Rouhani’s Attempt to Adopt UNESCO Educational Guidelines Emerges as 2017 Election Issue
In the run-up to Iran’s presidential election on May 19, 2017, the country’s hardline supreme leader has strongly denounced the Rouhani government’s attempt to integrate guidelines from a UN agenda into the country’s educational system.
Conservative voters have meanwhile been pointing to the document as alleged evidence of centrist President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called pro-Western beliefs. Rouhani is currently seeking a second term.
“This document is not connected to any government and, more importantly, it does not force any government to implement it,” Said Peyvandi, a sociologist and member of UNESCO’s Peace and Education Commission, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “It 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,” he added. “The UNESCO document is diametrically opposed to Ayatollah (Ali) Khamenei’s thinking.”
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a non-binding guidelines document published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Peyvandi believes that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s opposition stems from the document’s emphasis on gender equality.
In a speech to the staff of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council on May 7, Khamenei denounced UNESCO for allegedly “giving itself the right to give instructions to nations with different histories, cultures and civilizations on behalf of influential world powers.”
“This UNESCO 2030 document is not something that the Islamic Republic will surrender to,” he said. “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.”
Ahead of Iran’s May 19 presidential election, conservatives have been urging voters to sign petitions denouncing the document and President Hassan Rouhani’s attempts to implement it.
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 has been 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.”
“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,” said Peyvandi.
“The document has two major parts,” Peyvandi, the UNESCO official, told CHRI. “One is for purely educational targets and the application of technology in communications and information management. I don’t think there’s a difference of opinion between Mr. Khamenei and the government on this part.”
“What Mr. Khamenei finds most objectionable is the three social aspects of the document,” he added. “One is the principle of equality between women and men in education to prepare the grounds for equality in society and the workforce. This is not something Mr. Khamenei can accept as part of Iran’s educational objectives.”
“He has taken a position against gender equality many times and opposes women in the workforce,” added Peyvandi. “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.”
Peyvandi said that the second issue opposed by Khamenei and his supporters is the document’s emphasis on human rights.
“In other words, teaching children about different aspects of human rights and its importance for society’s future,” said Peyvandi. “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,” the UNESCO official noted. “Even school textbooks include passages that describe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a means to exert pressure on Muslims.”
“According to the UNESCO document, education should serve international peace and be included in educational discourse,” added Peyvandi. “On the other hand, Iran’s educational system and textbooks promote war and violence. They explicitly discuss conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims and war with others as enemies. They introduce violent characters as positive role models. They proudly describe the lives of martyrs and other individuals whose worldview does not promote the culture of peace in relation to minorities or different peoples and countries around the world.”
On May 9, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani called on the legislature to “ensure the wishes of the supreme leader are carried out as soon as possible.”
A member of the parliamentary education and research committee, Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, meanwhile told Iran’s state TV that he would take steps to oppose the document’s “humanistic and secular” designs “against Iranian identity.”
“Westerners want to globalize their own culture and the 2030 agenda is the vehicle for that purpose,” another member of the committee, Alireza Salimi, said on May 7.
Reformist member of Parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi reacted by questioning whether opponents know what the UNESCO document is about.
“I asked a few fellow MPs why they were so passionately against the 2030 agenda and to show me the parts they objected to, but it turned out none of them had read it,” Sadeghi tweeted on May 9.
Speaking to CHRI, the UNESCO sociologist denied the notion, pushed by hardliners, that the document is being imposed by the West.
“Mr. Khamenei and others have wrongly suggested that the West is trying to impose its lifestyle on the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is false and a lie,” said Peyvandi. “First of all, this document has been prepared by educational experts, not governments.”
“Secondly, it happens to be that many European countries and even the United States are not so pleased with UNESCO and have a critical opinion of it because of the influence underdeveloped countries have on its development policies,” he added.