Dispatch

The battle over Islamic Azad University

Recent clashes between moderate conservatives in Iran’s parliament and hardliners in the executive branch have moved to an unlikely battleground — the Islamic Azad University, the largest institution of higher learning in Iran. Since the start of his first term in office, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a series of attacks against the management of Islamic ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Recent clashes between moderate conservatives in Iran’s parliament and hardliners in the executive branch have moved to an unlikely battleground — the Islamic Azad University, the largest institution of higher learning in Iran.

Since the start of his first term in office, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a series of attacks against the management of Islamic Azad University, criticizing administrators on a variety of grounds — including the life-term presidency of Abdullah Jasbi and high tuition rates. Ahmadinejad and his allies have also accused the university’s top officials of stealing public funds (the university is funded by the public). But the most important aspect of this new wave of attacks is the involvement of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who — as founder and chairman of the board of Azad University — is at the center of the firestorm.

After Jasbi allowed opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi’s campaign to have unrestricted access to Azad University’s resources, Ahmadinejad’s hardliners decided to try to do whatever it took to eliminate Jasbi and other Rafsanjani loyalists from the university. After years of running one of Iran’s most politically repressive university systems, Jasbi’s decision invigorated students there to participate in politics for the first time in years. Students at Azad University led the way in campus activities during the disputed presidential race last year by participating in rallies, meetings, and political debates.

The government, alarmed by this trend, decided to change Azad University’s constitution to make it possible to remove Jasbi and other Rafsanjani loyalists. This change had to be approved by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, where Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani’s harsh foe, has a healthy number of supporters. The hardliners were trying to create a link between Azad University’s management and Moussavi and pave the way for a full takeover of one of Rafsanjani’s final centers of power. Since last summer, when Rafsanjani all but allied himself with the Green movement, Ahmadinejad and his supporters have tried to strip Rafsanjani of the vast power he once held in state-affiliated leadership positions.

Ahmadinejed and his supporters tried to assert that the public endowment of the Islamic Azad University violates the articles of association of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, the country’s highest authority on cultural and educational activities. This is a strategy Ahmadinejad has used to try to place the university under his government’s control.

Two years ago, Rafsanjani, alarmed by the prospect of hardliners taking over this multi-billion dollar power house, proposed that the university’s assets be placed in a trust fund. Azad University is now a private institution, which is funded by public donations given for religious purposes. In principle, it is supposed to be immune from state interference.

After the announcement of the proposed trust, hardliners began a wave of attacks against Rafsanjani. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution passed a resolution that would force Azad University to admit five new board members chosen by the Council. According to article 19, chapter three of Azad’s constitution, any changes in its governing regulations are possible through a proposal by the board of founders and approval by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. But the Council moved beyond its legal boundaries and acted on pure political motivations in order to change the current management at Azad.

This fight took yet another unusual turn when Iran’s parliament became involved and sided with Azad and Rafsanjani. Parliament’s involvement proved that Azad University (along with its management and assets) had become the focal point of political fights between moderates and hardliners. Jasbi and most senior executives at Azad either belong to, or are close associates of, the conservative Motalefe Islami Party, one of Iran’s oldest, religious conservative parties with close ties to the merchants of the bazaar.

The intense dispute, which gained national and international media attention, prompted Supreme Leader Khamenei to step into the fray last week. Khamenei wrote two letters to Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, effectively annulling the decision of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which had sided with Ahmadinejad; he also disallowed changing the university from a for-profit institution to an endowment, which was favored by Rafsanjani. To turn the university into a "vaghf," or endowment was a maneuver designed by Rafsanjani to protect the university from takeover. In fact, Khamenei’s ambiguous order potentially leaves the university open to the future predatory takeover by Ahmadinejad’s supporters because it is no longer an endowment.

While his decision complicates the picture, the move is a classic Khamenei tactic.  His strategy is often not to appear to take sides in the escalating rivalry within the regime, while also ensuring that the outcome is one he desires. For Rafsanjani, this could be another setback, if indeed Ahmadinejad places Azad University under government control.

What this controversy demonstrates is Ahmadinejad and his loyalists’ determination to marginalize the moderate conservatives they believe are a threat to their political power. The outcome of the Azad debate does not bode well for other moderate conservatives who might plan to challenge the hardliners — but, of course, that is the point.

*Babak is a journalist and activist living in Tehran who cannot use his full name for fear of retribution.

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