Letter to the Association for Iranian Studies


November 10, 2021

Dear President Sohrabi, Dr. Sandler, and Members of the AIS Council,

We write as members of the Association of Iranian Studies to share our concern regarding the 13 October 2021 AIS listserv’s announcement of a “partnership” between the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation and the University of Toronto. This announcement reiterates earlier publicity on the AIS listserv of 13 September 2021, which has also found extensive circulation through Mailchimp and other media outlets such as Yahoo and Businessweek. Moreover, the use of the AIS logo gives the impression of an endorsement by the AIS of the assertions and opinions in that announcement.

It is not of course our place nor our intention to question the University of Toronto’s right to develop whatever programs it wishes; neither is it to question the merits of those programs. But under the circumstances, we believe the AIS membership deserves to know the larger story behind the Foundation’s recent initiative. We do object to the funding of such programs at the University of Toronto by a Foundation whose primary and required mission, as stated in its articles of incorporation, is the support of the Encyclopaedia Iranica. Such funds were raised on the promise of using them for the benefit of the Encyclopaedia Iranica. As evidence one need to look no further, ironically enough, than the fund-raising event in Toronto in 2005, where donors were assured by the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation, and backed in by a letter from the accounting firm of Collins Barrow, that their donations would be tax-exempt under Canadian law because they were going to Columbia University for its Encyclopaedia Iranica project. The fact is that the millions of dollars in the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation trust fund have been raised from donors, and subsidized by the public, through tax-exemptions and the US National Endowment for the Humanities’ challenge grants for the sole and explicit purpose of funding the Encyclopaedia Iranica project. There is no evidence known to us that the Foundation has previously indicated to donors that their gifts would be used in any other way, nor that it has raised any funds expressly for the projects at the University of Toronto. It is equally ironic that one of the signatories of the announcement in the AIS listserve, Mr. Ramine Rouhani, in a message to the Board of the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation in May 2018, objected to precisely this kind of diversion of funds as inconsistent with the Foundation’s mission: “… it is hard to see why one should take away the resources of an established, prestigious and useful project such as Encyclopedia [sic] Iranica to support the general filed [sic] of Iranian Studies…I believe that the practical consequence of this reallocation of resources from Encyclopedia [sic] Iranica to Iranian Studies is the stifling of Encyclopaedia Iranica.”

The AIS membership should be made aware that the recent initiative by the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation, coupled with its massive expenditure of funds on wasteful litigation and indeed its consistent refusal since 2018 to fulfill its financial obligations have indeed greatly “stifled” the production of Encyclopaedia Iranica. The April 2021 statement signed by 259 scholars in the field of Iranian Studies raises serious concerns about the Foundation’s recent course of action (see: https://www.friendsofiranica.org/open-letter). We recognize that the current staff of the Encyclopaedia Iranica, despite decimated numbers and its vastly reduced funding, has produced and continues to produce print and online versions of the work. However, we also believe that unless the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation changes course and fulfills its funding obligations, the current rate of production cannot be sustained indefinitely. In the longer term, and most disastrously, the lack of funding will vastly complicate and diminish the ability of the Encyclopaedia Iranica project to recruit and retain new qualified editors and staff.

Professor Ehsan Yarshater saw the Encyclopaedia Iranica as the crowning achievement of his career, and he devoted an enormous amount of time, energy and his own wealth to building up its resources, above all through the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation. Unfortunately, the current leadership of that Foundation has neglected its fiduciary responsibilities for the Encyclopaedia Iranica trust fund, betraying his vision and jeopardizing its realization. For anyone concerned with the Encyclopaedia Iranica and its future, there is nothing to celebrate about the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation’s action.

Consequently, we ask the AIS Council to consider informing the AIS membership of the Encyclopaedia Iranica’s current plight, which no doubt affects a majority of specialists in Iranian Studies and related fields.


Abbas Amanat

Elton L. Daniel

Rudi Matthee