The Case of Hassan Rouhani’s Ph.D. Degree

by Mahtab Divsalar — 7May 2021

About this investigation
Rouhani will soon leave the office of the President of Iran. The investigation into the legitimacy of his Ph.D. degree started two years ago, as Zamaneh continues other investigations that other journalists and activists have conducted. Unfortunately, we couldn’t complete this investigation in due time because of the global COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting travel limitations. We were primarily waiting for the Glasgow Caledonian University archive to reopen so that we could cross-check the accuracy of his digitized thesis in our possession with the original in their library. Despite this limitation, we have decided to publish the piece now before he leaves office.

Hassan Rouhani receiving his doctorate without a clerical robe and turban, 1999

Doubts and Questions about Hassan Rouhani’s Doctoral Degree

Hassan Rouhani, the seventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, will leave office in less than three months. A shadow of doubt will always be cast over the man who has held the most critical and senior position of intelligence and executive power over the last four decades: the focus of this doubt concerns his Ph.D. degree in law.

As Glasgow Caledonian University told Zamaneh, they “have opened correspondence with Dr. Rouhani on this issue and will draw this matter to a satisfactory conclusion in due course.”

Hassan Rouhani is not the first person who holds a questionable academic degree, and he will not be the last. Similar doubt surrounds the degrees of many Iranian officials and even their children. Lack of transparency from Rouhani himself and the university at which he studied has fueled these ambiguities.

Several Iranian and British journalists — and even some of Rouhani’s political opponents — have investigated the credibility of his degree for various reasons.

Rouhani was initially accused of never earning a doctoral degree, but an investigation by reporters revealed that he had received his doctorate from a university in Scotland. After that, some investigators raised the issue of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation and other related accusations. Most of these ambiguities have now been resolved.

Through the process of fact-checking and reviewing Rouhani’s degree, many questions can be answered with certainty. The final answer to some of these ambiguities, however, must come from official authorities, including the university where the degree was obtained.

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rowhani smiles during a press conference in Tehran on June 17, 2013. Rowhani expressed hope that Iran can reach a new agreement with major powers over its disputed nuclear programme, saying a deal should be reached through more transparency and mutual trust. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP)

What do we Know about Rouhani’s Degree?

Glasgow Caledonian University

Hassan Rouhani received his Ph.D. in Constitutional Law from Glasgow Caledonian University in November 1999.

In a video released by the Glasgow Caledonian University after the controversy over the Iranian president’s doctorate began, we see Hassan Rouhani receiving his doctorate without a clerical robe and turban. In this video, he is referred to as Hassan Feridun (Rouhani’s actual name).

Based on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents, Hassan Feridon was enrolled for an M.Phil. from the 1992–93 academic year through 1995–96 and a Ph.D. from 1996–97 through 1998–99.

Many of the documents related to Rouhani’s education are either not publicly available or the university refuses to release them based on data protection principles.

The university offers little to the public about Rouhani’s seven-year degree-earning experience there. Regardless, there is enough information to believe that Rouhani enrolled at the university and waited seven years to receive his doctorate.

The available information indicates that the title of his M.Phil. thesis was “The Islamic legislative power with reference to the Iranian experience” and the title of his Ph.D. thesis was “the Flexibility of Shariah (Islamic Law) with reference to the Iranian experience.” He obtained both of these degrees from research programs. Another FOIA document shows these research programs that Rouhani enrolled in were full-time programs, and that he received a scholarship for his Ph.D., but that the university does not hold this information regarding his M.Phil.

The cost of graduate study at Scottish universities for international students varies between 10,000 to 40,000 pounds per year, depending on the university and program. In the 1980s, international students studying humanities in the UK were paying an average of around 4000 pounds per year. At the time of Mr. Rouhani’s education (in the 1990s), the tuition fee for a master’s degree was likely somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 pounds per year.

