Rouhani’s Battle With Hardliners Over UN 2030 Educational Guidelines Follows Him Into Second Term
A major challenge for newly reelected President Hassan Rouhani’s second term is integrating guidelines from a UN agenda into the country’s educational system—a project he began in the summer of 2016 that was stalled by fierce opposition from hardliners.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a non-binding educational guidelines document published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has been condemned by hardliners including Iran’s conservative supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
A civil rights activist in Tehran told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) that hardliners used the issue to smear Rouhani during his 2017 reelection campaign.
“In their flyers and speeches against Rouhani, they claimed the UN document promoted homosexuality and its goal was to eliminate Islam from Iranian schools,” said the activist, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
In a May 2017 interview with CHRI, UNESCO official Said Peyvandi explained that the UN agenda “is simply a guideline for the future.”
“The argument is over what kind of human beings we want to raise and what kind of society we want to have,” said Peyvandi, a sociologist and member of UNESCO’s Peace and Education Commission. “The UNESCO document is diametrically opposed to Ayatollah Khamenei’s thinking.”
In the days leading up to the presidential election on May 19, 2017, Rouhani’s conservative election rivals, particularly Ebrahim Raisi, attacked Rouhani for attempting to adopt the 2030 agenda.
“They have made the plan native to our educational system, but how does that conform with our own national interests?” he said on May 21 to a group of teachers. “How can we impose a foreign document on our own values? That’s not right.”
In a sermon broadcast live on state TV on May 19—election day—Tehran Friday prayer leader Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani blasted what he claimed was the Rouhani government’s “secret” adoption of the 2030 UN agenda as “an act of high treason by the government.”
At a pro-Raisi campaign rally on May 11, a member of the Assembly of Experts from Zanjan declared that the 2030 agenda not only encouraged homophobia, but also drove children away from Shia Islamic values.
“If we implement this program in the country, our youth and future generations will lose their revolutionary and Islamic spirit,” claimed Mohammad Doulabi.
The next day, Asadollah Imani, the Friday prayer leader of Shiraz and Khamenei’s representative in Fars Province, criticized Rouhani’s attempt to implement the UN guidelines as “cultural capitulation designed to impose other cultures on our country through UNESCO.”
Khamenei Criticizes Rouhani
Less than two weeks before the presidential election, Khamenei gave a speech to the staff of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council denouncing UNESCO for allegedly “giving itself the right to give instructions to nations with different histories, cultures and civilizations on behalf of influential world powers” and Rouhani for attempting to implement the guidelines.
“This UNESCO 2030 document is not something that the Islamic Republic will surrender to,” he said on May 7. “It’s wrong to sign some document and then quietly go ahead and implement it. That’s absolutely forbidden.”
Khamenei’s sharp criticism came some five months after the chairman of the Basij volunteer paramilitary organization’s academic committee, Sohrab Salehi, wrote a letter to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council and Parliament on January 7, 2017 claiming that the 2030 agenda was created by “American spies to take control of Iran’s cultural institutions.”
On August 16, 2016, Rouhani’s cabinet agreed to put the Education Ministry in charge of integrating the document’s guidelines into the country’s educational system.
Following Khamenei’s expressed opposition on May 7, the head of the Headquarters for the Implementation of the General Education Roadmap, Mansour Kabganian, announced on May 9 that the adoption of the 2030 agenda was halted.
However, on May 13, Rouhani said the government would remain committed to the spirit of document and only discard the parts that contradict Islam.
“Some have spread unfair propaganda against the 2030 agenda,” said Rouhani at a campaign rally in Tehran. “I assure the supreme leader of the Iranian nation and the great nation of Iran that the government has pledged to adhere to the document within Iran’s laws and cultural parameters.”
According to UNESCO, the 2030 agenda was adopted in September 2015 to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” The agency was entrusted to “lead and coordinate” the agenda with “governments and partners on how to turn commitments into action.”
Peyvandi told CHRI that two of the main issues opposed by Khamenei and his supporters is the UN document’s emphasis on “the principle of equality between women and men in education” and human rights.
“He has taken a position against gender equality many times and opposes women in the workforce,” he said. “He is more interested in women playing the role of mothers and wives in domestic affairs. He is not too keen on seeing a role for women in society as proposed in the document.”
“Unfortunately, instead of emphasizing the 2030 agenda’s universal educational goals for a better world in the future, what we hear in Iran are statements and excuses that have nothing to with anything,” added the UN official.
“In other words, teaching children about different aspects of human rights and its importance for society’s future,” he said. “Also, human rights must be observed in practice in running school affairs (according to the document).”
“We know this culture does not exist in Iran’s educational system,” added Peyvandi. “Even school textbooks include passages that describe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a means to exert pressure on Muslims.”