Why Iran Jailed An Unconventional French-Iranian Academic

Fariba Adelkhah, a French-Iranian expert on Shia society, has critics on all sides. Since June, she's been jailed in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. She and her companion have been on a hunger strike since last month.

Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah
Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah
Marc Semo

PARIS — For years, Fariba Adelkhah has been working and living on the edge, watched over by Iranian security services but still tolerated. This 60-year-old French-Iranian specialist of the Shia world at the Center for International Studies (CIS) at Paris' prestigious Sciences Po university is studying, from an anthropological standpoint, the mutations of the Iranian society under the Islamic Republic. This has always been a highly perilous exercise and is currently an impossible one for a foreign researcher. Women's rights, underprivileged people and cross-border traffic are indeed very sensitive subjects that Iranian authorities don't want investigated.

"Despite the current general opinion, a researcher is not an agent from foreign secret services. Results from their studies varies and the researcher does their work in the light of day," wrote Adelkhah, back in 2009, in an open letter following the arrest of Clotilde Reiss, a French student at the University of Isfahan, accused of taking part in demonstrations against the regime and detained for 10 months in Iran before being sent back to France after the payment of a 230,000 euro fine.

Adelkhah's research has been a reference in her field for more than 30 years. Yet it did not prevent her arrest on June 5 alongside her companion Roland Marchal, a French specialist of West Africa at the CIS who was visiting her. On December 24, she and Marchal went on a hunger strike alongside her Australian academic cellmate Kylie Moore-Gilbert.

Adelkhah has convictions, even though she's not an activist.

The initial charge of spying held against her is punishable by death, but was dropped on January 6, which was seen as a hopeful sign. Yet she remains accused of "threatening national security" and "propaganda against the Islamic Republic". She can now be visited by her family and her lawyer, but the authorities do not acknowledge her double-citizenship, so she couldn't benefit from any help from the French consulate, unlike Roland Marchal.

Working on Iran is not easy, and not only because of the regime's paranoia. Adelkhah has convictions, even though she's not an activist. She never claimed to be an opponent of the regime. "I've always stood for the independence of my profession regarding politics. For that, I've been under attack from all sides, whether it's inside or outside Iran, by men of power and intellectuals. All of this because my work is considered as not very Islamic by some fundamentalists or not secular enough by so-called defenders of the democracy," she wrote in an open letter announcing she gave up studying Iran back in 2009. She resumed it after Hassan Rouhani's election to the presidency in 2013.

Evin prison near Tehran — Photo: Javid Fakhrian

Unlike many intellectuals from the Iranian Diaspora, Adelkhah knows from the inside this very conservative and pious world of the Iranian lower middle class. Her very religious father nevertheless believed in education and did not hesitate to give up his hard-earned money for a Mecca pilgrimage to be able to give to his most motivated daughter so that she could study in France.

Adelkhah's intellectual journey is atypical in many regards. She's been influenced by the imperatives of truth and justice from a Shia philosopher, Ali Shariati (1933-1977), but also by the reading of Simone de Beauvoir"s The Second Sex which she discovered translated in Farsi in university. "I've always liked to think of myself as being a bridge between my motherland and my adopted home," she once said. After four years of studying sociology in Strasbourg, she started her research in anthropology at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (SASSS).

She did not make a whole lot of friends.

"She doesn't care about thinking like everyone else" says her former thesis supervisor Jean-Pierre Digard, who wrote the preface of her publication: Revolution under the Veil: Islamic Women of Iran (Karthala, 1991).

Based on numerous interviews with revolutionary Islamic women, she showed that the veil was also a way to invest the public space "in a religiously legal and moral way."

"She went out there, she stayed for a long time in those associations of pious women and understood how, back in the past, the chador was both a prison and a passport to get out in the streets, to study, to play a political role," explains Bernard Hourcade, former head of research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, another leading French specialist on Iran.

With her unconventional analysis among several of international refugees opposing the regime, her book did not receive a warm welcome. Always willing to be scathing and even provocative, she did not make a whole lot of friends at the time.

"How would you react if someone told you that numerous Iranian women have never been so free, self-sufficient and dynamic as they have since the Revolution in 1979? (…) Most likely by accusing your interlocutor of being a defender of the regime," she wrote back in 2007 in a long article of the newspaper Politix entitled "Islamophobia and uneasiness in Anthropology. ""

The French-Iranian researcher never hesitated to put her safety on the line by going to study Shia people living in the heart of Afghanistan, despite the Taliban. Her friends point out her determined character. In Evin jail near Teheran, she carries on with her hunger strike to demand her liberation, but also in the name "of all academics and researchers unfairly imprisoned in Iran and Middle-East."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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