Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Critical Pedagogical Approaches towards International Law Teaching in Iran–From Classroom to Virtual Space

Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Critical Pedagogical Approaches towards International Law Teaching in Iran–From Classroom to Virtual Space

[Pouria Askary (@AskaryPouria) is an Assistant Professor of International Law at Allameh Tabataba’i University and Sina Etezazian (@SinaEtezazian) is a Visiting Lecturer in Law at Allameh Tabataba’i University.]

Eurocentrism played an important role in developing our understanding of the international legal regime in Iran. It also influenced our approach toward legal pedagogy. The first academic center in Iran to provide courses in international law and international relations was the Graduate School of Political Studies, established by Hassan Pirnia (Moshirodolleh) in 1908. It was intended as an organ of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to educate its diplomatic labour pool. Pirnia did not stop there, subsequently instituting a modern law school to train judges and lawyers alike. He modeled the curriculum on the legal systems of France, Switzerland and Germany, hoping to modernize Iranian judicial institutions (354).

Attending the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, the Iranian delegation was accompanied (12) by the French Advisor of the Iranian judicial system, Adolphe Perny (94). His task was to hire top French professors and form the inaugural law school faculty. Perny had served as a public prosecutor in France and held a doctorate in criminal jurisprudence. By the time he established the law school in 1919 (and served as its first dean), Perny had already spent 8 years in Tehran training judges and judicial officials. In 1927, the law school merged with the Graduate School of Political Studies and, in 1934, was renamed the Faculty of Law, Political Science and Economics as part of the University of Tehran.

When designing international law courses, Iranian universities followed curricula selected by their Western counterparts. Pirnia led the Graduate School of Political Studies, where he taught international law and wrote the first international law textbook in Persian. Informed by Western textbooks, Pirnia’s engagement with international law was equally doctrinal and Eurocentric. The topics in his textbook included history, subjects, treaties, diplomatic and consular law, and the usual international signposts. This trend persisted broadly until the 1980s. Iranian international law scholars who either graduated from European universities or studied in Iranian academic institutions under European-educated scholars taught the courses and wrote the textbooks.

They rarely challenged Eurocentric pedagogy: not even during the institution of proceedings by the United Kingdom against Iran before the International Court Justice (ICJ) in 1951, disputing the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. Mohammad Mosaddegh, then Prime Minister, who had obtained his doctorate in law from Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland, successfully refuted the Court’s jurisdiction. This was the first time Iranians had won a political dispute by adhering to international law, an experience henceforth associated with nationalization. Despite these confrontations, legal education remained doctrinal and Eurocentric, at least until 1979 and the Islamic Revolution.

The Revolution opened the door for critical pedagogical approaches, in part because it placed emphasis on Shia Islam as a reference for interpreting international relations (See, for example, here). In addition, events that ensued such as the United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff case, the Iran-Iraq War, controversies over the Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf and Iran’s share of the Caspian Sea, the on-going struggle over Iran’s nuclear program and the unilateral coercive measures imposed against Iran not only pointed to rising belligerence toward Iran from the West but also encouraged Iranian officials and academics to pursue more critical approaches. While Iranian scholars used to teach the subject as a toolkit, they have since adapted it to account for the politics and the national interests of Iranians in their pedagogy, privileging a critical disposition when engaging international law (See, for example, here, pp. 25-29).

Although the curriculum of international law courses has mostly remained Eurocentric, the above-mentioned events had a considerable impact on political and legal perspectives. For example, IHL is taught with reference to the Iran-Iraq War; in discussions on human rights, we emphasize Iranian and Third World approaches toward cultural diversity; the teaching of jus ad bellum covers, among others, the arguments presented by Iran in the Oil Platforms case as well as the letters that Iran sent to the UN Security Council in relation to forcible incidents. Likewise, the way Iran has applied and interpreted international law in international courts and tribunals, such as the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, has influenced the content of international law textbooks. Since the Revolution, a growing number of Iranian journals have emerged to explore international law from a range of angles (see, for example, here, here and here). We also observe soaring interest in international legal studies among students.

