What is it with the Harvard Kennedy School’s penchant for celebrating dishonorable characters? First came a speaking invitation and fellowship for the traitor formerly known as Bradley Manning. The Kennedy School disinvited Manning following a public outcry in September, but now its leadership has awarded a fellowship to an equally odious figure.
I’m speaking of Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian blogger and vehement apologist for the Tehran regime. Last week, the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy named Derakhshan a fellow for the spring semester. The fellowship brings together “experienced journalists and practitioners who focus on some of today’s most pressing issues: race relations, the urban/rural divide, the role of algorithms in society, and climate change, among other topics,” Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele said in a news release.
Derakhshan’s fellowship will focus on technology entrepreneurship, presumably drawing on his experience as one of Iran’s first bloggers in the early aughts, work that won him the moniker “the blogfather.” The Shorenstein release presents Derakhshan as a dissident of sorts, who “was imprisoned in Tehran for six years for his writings and online activism.” Yet spending time in the mullahs’ jails doesn’t necessarily make someone a dissident–or worthy of a top journalism fellowship. Derakhshan has spent years viciously assailing real dissidents, and he has a long record of public statements in support of the regime, its leadership and security apparatus, and its conspiratorial and anti-Semitic worldview.
Start with the anti-Semitism. In December 2015, amid the popular frenzy over Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Derakhshan took to his English-language Twitter account (he also maintains a Persian account) to note that the villain of the movie was identified as “Supreme Leader,” which is also the title of Iran’s ruling theocrat. Wrote Derakhshan: “A Supreme Leader in the new star wars [sic]? What is the very pro-Israel J. J. Abrams hinting at?”
The tweet played on the canard, rampant among Iranian Islamists, that Jews use Hollywood influence to plant pro-Israel and anti-Iran messages in the minds of global audiences. In the real world, there is no evidence that J.J. Abrams is “very pro-Israel”–other than his Jewish last name, of course.
Uncovering devious Jews based on their last names is something of an obsession for Derakhshan. When a Georgian-American chess champion, Nazi Paikidze Barnes, announced that she was boycotting a 2017 tournament in Iran over the hijab requirement, Derakhshan blasted a message to like-minded activists on the social-media network Telegram, asking them to “research her name in Hebrew.” The “Barnes” last name (her husband’s) had Derakhshan wondering: “Perhaps her husband is Israeli-American?” Eventually one of his comrades wrote back to say that Barnes “doesn’t appear to be a Jewish name.”
Then there are the odes, published on his blog, to the Iranian regime. In June 2007, Derakhshan declared that “I’m proud to be Iranian, not because of Cyrus [the Great], but because of Khomeini, a true anti-colonial leader who created the only true post-colonial state in the world, Islamic Republic of Iran.” That would be Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, who executed thousands of secular dissidents, issued a death fatwa against the British novelist Salman Rushdie, and transformed Iran into an Islamist total state.
Derakhshan has similarly warm feelings for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the U.S.-designated Iranian terror army that, among other things, has been spearheading the slaughter in Syria on behalf of Bashar Assad. The IRGC, wrote Derakhshan in August 2007, is “associated with pure patriotic and Shiite ideals about justice and sacrifice.” He added: “It’s no accident that the birthday of Imam Hossein, the central icon of the Islamic Republic’s ideology, was chosen as the official day to celebrate the” IRGC. In June 2008, Derakhshan railed against the “Iranian reformist-turned-exiled opposition” for attacking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust-denying former president, “to justify themselves and make their puppet masters at the State Department and Hoover Institute [sic] happy.”
Most egregiously, Derakhshan has accused prominent Iranian dissidents and thinkers of spying for the U.S.–while the regime imprisoned these figures. As Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar at the Wilson Center, was languishing in the nightmarish Evin Prison in 2007, Derakhshan blogged:
I know speaking against Haleh Esfandiari is like suicide these days. . . . [She] has become a symbolic victim of the ‘most repressive regime on the planet.’ . . . Haleh Esfandiari was the first Iranian fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1995. . . . And we all know about NED’s roles and functions in countries where the U.S. wants to bring about its favorite governments such as in Venezuela and the rest. Some even suggest that the links between the CIA and NED are undeniable. . . . Given what we know about NED today, I believe, anyone in any country who has had any ties with NED and its affiliate organisations . . . deserves to be charged and fairly and justly prosecuted.
When another jailed scholar, the Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, confessed to fomenting a “soft” revolution in a statement broadcast on Iranian state television, Derakhshan insinuated that Jahanbegloo was likely guilty as charged:
In a key section of the interview – which is not yet available in full in English translation – the political-science lecturer and philosopher describes how some American think-tanks provided him with research opportunities and financial support so that he could conduct comparative analysis of socio-political change in contemporary east-central Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Jahanbegloo describes how this research gradually led to a strengthening of his ties with these think-tanks, and how he eventually realised that the main people interested in the research were intelligence officials and those associated with the United States state department, who sought to use it to help form their polices towards Iran.
Jahanbegloo then expresses regret that he was deceived by a quasi-academic structure that effectively treated him as an unofficial analyst for foreign intelligence services. He says that if he knew politicians were exploiting his purely academic activities, he would have never got involved with such institutions in the first place. The last point strikes me as a little odd, since I know Ramin personally from the time he lived in Toronto; I know that he is not so naive as not to realise what think-tanks do and where the research they pursue ends up being most useful. But I also understand how, for professional and economic reasons, a serious scholar could be dragged into such a dark and dangerous game.
He concluded: “Sometimes the trigger for a person to confess to his or her mistakes is not torture by a brutal bunch of interrogators but his or her honest and couragous [sic] encounter with the larger picture to which he or she is contributing.”
A spokesman for Harvard told me that Derakhshan’s fellowship didn’t concern “Iran or politics related to Iran.” Indeed. The real concern here is the Kennedy School’s revolting moral negligence.
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