Letter from Professor Mahallati to Dean Kamitsuka

Editor’s note: The following is a letter that Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, professor of Religion and Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies, wrote to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka. The Review obtained this letter and is publishing it in full and unedited. Mahallati wrote the letter in the wake of allegations that he helped to cover up killings of political dissidents in Iran in the 1980s and made antisemitic and anti-Baha’i statements. For more context on these allegations see the Review’s reported news piece on the recent protest and the This Week piece that covers the case’s background.

Nov. 1, 2021

Dear Dean Kamitsuka,

Greetings! I would like to take this opportunity to address the accusations of anti-Semitism and anti-Baha’i postures attributed to me during my years of service at the United Nations.

The accusations have been reported out of context. All governmental officials representing countries in the United Nations, by definition, have no authority to convey or pursue their personal views. Rather, they are obliged to deliver official positions and statements of the government they represent, regardless of the topic. Iran is no exception to this international rule and therefore, Iranian envoys cannot be and are not accountable in conveying governmental/official positions/ statements to their diplomatic counterparts.

That is why the concept of diplomatic immunity is internationally recognized and respected. Since its creation, the United Nations forums have witnessed a whole range of controversial issues between countries who were engaged in war, human rights issues, mass atrocities, and other conflicting questions. In fact, the U.N.’s very raison d’etre is to provide opportunities for countries and governments to express their controversies and disagreements before they get engaged in war.

All this means that governmental U.N. envoys cannot defy their official mandates to pursue their personal agendas and opinions. In the rare cases that they do, they get fired from their positions if not labeled as political traitors.

As my attorney’s letter to you indicates, I am one of the rare U.N. envoys who went beyond my mandate to expedite peace between Iran and Iraq, countries that suffered from one of the longest and most devastating wars in recent history. Equally important, I am the first Iranian U.N. envoy to facilitate the first official visit of U.N. human rights officials to Iran for in-person inspections. I implemented both actions at great personal risk. Both have historic significance.

The official positions I took at the United Nations during the time I served do not portray my personal views. I was doing my job, delivering the official statements of Iran to the U.N. On a regular basis, hundreds of diplomats around the world cautiously exchange governmental positions and statements that may not meet ideal human rights standards.

My personal views are well portrayed in all my published books, articles and teachings during the course of the last 30 years since I left the U.N. post. It is important to note that my accusers have not found a single statement from me that is remotely consistent with their unfounded accusations.

– I firmly believe that all human beings including Muslims, Jews, Bahais and others must be free and fully respected in choosing their faith whatsoever and must enjoy religious freedom irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality and other identity factors. No moral values can be produced under compulsion.

– I firmly believe in the liberties granted by the U.S. Constitution, including freedom of religion, speech and academic liberties. By the same token, I believe that no people or state should be exempt from academic criticism.

– I fully sympathize with all people who have suffered from human rights abuses in any country based on political, religious, or ethnic orientations. I am against all kinds of capital punishment being summary or other types, because, based on Abrahamic teachings, even in the extreme cases of proven murder, there must be a chance for apology and forgiveness.

Now, 30 years after I left a governmental post, the present campaign against me is politically motivated and is a designed, well-orchestrated character attack using abusive propaganda literature. Both before and after my U.N. years I have enjoyed friendships with many Jewish and non-Muslim colleagues and students. Accusing a person of “anti-Semitism” when he has published many articles solicited from Jewish Rabbis and scholars in more than one language, and himself coming from Semitic ethnicity, is at least illogical if not ridiculous and vicious. Like many American scholars, I have legitimate liberties to criticize any government based on its policies. When it comes to the state of Israel, I believe in the two- state solution as the only viable approach that can guarantee peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, as both deserve a secure life.

Presently, in the greater Middle East, from Afghanistan to Nigeria, there are close to eight ongoing wars that together, serve war and weapon industries with no benefits for any nation. As an Iranian-American anti-war teacher, I have been targeted by an Iranian opposition group that feels people like me are an impediment to an additional Middle East war that I believe would be disastrous for the entire region. I know from personal experience that wars are easy to begin and hard to end. I will maintain my anti-war position between any and all countries in the Middle East and beyond.

When my father Ayatollah Mahallati passed away in Shiraz in June 2000, the head of the Shiraz Jewish community attended the funeral, brought the largest flower rack to the procession and in expressing his sincere condolence, said, “You must not feel alone in losing your father, because he was our father as well.” This statement refers not only to how my father protected the Jewish community in Shiraz during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, but also to the legacy of the family in doing so during the 19th and 20th centuries since they began their religious leadership in Shiraz, Iran.

The Bahai community must also remember that it was Ayatollah Mahallati in Shiraz who risked his life to protect them and save their lives against mobs in the Sa’di village of Shiraz in the early revolutionary days of 1980s.

The MEK [also known as Mujahedeen Khalq] organization must also remember that my father was condemned to exile in early 1970s because he protested against the execution of MEK member Mr. Meshkinfam by the Iranian monarchy regime.

For those who are familiar with Shiraz history (one of Iran’s oldest and largest cities), the efforts of the Mahallati family to protect religious minorities is exemplary in the history of modern Iran. Fortunately, this contribution is well published in Persian. It is this long-lived moral and humanitarian legacy that I have promoted and will promote in my publications and teachings wherever I live and work so long as I have the physical and mental ability to do so.

All best,
M. Jafar Mahallati