Ph.D. programs at UK universities are usually free, but Ph.D. students have costs associated with the university. These expenses are generally covered by external grants and not by the Ph.D student. It is possible that in Rouhani’s case, the Iranian government covered these costs.

According to FOIA documents, Rouhani did not attend the graduation and award ceremony for his M.Phil. degree on 6 July 1996 and graduated in absentia. However, he did attend the graduation and award ceremony in Glasgow on 13 November 1999 for his Ph.D. degree.

There were no final grades for Rouhani’s research degrees; the classification is listed as either “award” or “no award.” He was awarded an M.Phil. and Ph.D., respectively, for his two theses. University documents also show that the oral examination date for his Ph.D. was on 16 April 1999.

Professor Sayed Hassan Amin and Dr. Mahdi Zahraa were Rouhani’s advisors. Caledonian University has not published the names of those on the Board of Examiners for Rouhani’s Ph.D. due to data protection principles, but available documents say that “All research degree exams have both internal and external examiners.”

GCU has also said that there was no requirement to attend lectures as part of the course of study, as was the norm for UK research students. So Rouhani may have chosen to attend lectures, but the university does not have this information.

Why Glasgow?

Glasgow is a port city in Scotland with several old, reputable universities, but in the nineties Glasgow Caledonian was not the best university in town.

This educational institution was established in 1971 but was not considered a university until 1993. The University of Glasgow Caledonian was formed in 1993 by the merger of the Queen’s College Glasgow and Glasgow Polytechnic. It was at this point that Rouhani enrolled in law at the newly established university.

When Rouhani obtained his degree, Glasgow Caledonian’s rank according to the Iranian Ministry of Higher Education’s ranking system was not A or B. Rather, it was listed as a C-level university.

In Iran, there is a regulation of evaluating degrees which dictates that international students must earn a Ph.D. from A or B-level universities in order to be accepted by Iran’s educational system.

After Rouhani reached the office of the presidency in 2013, the ranking of GCU upgraded from C-level to B-level.

Glasgow is located 5,000 kilometers from Tehran, and if there was a direct flight between the two cities, you would have to tolerate at least 8 hours in the air. But the question is: why did a 44-year-old married man with five children, who held at least five full-time high-ranking jobs in government at the time, choose such a distance for a seven-year Ph.D. program?

Asking Rouhani this question today seems impossible, but tens of interviews between his Iranian advisor and domestic and international media may provide an answer.

Eight years ago Professor Sayed Hassan Amin, Rouhani’s Iranian advisor, was interviewed by BBC Persian, right after Rouhani was elected as the seventh president of Iran. He told the BBC interviewers that when he went to the Faculty of Law at the University of Tehran as a visiting professor in 1988, Rouhani expressed his desire to go to England to study. The matter was delayed until the 1990s when Rouhani finally sent him a proposal for a research project. Professor Amin said that after his extensive assistance and several drafts, he finally submitted the proposal to GCU, which was being formed at that time.

While the University was still being formed, Rouhani was accepted as a Ph.D. student at GCU. At the same time, Amin became a full-time professor at the same university.

After completing his master’s degree, Rouhani began his doctoral program in 1996 with Professor Amin as his advisor. However, in 1997 when Amin was only 49-years old, he suddenly retired after 18 years of experience and returned to Iran. Upon this return, he turned to politics and became a member of the Party of Iran and the Party of the National Front. He was later expelled from both parties in April 2009 and May 2009, respectively.

There is no information about Professor Amin on the Glasgow Caledonian University website.

We asked GCU about the reason behind his early retirement, and the university replied, “Data protection legislation would prevent the University from providing such information about any staff member, past or present.”

While the reason for his retirement at the age of 49, which is considered young in academia, is unclear, Scottish court documents indicate the divorce of a person named Sayed Hassan Amin at a Glasgow address on October 7, 1997, from an “Elsept Anne.” According to other court documents, Amin had to pay £70,300 to his ex-wife, which he had not yet done as of 2000.

