Sunday Times: Student leaders are organising a mass protest over St Andrews Universitys decision to award an honorary degree to a former Iranian president who praised Hezbollah. The Sunday Times
Mark Macaskill and Abul Taher
STUDENT leaders are organising a mass protest over St Andrews Universitys decision to award an honorary degree to a former Iranian president who praised Hezbollah.
Muhammad Khatami is to be made an honorary doctor of laws by Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader who is also the universitys chancellor.
Khatami will open the universitys Institute for Iranian Studies, which will house 12,000 books donated by Sadegh Kharazi, Irans former ambassador to France. The collection of Iranian texts, the largest of its kind in Europe, is estimated to be worth more than £100,000.
The decision to confer the honour on Khatami has provoked criticism from human rights groups who claim thousands of Iranian citizens were jailed and tortured for their political beliefs during his eight-year term that ended last year with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The National Union of Students wants his invitation withdrawn unless Ahmad Batebi, a student jailed in 1999 during a pro-democracy protest, is freed.
There will definitely be a protest, said Sofie Buckland of the students national executive. We have a duty of solidarity with the democratic opposition in Iran.
Stephen Brown, the unions national secretary, said: We are appalled that Batebi continues to suffer imprisonment for his role in the student movement. We hope that academics and students at that institution will urge Khatami to use his influence to have Batebi released.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews and Lord Janner, its past president, have criticised Campbell for agreeing to meet Khatami, who likened Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group, to a shining sun which warms up all oppressed Muslims.
Although Khatami has a reputation as a reformer, observers say he maintains close links with Ahmadinejads hardline regime. Its clear Khatami is being used as a tool of diplomacy which is designed to capitalise on his reputation as a reformist president, said Mark Thomas of the Royal United Services Institute.
Iranian exiles are drawing up a petition demanding St Andrews withdraw the invitation. Thousands of people are seething about this, said Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, a New York-based Iranian organising the petition. How can a man who imprisoned and oppressed thousands of students in Iran be given a degree by an academic institution? Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies, insisted last week that the decision to honour Khatami was in recognition of his efforts to encourage closer relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims.
I have no problem with him coming. He was toying with the idea of coming to the UK so we invited him because we wanted to tie his visit in with the opening of our institute, he said.
St Andrews said: The honour was conferred only after the widest consultation with experts in modern Iran, both in academia and beyond.