BEIRUT: The American University of Beirut was entangled in controversy Saturday after it withdrew from hosting a two-part BBC panel show citing the risk of violating sanctions rules. Titled “A View from Beirut: The Impact of the Saudi/Iran Power Struggle,” the two-part panel is part of the BBC’s “Global Questions” series, which is designed to bridge the gap between local audiences and political leaders.
Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English literature at Tehran University, had been invited to speak alongside four others on an English-language panel that included Elias Bou Saab – an adviser to President Michel Aoun – and the prominent Lebanese TV journalist Paula Yacoubian.
The accompanying Arabic-language panel discussion was set to include Iranian commentator Mohammad Mahdi Shariati Madar.
The university published a statement Sunday announcing that AUB’s participation in the BBC panel had been entirely withdrawn.
Despite having hosted several BBC events in the past, this was the first to fall through, AUB said.
“After initially authorizing the programs and their proposed participants, the university received further legal advice today that it would not be possible to host the program from the perspective of compliance with U.S. regulations,” the statement said.
The university made no specific mention of which sanctions they were concerned about violating or if the risk stemmed from Marandi, Madar or any other speakers invited to the event.
The statement also added that it had immediately informed BBC of the issue and “following further consultations it was agreed that the programs should be recorded at a different venue.”
However, BBC producer Hesham Shawish said that there had been no consultations between the two institutions, adding that AUB’s decision had been unilateral.
While AUB regularly ranks among the best Arab universities, it is officially registered as an American institution and is thus beholden to American regulations.
Despite the nuclear deal with Iran brokered by the U.S. in 2015 that saw an easing of sanctions, many Western companies and institutions have remained reluctant to actively engage with Iranian companies and government institutions over concerns at breaking remaining sanctions.
Last March, AUB settled a controversial $700,000 lawsuit after U.S. federal prosecutors accused the university of training employees of Hezbollah-affiliated media outlets Al-Manar TV and Al-Nour Radio.
Two individuals listed on the U.S Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals List and “another SDN-affiliated entity on a student database” were given training between 2007 and 2009 via AUB workshops offered to Lebanese media outlets.
While the settlement was agreed, AUB maintains that it had not intentionally breached regulations.
According to Shawish, the BBC is currently in the process of securing a venue and will not make any amendments to their program so as to champion “freedom of speech.”
Marandi did not respond to The Daily Star’s requests for comment before this story was published; however, he took to Twitter to claim that AUB had attempted to remove him from the panel discussion.
“I have just been informed by the BBC that the American University of Beirut has banned me from participating in the panel discussion on Thursday. Amazing,” Marandi tweeted late Saturday afternoon.
“The BBC has been looking for someone to replace me. I do not insist on participating, but in my opinion, since the American University of Beirut is imposing conditions on the debate, it no longer has the credibility to host such an event,” he added in a subsequent tweet.
In an interview with Iran’s Press TV – an affiliate of the state-run broadcasting company – Marandi, who has been described as a staunch supporter of Iran’s leadership, slammed the university, claiming that the move was politically motivated.
The academic’s accusations provoked others to publically call out AUB for their alleged political bias.
“Is @AUB_Lebanon bowing to Saudi pressures? If shown to be true, I will be obligated to return my honorary doctorate,” Lebanese risk analyst and prominent author Nassim Nicholas Taleb tweeted Saturday. Taleb was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from AUB in 2016.
Marandi later noted that while having been “banned” by AUB to speak, he had previously worked as a visiting fellow at the institute, from 2011 to 2012.
AUB confirmed this period of employment to The Daily Star.
AUB declined to publicly comment on Marandi’s accusations.