One Ph.D. and Two Supervisors

After Amin’s departure, Dr. Mahdi Al-Zahra, a Sunni scholar of Syrian descent, became Hassan Rouhani’s Ph.D. advisor. Our attempt to contact Dr. Al-Zahra was unsuccessful. In response to our request to contact him, GCU said that he no longer works for the university.

In an interview with the BBC World Service in 2013, Dr. Al-Zahra said that Rouhani was an outspoken and kind man who enjoyed “intelligent and challenging” discussions with him. Al-Zahra also said: “his spoken English was good,” but several reporters who have been in press conferences outside Iran say they have never heard Rouhani speak English. Three of these reporters told Zamaneh that their assertion was that Rouhani understood English quite well but spoke poorly. One person who worked with Rouhani in Iran in the early 2000s also confirmed this view.

There is a video of Rouhani talking to Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron in 2019 and another video in an interview with Christiane Amanpour that speaks a few words in English.

Remember, at the time of enrollment at Glasgow Caledonian University (1992), Rouhani was deputy Speaker of Parliament (1992–2000), President of the Center for Strategic Research (1992–2013), Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (1989–2005), and a member of the Expediency Discernment Council (1991–2013). In addition to these full-time responsibilities, he also held membership on the board of trustees and the role of editor of several Persian and English-language magazines. During this time, his young son died in a suspected suicide shooting in 1995. He was hospitalized for heart disease in 1996, and also contended with numerous riots in Iran in the 1990s, bombings in several cities, sabotage, the oil pipeline explosions, the Mykonos case (the 1990s), US sanctions (1995), and the daily duties of a statesman. Imagine, conducting all of these responsibilities in addition to being a full-time doctoral student in a country eight hours away by flight.

Questioning the Thesis

It is clear that Rouhani received his doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University, but there is skepticism about the authenticity of his doctoral thesis.

Questions about the doctoral dissertation include several issues: from plagiarism to the use of a ghostwriter; even some say the thesis has no academic qualities.

Ghostwriter

Some who question the authenticity of Hassan Rouhani’s doctorate believe that he did not write his dissertation himself. It is very difficult to prove that someone else wrote his doctoral thesis for him, and even if the proof exists, it is not necessarily illegal, but undoubtedly immoral. The main argument for this theory questions how a person with several high-ranking national security responsibilities in Iran between 1996 and 1999 found enough time to write a Ph.D. thesis.

During his doctorate term (1996–1999), Rouhani was a member of the Iranian parliament, advisor to the President, head of the Strategic Research Center, a member of the Expediency Council, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

In an interview with Foreign Policy in 2003, Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said:

“It’s long been alleged that senior Iranian national security officials who were simultaneously Ph.D. students abroad had ghost thesis writers.”

One of the accusations raised about Rouhani’s dissertation was that since he was the director of the Strategic Research Center during his studies, he had used the researchers of that center to write his thesis for him.

Around 1997, researchers at the Strategic Research Center were commissioned to work on some topics that were questionable for the center because they did not fit with the ongoing research programs and were off-topic. During that time, some people within the center discussed that these researchers were commissioned for Rouhani’s doctoral dissertation.

There are several individuals and groups inside Iran who are professionally writing dissertations for money. Three Iranian professors told Zamaneh that using ghostwriters is very common among senior government officials and revolutionary guard commanders in Iran seeking a doctorate. One of the professors who talked on the condition of anonymity told us that in several cases, Iranian officials have intimidated professors to force them to accept the thesis that is not credible or fails to meet the criteria.

The issue is so pervasive that six years ago, at a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, Hassan Rouhani ordered legal action against dissertation-sellers — gohestwriters in Iran who write for graduate students and receive payments for thier services.

Plagiarism

The most serious accusation against Hassan Rouhani’s doctorate in law is plagiarism. This accusation was first made based on an abstract of the thesis available on the university’s website. Later, a group of students who obtained Rouhani’s thesis via the Ministry of Higher Education claimed that a significant part of the thesis is plagiarized.