Overall, it is the centring of Iranian interpretations that stands out, many of which cohere with Third World understandings of international law. Here, we refer to “Dialogue Among Civilizations” as proposed by former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in 2001, as well as Iran’s active participation in Non-Aligned Movement and Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization (AALCO) meetings. Unfortunately, as this symposium seeks to explore, the outbreak of COVID-19 presents a challenge to critical teaching in Iran.

Our experience teaching online this past semester in the Law Faculty of Allameh Tabataba’i University, one of the top law schools in Iran, made evident something we already knew: critical international legal pedagogy requires a lively and interactive atmosphere. We found it easy interacting with postgraduate students during online sessions, mainly because of their maturity and ability to adapt to this mode of learning. In contrast, we found the experience with undergraduate students challenging. This may relate to the greater influence lecturers’ personalities exert on the motivation of younger students to learn. The absence of in-person sessions seemed to affect them negatively.

Our observations correspond to those of our students. We conducted a survey on Twitter and LinkedIn, asking students to rate their degree of satisfaction with online education, as provided by their institutions during the Covid crisis. While 43.9 percent of the participants reported that they were “not satisfied”, an equal percentage said they were “relatively satisfied”, with 12.2 percent being “completely satisfied”. As commented, students noticed a low degree of class participation in some virtual classrooms, where the teaching was based on purely lecture-based techniques and methods. Likewise, others indicated the lack of high speed internet impeded their attendance.

To a great extent, the viability of teaching an academic subject in a virtual classroom depends on the quality of the software and connectivity through which teaching is delivered. Critical international legal pedagogy, with its heavy reliance on discussion, may not fit well into virtual education especially when the connection is not adequate for the use of webcams (as was the case for most classes last semester).

Persian New Year (Nowruz) holidays – which begin on 21 March each year and last a fortnight – presented many Iranian universities with an opportunity to improve the quality of their virtual learning platforms. For example, upon our return, we noticed that sound quality was better; on most occasions, our students no longer had difficulty communicating during sessions. They were also able to access asynchronous recordings. This was true of many universities across the country. Both students and professors experienced better virtual classrooms compared to when the outbreak began, although the use of webcams remains a work in progress. Moreover, most universities are holding short courses on virtual pedagogy to expose lecturers to strategies and techniques for effective online teaching, and to improve the engagement of undergraduate students.

The spread of COVID-19 in Iran is unfortunately accelerating. This means that teaching will likely be online, with few in-person classes during the fall semester. Although universities are preparing academics, we must think of teaching methods that are not purely lecture-based. The nature of virtual legal education means that students must engage more actively in class discussions if they are to gain a suitable grasp of general principles relevant to international law and its critical enhancements.

Creating an engaging classroom is essential for better contributions and thus better engagement. For example, we anticipate dividing our classes into two large groups, and splitting their tasks. The first group will discuss and present a case from a Western perspective, while their counterpart will formulate counter-arguments, employing a critical approach. Students are compelled to interact with each other as they prepare the case. This approach also exposes them to doctrinal and critical approaches, ensuring deeper understandings of international law as it is, vis-a-vis how it purports to be (16).

Iran is presently before the ICJ in two matters: one relating to the lawfulness of the seizure of Iranian assets by the U.S., and the other concerning the issue of American sanctions targeting, among others, Iran’s economy. In the context of teaching online, our deliberative and discursive model of pedagogy can become truly “engaging”, especially because these two cases raise several salient questions about international law, including about the peaceful settlement of international disputes. Each initiative makes it more likely that critical international legal pedagogy will survive in Iran in times of COVID-19.

* The authors would like to thank Mr. Khodayar Saeedvaziri, Ph.D. candidate in the law faculty of Allameh Tabataba’i University, for his comments on the first section of this post.

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Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Themes
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