike Jews and Christians, Tehran refuses to recognize the Bahai as a protected religious minority, thereby rendering them ineligible to attend university. Bahai who conceal their faith to gain admission face the possibility of expulsion if their true identity emerges. This harsh reality prompted the Bahai, in 1987, to establish the Bahai Institute for Higher Education, an underground university that offers courses online and in covert locations throughout the country, such as living rooms and basements.
Appointed in October 2017, Gholami enforces and defends this censorious system. As a former professor and chancellor at Bu-Ali Sina University in western Iran, Gholami retains a history of suppressing student voices. In the days after President Hassan Rouhani announced the pick, hundreds of students staged protests, accusing Gholami of suspending students who criticize the regime and preventing the establishment of some student associations and publications. Perhaps more troublingly, the demonstrators noted that the appointment betrays Rouhani’s campaign promises to promote greater freedom on campus.
“Introducing Gholami for the Science Ministry is a mockery of all the hopes students had when they campaigned during the elections,” one student lamented on Twitter. “Wake up Mr. Rouhani!” Another student tweeted: “Let Gholami stay with us Bu-Ali Sina students, we’re used to political and security suffocation.”
In fact, while the Islamic Republic’s constitution endows the president with the right to appoint ministers, the supreme leader has played an unofficial yet decisive role in approving the president’s choices for the MSRT and other key ministries. Khamenei’s website states that he is particularly “sensitive” about the MSRT, as well as the ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Education, and Culture and Islamic Guidance, because “any deviation in those places would lead to the country’s deviation as a whole” from the principles of the Islamic Revolution. In the case of the MSRT, said one Iranian lawmaker, Khamenei ruled out more than 10 candidates for the job before settling on Gholami. Another lawmaker put the number at 20.
Since his ascent to the MSRT, Gholami has shown little sign that he intends to alter its policies. Instead, he has sought to deflect criticism by issuing false statements about the ministry’s behavior. In December 2017, he claimed that universities admit students without evaluating their political beliefs, prompting a student group to release a statement describing the assertion as “an insult to everyone’s intelligence, especially students.” Two banned students protested Gholami’s contention outside the ministry. “We want him to explain why at least 100 students have been banned this year,” one of them said.
The Trump administration should issue a similar demand – and bolster it by adding Gholami to the U.S. sanctions list for engaging in censorship. Such a move would constitute a forceful expression of solidarity with Iranian students as they continue to protest the regime. At the same time, insofar as more than 60 percent of Iran’s 80 million population remain under the age of 30, it would send Iran’s youth – as well as the Islamist regime – the message that the United States seeks enduring reform that ensures the academic freedom of Iranians in perpetuity.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.