The group, which has a website called “RouhaniThesis,” introduces itself as” a group of Iranian students worldwide.”

In several interviews, Keyvan Ebrahimi, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at the University of Iowa, spoke out as a representative of this group to say that they are independent, non-partisan, and non-political.

According to the group’s research, the first three chapters of the thesis are about 50% plagiarized, while chapters 4 and 5 are about 90% plagiarized. The source documents for this plagiarism and the Rouhani thesis are all available on their website.

It seems that the thesis file is the PDF version of pictures taken from a computer monitor screen. They are claiming that they found the thesis via a search engine of the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology of Iran. Still, the thesis is not available on their website and nor in the archive of the internet. The photos may be coming from a computer screen in the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology of Iran.

But Ebrahimi and his group were not satisfied with this answer. He spoke with Iranian media, held press conferences, and even started a petition.

He also contacted the Glasgow Caledonian University and sent them research and documents to lead them to review Rouhani’s degree.

The last correspondence Ebrahimi had with university officials dates back to 2017. A university official confirmed receipt of the documents he sent and promised to investigate the allegations of plagiarism.

But who is Behind “RouhaniThesis”?

In a 2017 article on Al-Monitor, “Who’s behind the campaign to probe Rouhani’s doctoral thesis?” Fereshteh Sadeghi describes “RouhaniThesis” as a “group of students in Iran and the United States which has launched an initiative — with apparent backing from conservative Iranian lawmakers.”

Al-Monitor interviewed two group members, Keyvan Ebrahimi and Mahdiar (which appears to be a pseudonym). In this interview, Ebrahimi confirmed that the campaign pursued both political and academic objectives. He also said that he obtained Rouhani’s thesis “via a search engine on the website of the Research Institute for Information, Science and Technology.”

On their website, a nongovernmental organization called Justice and Transparency Watch (JTW) was introduced as the legal supporter of the project.

Al-Monitor mentions Mohammad Dehghan, the campaign chief of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and deputy chairman of the “Valai” parliamentary faction as one of the founders of JTW. Mahdyar and Ebrahimi told Al-Monitor that they had nothing to do with the Ghalibaf campaign, that the project of reviewing Rouhani’s thesis was voluntary, and that they had not received a penny to cover their costs.

Rouhani thesis: It seems that the thesis file is the PDF version of pictures taken from a computer monitor screen

Glasgow Caledonian University Answering the Questions

Zamaneh reached out to officials at the Glasgow Caledonian University, asking them about the allegations of plagiarism, ghostwriters, and the unavailability of a thesis on the University’s website.

Glasgow Caledonian University is aware of the allegations made against Rouhani’s dissertation.

“In 2013, the University looked into allegations relating to two short extracts and established that the relevant works, which were not attributed in the extracts, were acknowledged later in the thesis,” GCU told Zamaneh.

The first accusations came just a week after Hassan Rouhani was elected as the seventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khodnevi’s website claimed in an article that at least one paragraph in the abstract of the thesis had been copied from a book by Mohamed Hashim Kamali, an Afghan-born scholar.

After that, the story gained attention, and other people accessed the abstract containing several pages of the thesis and examined it for plagiarism. The results of these efforts were sent to the university in several emails during 2013.

We asked GCU about the comprehensive accusation made by Keyvan Ebrahimi’s team based on the full version of Rouhani’s thesis.

“During the summer of 2017, we received and reviewed new allegations of plagiarism which were accompanied by an ‘Ithenticate’ report. We have opened correspondence with Dr. Rouhani on this issue and will draw this matter to a satisfactory conclusion in due course,” Glasgow Caledonian University said.

GCU also said that the investigation is in line with the university’s policies and procedures and respects the privacy rights of any individual subject to allegations of misconduct.

“The university is not at liberty to disclose details of the review and related communications,” Glasgow Caledonian University told Zamaneh.

