A UN-devised global education agenda known as Education 2030 proved to be one of the biggest challenges for incumbent Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s May 19 presidential election. Just 12 days before the polls, on May 7, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized Rouhani’s Cabinet for quietly adopting the measure and said, “It is the Islamic Republic here! Here Islam is the benchmark! The Quran is the benchmark! It is not a place where the deficient, destructive and corrupt Western lifestyle can infiltrate! ... The UNESCO 2030 education agenda and the like are not agendas that the Islamic Republic of Iran should have to surrender and submit to.”
Khamenei’s comments paved the way for Rouhani’s conservative rivals, cleric Ebrahim Raisi and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, to attack the government, accusing it of making education “un-Islamic.” The parts of the document they criticized were gender equality — which the Principlists believe should be “gender fairness” and “gender separation” — as well as the idea of educating schoolchildren about sex and homosexuality.
In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution titled “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” The Education 2030 agenda is one of 17 goals envisioned in this plan. Based on the document, all 192 UN member states must “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning” for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or age, by the year 2030. Based on this document, the Rouhani administration designed its own educational plan called “The Islamic Republic of Iran 2030 National Education Act: Moving Toward Quality Education and Lifelong Learning,” which has so far neither been approved by the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution nor become law.
The 2030 education document is not the first of its kind to be unveiled in Iran. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed “The Fundamental Reform Document of Education [FRDE] in the Islamic Republic of Iran” in 2011. This document was prepared with a strong emphasis on Islamic teachings, and its first goal was to “foster monotheist individuals who have faith in God and believe in the Hereafter.” This document, which was approved by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, has not reached the implementation stage yet — a fact that has been criticized by the supreme leader.
Hajar Tahriri Niksefat, the head of the women’s committee in Raisi’s election headquarters in the northern province of Gilan, told Al-Monitor she believed that educating children on gender equality was “not necessarily to the child’s benefit, but could also be oppressive.” Niksefat, who previously served as a legislator in Iran’s seventh parliament (2004-2008), also expressed opposition to how the 2030 document proposed to teach sex education and said, “In our country, family, marriage, controlling sexual desire and satisfying it through proper channels are emphasized and taught at their appropriate time. We will not consider relations that in our national and religious teachings are viewed as improper and do not think it’s fit to teach them in our schools.”
This is while the Robie H. Harris “It's Not the Stork!” children's book, which teaches kids about sexuality and the facts of life, was recently translated into Persian. Pictures of this book were quickly posted on Persian-language social media and described as an educational book being taught in schools. However, pro-Rouhani media outlets and social media activists were quick to respond and called the majority of campaigns against the 2030 UNESCO document a “lie” while trying to change the public mindset by providing translations and explanations. A short video, for instance, was used to show that teaching homosexuality was not mentioned anywhere in the document. They did, however, confirm that sex education and gender equality — one of the key demands of Rouhani supporters during the elections — were referred to in the document’s text.
Attending a youth campaign rally on May 13, Rouhani responded to Khamenei’s criticism and blamed a “lack of awareness” for all the propaganda against the UNESCO document. Rouhani said, “I assure the supreme leader of the Iranian nation and the great nation of Iran that the government has pledged to adhere to the document within Iran’s laws and cultural parameters.”
In another speech on May 15 in the northwestern city of Tabriz, Rouhani addressed “those who believed the government had adopted the 2030 document” and said, “They have become so bold that they send false reports to the supreme leader.”
Meanwhile, a statement issued on the same day by the government’s media center criticized political movements that were “taking advantage” of the timing of Khamenei’s comments and using it to tarnish the government’s image among Iran’s religious community in the days leading up to the elections. The statement stressed that the 2030 UNESCO document was not binding but more of a “recommendation” and described the “rumors about agreeing to teach homosexuality in schools and distributing books regarding sex education” as being “completely false.”
Niksefat, meanwhile, stressed that the initial criticisms against the 2030 document were made in 2014 by members of the Supreme Council for the Cultural Revolution — which is headed by the president — and other experts, and so were not limited to the campaigning. Niksefat told Al-Monitor, “Unfortunately they did not take the issue seriously until December 10, 2016, when the UNESCO national commission, in the presence of Rouhani’s education minister, unveiled the document and sparked sensitivities and criticisms. This still had no impact until reports were presented to the supreme leader and he ordered that the implementation of this document be halted. Therefore, as can be seen, these criticisms are nothing new — but naturally, during elections, the weak points become more prominent.”
Three days after the presidential elections, on May 22, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi brought up the 2030 UNESCO document while lecturing seminary students in the holy city of Qom. While describing many of the document’s goals as “beautiful and humane,” Makarem Shirazi said that in general, it would “consolidate the hegemonic system.” He also confirmed Rouhani’s comments about adopting the document as long as it did not interfere with Iran’s religion and culture and said, “They [the Rouhani administration] have put this in writing and sent a letter, signed by three ministers, to the supreme leader and sent a copy of it to us as well. However, they seem to have forgotten that the creators of this document will only agree to those exceptions and conditions written below it that do not oppose the spirit of the document.”
Niksefat, who was seen as a potential head of the Ministry of Education in Ahmadinejad’s second Cabinet (2009-2013), believes that Khamenei's recommendation that Ahmadinejad's 2011 “reform document” be implemented means that progress on implementing the 2030 UNESCO document is practically halted. She said, “The 'reform plan' is in accordance with our national and religious culture and does not go against other rules and regulations in our country. On the other hand, at Mr. Rouhani’s [May 22] press conference [his first after being re-elected], he announced that this document would be accepted as long as it adhered to our laws and values — which they clearly do not.”