Scholars see politics behind Iran’s India branch campus move

University of Tehran plans outposts in India, Iraq, Syria and Georgia, plus closer ties with Russia and China

December 8, 2023
Iranian women walk past graffiti of birds flying in downtown Tehran to illustrate Scholars see politics behind Iran’s India branch campus move
Source: Getty Images

A leading Iranian university has said it has plans to establish a campus in India and is in the process of developing branches elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia – a move scholars say has politics “written all over it”.

In late November, University of Tehran president Seyyed Mohammad Moqimi announced its plans for expansion in a meeting with the Indian ambassador, Rudra Gaurav Shresth, according to reports.

Tehran’s president also mentioned a number of other plans under way, including the establishment of branches in Iraq, Syria and Georgia and efforts to boost collaborations with Russia and China, alliances that echo a Cold War-era division of higher education.

The timing of its expansion may seem at odds with recent events. In the past year, young Iranians have been jailed and thrown out of universities for protesting against the regime’s crackdown following the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman who died in custody.

But despite the country’s record on human rights, one should not be too quick to brush off the venture, academics said.

Jason Lane, dean of the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University in Ohio and an expert on branch campuses, said that as the university is targeting nations that have strained relations with the West, Iran’s international image – especially tarnished of late – is going to be “less of a concern”.

Still, the strategy of launching several branch campuses as its first foray into transnational education “is likely to prove daunting”, he said. “If the endeavour fails, it risks causing a black eye for both the university and Iran,” Professor Lane said.

Politics was “written all over such expansion plans as far as the government is concerned”, said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

He noted that there was precedent for setting up such institutions, with a branch of the Islamic Azad University in Afghanistan. Iran runs the Al-Mustafa Open University, which caters to thousands of international students studying in Iran.

But Professor Boroujerdi had some doubts that Tehran would succeed in setting up an India-based branch – or that the venture would be successful, if it did, citing challenges such as India’s “tough HE oversight requirements” as well as “Iran’s image problem”.

“In Iraq and Syria, they may be more successful if they offer a STEM curriculum, but I am sure that will be supplemented with religious courses as the Iranian state wants to promote its brand of Islam,” he said.

Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, director of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, was more upbeat.

“In a country such as India, where…you have a large population, high educational aspirations…limited seats in universities and a large…disaffected Muslim population, the odds for recruitment of their target population are high,” she said.

But she, too, noted the irony of Iran using higher education as a soft power tool, given that the country “marginalises its own minorities and shuts the doors of its universities to hundreds of qualified Baha’i students on the basis of their religious beliefs”.

Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, a US-based non-profit organisation, suggested that there might be a more sinister side to Tehran’s overseas ventures.

He said Al-Mustafa, which has international branches, has been used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force to recruit students for intelligence purposes, with Iraq and Syria serving as “primary recruiting grounds”.

“The Islamic Republic’s university partnerships are far from benign,” he warned.

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