GCU added that it was unaware of the allegations that Rouhani may not have written the thesis himself or received assistance from a ghostwriter. However, the university asserted that if anyone “has evidence relating to an allegation of ghost-writing, we would ask that it be passed to us.”

A Hidden Thesis

Glasgow Caledonian University’s website and the online library of British theses provides access to only an abstract of Rouhani’s thesis. The original thesis is not available digitally, despite the fact that the dissertations of many doctoral students in the same year are available in the British Library EThOS.

According to an update on the university’s website, the original copy of the thesis is only available in the archive. We asked GCU why the dissertation is not available and how to access it. The university responded:

“Since 1998, when the thesis of Dr. Rouhani was accepted, it has been and remains available in its entirety in the university library. Like many theses from that time, the work we hold is only available in hard copy. “

The thesis is not available for loan, and the university says it is part of the university’s special collection because it is “unique.” They maintain that “we do not loan it out as it cannot be replaced.” Further inquiries revealed that the author of the thesis, Mr. Rouhani, did not allow the university to digitize the dissertation and take a photograph or scan it.

Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, it was not possible to travel to Glasgow to see the hard copy of the thesis.

Mr. Rouhani’s English Level

According to Glasgow Caledonian University, international Ph.D. and master’s students must have a good level of English to study there.

“Those who knew Dr. Rouhani during the period of his study have responded to similar comments in the media that his command of English was entirely satisfactory,” GCU answered Zamaneh.

From Elementary School to Bachelor of Law

Hassan Rouhani had a seminary education. As he wrote in his memoir, Memoirs of Dr. Hassan Rouhani — Volume 1, he entered the seminary in Qom when he was 13-years old in the summer of 1961, after finishing primary school in Sorkheh village, and remained there until 1970.

Rouhani said that in 1966 he decided to get a high school diploma, as a young adult still in seminary school. In his memoir, he said that he passed the exams of two grades each summer, and eventually, he finished a six-year high school program in 2.5 years.

In the winter of 1973, he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Tehran in three and a half years, while being married with two young children,

During his studies at the Faculty of Law, Rouhani worked as a preacher and speaker in Tehran’s mosques. He also completed his military service training and law school training in the same period. Some people doubt how it could have been possible to have many duties while being a full-time law school student. Others were even questioning if he had ever attended a bachelor’s program at the University of Tehran in the 1960s. Still, his name “Hassan Fereydoun” can be seen in the admissions exam list in 1969 in the newspaper Ettelaat. Also, Manouchehr Ganji, the dean of the law school, remembers him and an infamous fight he had with a professor. Rouhani had a heated debate in class with Dr. Mazlouman, a law professor at the University of Tehran who was later assassinated in Paris in 1996. The disagreement between the secular Dr. Mazlouman and Rouhani was over Islamic law, and the matter was taken to the dean’s office.

We asked several people studying at the Faculty of Political Science and Law at the University of Tehran in the same period about Rouhani. The answer we found was that it was very likely that Rouhani did not come to the university in a clerical outfit (robe and turban) because most of the interviewees remember several clerics in those years but do not remember Hassan Fereydoun (Rouhani) in the clerical garb.

It may seem strange for a clergyman with a seminary school background to gain admission to a public university in Iran and then complete the program in less than four years. However, it is widely said that in the 1960s there was an unwritten policy of encouraging clerics to study modern education and learn about new-age science.

Hassan Rouhani was not the only cleric from the seminary who attended university during that period; Mohammad Beheshti and Musa al- Sadr both graduated from the University of Tehran in the 1960s.

Hassan Rouhani in Seminary school

Dr. Rouhani

Hassan Rouhani called himself a doctor at least 20 years before he received his doctorate from a university in Glasgow — or at least allowed others to call him a doctor since he was studying to earn a Bachelor of Law at the University of Tehran.

