CAIRO — Iranian universities are rapidly expanding their branches in the Arab world, in a move to serve Iranian expatriates, connect with Arab students and expand the country’s “soft power.”
Iranian universities have established nine branch campuses in eight Arab countries including the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Oman, Comoros, Qatar and Kuwait. At least eight more branch campuses are under consideration or development in Arab countries, an Al-Fanar Media survey found. (See the list at the bottom of this article.)
The branch campuses take a variety of forms. In Dubai, two Iranian institutions offer full-fledged degree programs. In Beirut, an Iranian university offers individual courses. In Doha, an academic institution offers online programs only.
“Iran’s cross-border campuses are not necessarily for economic gains,” says David Rahni, an Iranian professor at Pace University in New York, “but more to reassert Iran’s long-term regional strategic agenda.”
Iran seeks to maintain its prominence as the largest Shia-majority country in the region, analysts say. It also seeks to establish itself as a key cultural, political and economic player that links the Middle East and Asia, building alliances with Arab countries, particularly Iraq, Syria and Shia groups in Lebanon. Some academics also suggest that Arab universities could learn from Iranian academic institutions.
Along with its political alliances, Iran has a role in many military conflicts in the region. Iranian soldiers have played a large role in the Syrian civil war, fighting for the Assad regime, and Iran has long had an alliance with Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shia party and militant group that has also fought for Assad. Many observers view the war in Yemen as a “proxy war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
On the university front, the Iranian academic expansion is an indisputable fact. But Iranian universities do not seem to want to talk about it. Not a single branch campus responded to multiple interview requests from Al-Fanar Media correspondents. A reporter scheduled a meeting with the president of Islamic Azad University in Beirut, but that interview was postponed without a reason being given. Professors at the university also refused to comment.
“I do not think it’s officially licensed in Lebanon,” said Mohsen Saleh, a former dean and professor at the institute of social sciences at Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public university. “It is more like a center offering ccourses on Persian language. I do not know if it offers any other academic courses.”
According to several websites of the branch campuses and academic centers, their Iranian curriculum is provided by Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. English is usually the language of instruction except for some courses that are conducted in either Farsi or Arabic.
In Dubai’s Knowledge Village, branches of Iranian universities—Islamic Azad’s Dubai campus and Shahid Beheshti University—offer programs at the bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctoral levels in such fields as engineering, law, humanities, arts, management, mathematics.
The number of students enrolling at these branches is increasing, according to the universities themselves. The registered number of students in 2016 at Islamic Azad’s overseas branches located in Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Emirates, the United Kingdom and Russia has increased by 60 percent over the previous year.
Studying at the Dubai institutions comes with a hefty price tag. For example, a master’s degree at Shahid Beheshti University’s Dubai campus costs about $18,500. A doctoral degree will cost a student over $46,000.
Those price tags, some believe, hint at a profit motive. Muhammad Sahimi, an Iranian professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California, says “Iran’s cross-border campuses are a way to make money, I suppose.”
One reason for the growing number of students may be the increasing number of Iranians living abroad, which is estimated by Iranian officials to be as high as 7 million—a large part of whom live in the Gulf. Iranians now make up more than 10 percent of Dubai’s total population according to a report by Carnegie Endowment.
Although Iran’s academic institutions have been expanding lately, their presence is not new. According to the international mission statement of Payame Noor University, one of the largest public universities in Iran, the overseas academic centers are an effort to encourage scientific cooperation with other countries, promote Persian language and literature and “revive the national identity of Iranians residing abroad.”
Iranian universities are building four more campuses in Iraq. Farooq Ibrahem Mohammad, a biotechnology researcher at Al Nahrain University, an Iraqi institution in Baghdad, says Iran is building academic connections in Iraq so it can work on its political, economic and religious agenda there. (Many Iraqi’s are fearful that Iran is trying to covertly rule Iraq and, eventually, assimilate it.)
Rahni’s and Mohammad’s views agree with a report by the American Enterprise Institute and Institute for the Study of War, which says since 2008, Iran has continued to pursue a coordinated soft-power strategy throughout its sphere of influence using several tools, including universities.
But Ali Karami, a professor of molecular biology at Baqiyatallah University of Medical Science, in Iran, wrote in an e-mail that “Having branches of major Iranian universities in another countries will have mutual benefits for Iran and host countries including delivering science, technology and higher education opportunities for students as well as boosting scientific, cultural and technological, and even political collaborations and other areas of interest.”
Atta ur Rahman, a Pakistani chemist who is currently chair of the UN Committee on Science and Technology, says Arab universities have a lot to learn from their Iranian counterparts.
“In the Arab world huge palatial universities have been established with little creative output and none of them can be ranked among the top 100 of the world,” he says.
“So instead of suspecting and blaming Iran for expanding its influence,” adds Rahman, “The Arab world should stand up to them with dignity by promoting science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Iran’s cross -border campuses at the Arab World:
United Arab Emirates: Islamic Azad univ. (IAU) Operational
Shahid Beheshti Univ.(SBU) Operational
Payame Noor Univ. (PNU) Operational
Quranic Sciences & Teachings Univ (QSTU) Under way (a)
Lebanon: Islamic Azad univ. (IAU) Operational
Payame Noor Univ. (PNU) Operational
Tehran Univ (TU) Under way
Iraq: Medical Science Univ. Under way
Technical Univ. Under way
2 branches of Islamic Azad university Under way
at Sulaimani univ & Erbil Univ in Kusdistan region of Iraq
Oman: Islamic Azad univ. (IAU) Operational
Payame Noor Univ. (PNU) Operational
Syria: Al-Farabi uinv. (International branch Under way
of Tarbiat Madarres Univ.
Comoros: Payame Noor Univ. (PNU) Operational
Elmi Karbordi Univ Under way
Qatar: Payame Noor Univ. (PNU) Operational
Kuwait: Payame Noor Univ. (PNU) Operational
Motiaa Hallak, a journalist based in Lebanon, contributed to this article.