Washington Post imperils Delft’s Iranians

Iranian students in Delft are concerned after an article in the Washington Post about them. The article claimed that TU Delft is the centre of new Iranian activism.

Last June, TU Delft’s Iranian students protested on campus. (Photo: Hans Stakelbeek/FMAX)

De TU Delft is ook volgens de Sjanghai top 100 de beste technische universiteit (TU) van Nederland. Delft staat in de deze week gepubliceerde lijst in de groep van 152-200, ruim voor Twente (303-401) en Eindhoven (402-501). Twee weken geleden bleek uit de Times Higher Education ranglijst (THE) ook dat Delft als de beste TU van Nederland wordt gezien. Lijstaanvoerder op de Sjanghai-lijst is – net als in de THE – Harvard. De beste Nederlandse universiteit is volgens de Chinezen die van Utrecht (52), dat net als in 2008 vijf plekken moest prijsgeven. Tweede is de universiteit van Leiden (van 76 naar 72). De rest van de Nederlandse universiteiten staat buiten de top 100. De verschillen tussen de beide ranglijsten worden verklaard door verschillende beoordelingscriteria. Bij de Sjanghai-lijst ligt meer nadruk op onderzoeksprestaties in de vorm van prijzen en citatie- en publicatiescores.

“This isn’t true at all. The article is full of incorrect information and highly exaggerates the facts”, said members of the Iranian Students Society of TU Delft (Isstud). “But nevertheless, for the Iranian government, this article might raise unnecessary sensitivities about the social and non-political activities of Iranian students in Delft.”

“When I read the Washington Post article I had to laugh”, says Ardavan Khorsand, an architecture student and Isstud member. “I was baffled about the writer of this article’s knowledge and intentions.” The other Isstud board members nod in agreement. “That article is such a big exaggeration of reality”, says Rad Haghi, an MSc student. The article in question, written by Thomas Erdbrink, claimed that over 1,000 Iranian students and scholars study here in Delft. “But according to the student affairs database there are 350 Iranian students registered here.”

‘The article gives a wrong image about the activities of TU Delft students’

But apart from such miscalculations, Isstud members are even more baffled by the article’s claim that TU Delft is the centre of Iranian activism. The Washington Post quotes an anonymous TU Delft student named Sohrab, who says Delft is a think-tank on Iran’s future, and through Facebook, telephone and email, he and other Iranian students maintain contact with their homeland and as such are trying to reform Iran.

“The article gives a wrong image about the activities of TU Delft students, which might evolve into wrong judgments for the Iranian government, which is experiencing a critical time after the last year’s post-election development of a civil movement”, Haghi says. “It’s absurd to publish an article based on wrong information. The writer did not fully understand the difference between political activities in the context of Iran, compared to the Netherlands. In Iran it’s very unclear what is political and what isn’t. So, if an article in the Washington Post specifically talks about political activists in a small city like Delft, the margin of political, social and cultural issues becomes very vague”, Khorsand adds. “Any misjudgement, based on this incorrect, false article, might result in unexpected conclusions, specifically in a chaotic administration like the one in Iran.”


“When entering Iran, you can be questioned just for being in Delft as a student”, says Mehdi (first name only), an MSc student (EEMCS), who is not an Isstud member. “It all depends on the political circumstances back home what will happen. TU Delft students could be in trouble because of this false article: just for studying in Delft, because the Washington Post claims it’s a hotbed for activism. Or nothing happens. You never know for sure, until students return to Iran.”

“The article is based on an interview with an unknown person who could never be an Isstud representative”, says Hamed Abolhadi, a pre-MSc student and Isstud board member. Abolhadi stresses this, because in the Washington Post article the author states there’s an active Iranian students club that organises meetings with exiled dissidents and politicians. “It’s unclear which organisation or community the author is referring to.” But if the author is referring to Isstud, its members don’t recognise themselves in the activities mentioned in the article.

“We don’t do stuff like that. If people think it’s our student society, it might even attract temporary and fake attention”, Abolhadi says. “Delft isn’t an Iranian centre of anti-government activism; it’s the centre of Iranian culture. At Isstud we organise all sorts of cultural, social and academic activities.”

So, what’s the reality of Iranian students in Delft? Isstud is a platform and network for Iranian students. “When I arrived in Delft six years ago, there were hardly any Iranian students and it was hard to find my way around. So it’s nice to have an organization to go to for help”,  Abolhadi says. Isstud helps Iranian students find information about renting rooms and organises sporting events and film evenings, as well having literature, art and scientific committees.

“Sometimes we even advise students about buying bikes and how to repair them. We most certainly aren’t activists. We come to Delft to study”, Khorsand adds. “There simply aren’t many activist-students at TU Delft.”


But one such activist-student is MSc student Mehdi, who also says the Washington Post article is wrong in stating that Delft is a hotbed of Iranian activism. Last year he, another TU Delft student and a few other students from other universities started the Iranian Progressive Youth organisation, which strives to get media attention for human rights breaches inside Iran, such as the woman recently facing stoning for allegedly committing adultery.

Although Mehdi isn’t as active as he was in the beginning, he still believes it’s vital to be active in some sort of opposition against the Iranian government. “Right after the elections I used Facebook to pass around all the stories. Facebook is banned in Iran and the internet is very slow, but people always manage via links to post their stories and videos on Facebook and email. I shared all this information with friends. It was very important that news of the demonstrations came out, because otherwise no one outside Iran would know what was going on inside our country.”

After the elections, Iranian students held a demonstration on the TU Delft campus. Mehdi was there, too, but he reports that there were no more than 100 Iranian students demonstrating. “But after that most of them became passive again, unfortunately. There are now more than ten, but certainly no more than 50, Iranian students active in demonstrations or other opposition activities.”

Mehdi wishes the Washington Post article was true: “But it’s not. Most Iranian students are passive. They come from rich families and are only here for better academic opportunities. They only study here. Or they’re too afraid to participate in demonstrations.” He regrets this. “People in Iran are having such a hard time. It’s getting worse every day. If they’re demonstrating, they could end up in prison or be killed, because the police use their guns during demonstrations. We owe it to our people back home to make their stories heard. They can’t tell it themselves, but we can. We students shouldn’t be so scared to take that risk.” 

To read the Washington Post article headlined ‘Dutch town of Delft is center of a new Iranian activism’, go to and search under the author, Thomas Erdbrink.

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