One of the earliest examples was recorded by Rouhani himself in his memoirs:

“In 1970 in the Chahardsad Dastgah in Karaj, I was invited to preach for several nights; I saw for the first time that in my speech announcement they referred to me as ‘Doctor Rouhani.’ I objected to the mosque’s cleric and told him that I was still a student, why do you call me

a doctor? He said that because we know you will continue your education up to doctorate level and, in a few years, you will be a doctor anyways…”

Also, one of the people who knew Rouhani in the 1970s told Zamaneh that he remembered in a memorial eulogy in a mosque in Narmak in Tehran in 1975 that he was introduced as Dr. Rouhani.

SAVAK (Organization of National Security and Information of Iran before Revolution) documents and reports show that in the mid-70s he was known in Tehran and other cities as Dr. Rouhani.

According to a SAVAK agent’s report, Rouhani gave a speech at the Imam Mosque in Qom on October 4, 1977.

“On October 5, 1977, Dr. Hassan Rouhani gave a speech at Imam Mosque after the evening prayer. The mosque was full of people, and most of them were seminary school students… he talked about Islam from the Quran perspective. Most of the seminary students said that his speech was not interesting but boring, though one of the reasons for the large crowd being attracted to his speeches was the word ‘doctor’ before his name.”

Rouhani took a trip to the UK for the first time in May 1978, hoping to continue his studies. During his nine months of staying in the UK, he attended an English language institute near London and enrolled in the London School of Economics. He finally left the UK in February 1979, returned to Iran, and joined the revolutionists.

Rouhani claims in his memoirs that during this time, he was accepted to Harvard University and obtained a four-year U.S. student visa. Still, he returned to Iran due to the Iranian Revolution.

After the revolution, Rouhani’s educational status did not change, but he was widely known as a “doctor.” From the beginning of the revolution, Hassan Rouhani was always called Dr. Rouhani — in interviews with newspapers, in advertisements for speaking at mosques, in the official documents of the Iranian Parliament, in the campaign leaflets for parliamentary elections, in Khamenei’s governmental decrees, in the official text of the parliamentary debates, in the memoirs of Islamic Republic officials — before he even enrolled at Glasgow Caledonian University in 1992.

SAVAK documents show that in the mid-70s he was known in Tehran and other cities as Dr. Rouhani

The Obsession of Politicians with a Degree

The list of politicians obsessed with obtaining an academic degree is not limited to Hassan Rouhani. It includes other officials, members of parliament, mayors, governors, and even IRGC commanders.

And, of course, many politicians have been accused of forging degrees, lying, and cheating at their studies — not only in Iran but around the world.

From Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also accused of plagiarism in his dissertation, to Elena Ceauşescu, wife of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, who did not have a B.Sc., but was awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry by the University of Bucharest with the help of her husband’s influence.

Higher education is sometimes used as a political tool by powerful countries in their approach to Third World dictators. One example is Gaddafi’s son. The UK Foreign Office lobbied Oxford university to accept Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, to encourage a rapprochement with Libya.

Academia, which is supposed to be a space for contributing to human knowledge, has sometimes become a place to satisfy Third World dictators’ fascination with a degree.

Last Word

Proving an instance of plagiarism and use of a ghostwriter in a particular thesis is not easy and falls into a gray area. The best reference for investigating such allegations is the university itself, the academic world, and a panel of experts and researchers. What matters is the secrecy, lack of transparency, and concealment of the details in cases of fraud.

Today, hundreds of officials of the Islamic Republic have obtained their university degrees through fraudulent activities, intimidation, and other methods. Most of them will not be satisfied with less than the title of doctor. It is not possible for journalists in Iran to access these documents, and those who know and have the documents are either scared or secretive.

Obtaining a doctorate is a time-consuming and challenging task. Ph.D. students spend several years researching and writing dissertations, devoting themselves to the full-time job of writing a thesis. This generation of fake politician “doctors” has come from the Islamic Revolution in Iran. They are not satisfied with wealth, several jobs, titles, and power. Rather, they want to conquer this last stronghold of the world of science and knowledge by relying on the institutionalized corruption in the country.

+Zamaneh Media

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