Published online 24 June 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.597
Updated online: 25 June 2009


Iran diaspora responds to protests

Iranian researchers abroad help keep information flowing from home.

Iranian protestsIranian researchers living abroad have played a part in spreading news of the protests.Wikipedia Commons

As more reports come in of a crackdown in Tehran on Iranians protesting against the regime, the vast diaspora of Iranian researchers has mobilized to help the Iranian people get information out to the outside world.

Amidst the continuing violence, many academics are lobbying for international condemnation of Iran's violations of human rights. Others are launching petitions and writing letters, as well as helping to organize demonstrations in the world's capitals.

"I haven't seen so much activity in the academic diaspora in 30 years," says Davood Rahni, a chemist at Pace University in New York. "I'm getting hundreds of e-mails every day about Iran; in the past 20 minutes alone I've had over 30 e-mails from Iran."

Spreading the word

The diaspora includes many scientists who fled Iran during the cultural revolution in the early 1980s. The regime closed the universities for three years, and violently purged them of any Western or non-Islamic influences. Others are academics, like Ali Gorji, who simply left the country to pursue research opportunities elsewhere. Gorji, a neuroscientist, left in 1994, but like many others has maintained research collaborations or joint labs with scientists at several Iranian universities.

Gorji says young scientists working for him in Iran are too scared to go onto campus to get to their labs because of the crackdown by government forces.

"My grad students are calling me in tears on the telephone. The situation has become just too dangerous, and they are so panicked," says Gorji, who is himself based at the University of Münster in Germany. "I've told them to stop work, and put their safety first," he says.

“My grad students are calling me in tears on the telephone.”

Ali Gorji
University of Münster

Gorji has been working with other scientists to draw attention to the security of students and staff at universities, which have been one of the main targets for repression. "At 2 a.m. in the morning on 15 June, government forces attacked the dormitory in Tehran University, and injured more than 100 students who had been sleeping, while an unconfirmed number were killed," points out Gorji, "they smashed the computers, everything". Campuses at universities in Isfahan, Shiraz and other cities have also been attacked.

Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there has been a further purge of reformists from the universities, with the government appointing top officials. The higher echelons of university administrations have remained largely silent over the attacks on campuses, although hundreds of lecturers and some senior officials have resigned in protest, says Gorji. "Students and researchers are on their own."

That makes it all the more important, he says, for the international scientific and academic community to be far more outspoken in showing their solidarity with Iranian universities, and condemning the attacks on Iran's universities and students. "It really helps keep up morale and motivates them to keep up their protests for greater democracy," he says.

At the same time, the diaspora and the broader international academic community must tread a careful path so as not to meddle — or be seen to meddle — in Iran's internal affairs, says Rahni, "we want to make sure we don't exacerbate matters". The diaspora's emphasis is on getting the voice of the Iranian people heard abroad, and condemning violations of human rights, such as Iranians' constitutional right to freedom of peaceful assembly, he says.

Revolutionary goals

Despite the repression, researchers are surprisingly optimistic about the eventual outcome of the protests. "I am completely optimistic that Iran will be a democratic state sooner than many think," says Muhammad Sahimi, a materials scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, "The path will be difficult, but I have complete faith in the Iranian people's courage and willingness to continue the struggle."

“My biggest concern is the letting of blood and intimidation, this is not Islamic.”

Davood Rahni
Pace University

Rahni argues that the if the initial movement was triggered by the contested election, it has now been superceded by a broader movement with goals similar to the initial aspirations of the 1979 revolution — "independence, sovereignty, democracy, justice, freedoms, and equality." "I'm optimistic for prospects for reform," says Rahni. "My biggest concern is the letting of blood and intimidation, this is not Islamic."

To help Iran's people pursue their aspirations for freedom and democracy, Gorji believes the most urgent imperative is for world leaders not to recognize Ahmadinejad's formal appointment — expected next week — and for them to continue to condemn human-rights violations. "They don't need to do anything else," says Gorji, "Iranians know how to do a revolution themselves". 


News agency reports claim that 70 academics were taken into custody on 24 June after a meeting with Mir Hossein Mousavi. Read more on "The Great Beyond":


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  • #60606

    Ahmandinejad is a murderer. Most of his victims are Muslims, too. He is a tyrant, a warmonger, and a spewer of hate. Calling him out for being an anti-social vermin isn't anti-Muslim, it's anti-vermin. JustinI

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