Fariba Adelkhah is research director at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and has published studies on Iranian and Afghan societies and religion. (IranWire)

By Aida Ghajar

November 12, 2019

French academics have objected to a call to end joint academic work between Iran and France because of the continued detention of two researchers, arguing that such a move will weaken Iran’s academic community even further.

In an open letter on October 29, Jean-François Bayart, former director of the CERI-Science Po college in Paris, said the French academic community should suspend all cooperation with Iranian universities and scientific institutes until Iran frees Fariba Adelkhah, a social sciences researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Science Po), and Roland Marchal, a sociologist with CERI-Science Po and an expert in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, following the announcement, a number of Adelkhah’s and Marchal’s colleagues issued a statement opposing the suspension of cooperation with Iran, arguing that the Iranian academic community and university students will be the ones to pay the price for such an action.

The Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guards arrested Adelkhah and Marchal on June 5. Iranian media reported on Adelkhah’s arrest a month later, but Marchal’s incarceration was only reported and condemned by the French government on October 16. Adelkhah has been charged with espionage and Marchal with “conspiracy against national security.”

Jean-François Bayart was able to obtain and report the news about the two imprisoned academics because of his close friendship with Adelkhah and her family. In August, French officials reportedly appealed to the Iranian-French academic community to remain silent about the arrest so that negotiations between the two countries for the release of Adelkhah and Marchal could progress. But in late October, Bayart issued his call to the French academic community to suspend any cooperation with Iranian academia.

In his letter, Bayart emphasized that the two academics have never been engaged in political activities in Iran or any work that was against Iran, that they are not connected to any intelligence service and that their activities have been purely scientific. They are, he said, “scientific prisoners.”

A Trumpist Idea?

“As far as we are concerned, we are calling for the suspension of all scientific and academic cooperation agreements until our colleagues are released,” Bayart told the French weekly Le Point [French link]. “It is unthinkable to continue this cooperation when two researchers were arrested in a completely arbitrary manner. The observation is simple: we cannot work in Iran anymore. We will reconsider when our colleagues are released. We were very calm for three months to allow the negotiations to be held. But we do not want our moderation to become an exercise in masochism on our part. We must stop the costs. We are not asking for a boycott, which would be a political stance on the Iranian regime or its foreign policy. This is not our purpose. We call for the suspension of academic cooperation with Iran because researchers do not have to be the useful idiots of international relations.”

“It should be remembered that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs already advises French people, particularly academics, not to travel to Iran,” he said. “The same goes for the CNRS [the Centre national de la recherche scientifique]. As far as we are concerned, we are calling for the suspension of all scientific and academic cooperation agreements until our colleagues are released.”

Following the publication of the letter, a number of Adelkhah’s colleagues and other French academics announced their opposition to Bayart’s call. “We refuse to impose additional, ‘scientific’ sanctions on a society that is already strangled by unilateral sanctions from the American president Donald Trump,” the statement said. “We refuse to participate in the embargo on universities in a country that is already suffering collective punishment from the US administration.”

Azadeh Kian, professor of sociology with the University of Paris Diderot, is one of the signatories to the statement. “Bayart’s invitation is scandalous,” she told IranWire. “We know that these two were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization and the Iranian scientific centers, universities and academicians had no part in it. Why must we punish them? I believe the suspension of scientific exchanges is a Trumpist idea. Do they think that the Revolutionary Guards are afraid of this suspension — a suspension that only hurts academia — and will release Adelkhah and Marchal?”

Kian believes the only way to secure the freedom of the two academics is through negotiations between the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Islamic Republic officials, even though this might take some time.

“I spoke with a colleague of mine in Iran,” she told me. “After Iran’s intelligence ministry prohibited cooperation with the British Council, they are not even allowed to reply to emails that they receive from the UK. The suspension that Bayart and his colleagues are after would only hurt Iranian universities and academia. In Turkey many academics were expelled and imprisoned and nobody said that we should suspend or boycott scientific exchanges with Turkey. Now we must ask ourselves: why are they now wanting to suspend or boycott these kind of exchanges with Iran?”

The full text of the statement signed by Azadeh Kian and other French academics follows.

We refuse to impose collective punishment on Iranian universities and scientists

The arrest and imprisonment of the Franco-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah, accused of “espionage,” and the French political scientist Roland Marchal, accused of “violating national security,” in Iran last June deeply shocked and saddened us. In order not to interfere with the efforts undertaken by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in accordance with its instructions, we have remained silent. Four months have passed since then without any sign of their release. In this context, should we opt for the suspension, permanent or temporary, of scientific and academic cooperation with Iran?

We believe that this would amount to imposing a collective punishment on our Iranian colleagues [working] in the social sciences and their students and that it would in fact be a service to those who are responsible for the arrest of our two colleagues.

We refuse to sanction the already very weakened social sciences because of the animosity of those in power in Iran and Iranian colleagues who work under very difficult conditions and who are already under strong pressure or, for some of them, repeated arrests. They are accused of propagating “Western” social sciences and described as a potential threat to Iranian power.

We refuse to tighten the grip on our colleagues, some of whom are French-speaking, and who make it possible for Iran’s scientific relations with the French-speaking world to continue. Each sociologist, anthropologist, politician, historian or philosopher of French language translated into Persian contributes to the enrichment of the scientific production of an academic space whose enthusiasm for exchanges with Europe and North America is no longer to be demonstrated. The participation in collective research projects, symposia and conferences in France of our Iranian colleagues in the social sciences is a breath of fresh air for them but also a scientific enrichment for us at a time when the social sciences in France are taking the epistemologies of marginalized knowledge more and more seriously.

Finally, we refuse to impose additional, “scientific” sanctions on a society that is already strangled by unilateral sanctions from the American President Donald Trump. We refuse to participate in the embargo on universities in a country that is already suffering collective punishment from the US administration.

In July 2009, a number of scholars called for the release of Clotilde Reiss, who was arrested and imprisoned after being accused of espionage as part of her work as a lecturer of French language at Isfahan University. It also stated the importance of continuing to produce scientific knowledge about Iran based on empirical surveys. In an equally difficult and tragic context, we now have the responsibility to reaffirm this need and to continue our research in Iran when the context allows us to do so. We strongly condemn the arrest of Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal and call for their immediate release. We will not go to Iran in solidarity with our imprisoned colleagues, but we reject the call for collective punishment of Iranian universities and scientists.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.