IRAN: Hardliners tighten grip on moderate university

Deep divisions in Iranian politics are playing out in the battle for control over Iran's semi-autonomous Islamic Azad University, which is seen as a berth for moderate politicians. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week issued a decree declaring the university's endowment to be 'religiously illegitimate'.

The declaration was seen by some as paving the way for government hardliners to take control of the university and its considerable assets. But others said Khamenei had not given the government all the cards.

The Islamic Azad University is Iran's most important private university and is one of the largest in the world with some 1.3 million students in more than 357 branches and campuses around the country.

Its huge financial assets are said to be worth US$250 billion, more than five times those of Harvard University. They include its 'religious endowment' set up last year in an express bid by the university management to keep the university independent of hard-line government control, and its vast assets safe.

University funding by public donations given for religious purposes should theoretically keep it immune from state interference. But the so-called religious endowment has become the target of hard-line politicians wanting to eject moderate opponents from the university's management board.

In particular President Mahmud Ahmedinejad has been targeting the university, maintaining that the assets were misused to boost the political support of moderate politicians during the 2009 elections.

One of the founders of the university and head of its board is former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a political opponent of Ahmedinejad.

Azad University students were also at the forefront of campus activities during last year's disputed presidential elections, holding rallies and political debates.

"Ahmedinejad wants total control over the university because it is outside the grip of the state and he does not like that because he considers that the university mobilises support against the government," said Saeed Paivandi, a professor of sociology at the University of Paris and an expert on the Iranian education system.

Paivandi described the seemingly arcane dispute as "a political battle, not one of higher education or finances".

In June, after the Iranian parliament rejected controversial legislation introduced by Ahmedinejad to give the state greater control over the university, and after failed attempts to manipulate the political make-up of the university management board, Khamenei asked two groups of legal experts and scholars to conduct an in-depth study of the university statutes to ascertain whether the endowment was legal.

In a blow for moderates, Khamenei was quoted by the state-run Mehr news agency on 11 October as saying: "The endowment has major legal and jurisprudential problems including the legitimacy of the endowment and the competence of the university's founders to create it."

Ahmedinejad's deputy Mohammedreza Mir-Tajeddini followed swiftly the next day saying that the Supreme Council for the Cultural Revolution would review "the relevant sections of the constitution of the Islamic Azad University", adding this would be "in accordance with the guidelines of the Supreme Leader." This was widely interpreted as announcing a victory for the Ahmedinejad camp.

However Khamenei also threw the university, and by extension Ahmedinejad's opponents, a political lifeline by saying Azad was neither private nor state-owned.

"By making the decree regarding Azad university a religious one, Khamenei is saying the state cannot take it over," Paivandi told University World News. "Khamenei has said the university is not the property of the state but of the public, which has annoyed the government because it cannot simply take over Azad University's assets."

Iran's universities have been under attack from hardliners led by Ahmedinejad as well as Khamenei, with many professors and researchers forced into retirement. However, experts say Khamenei's main interest has been to control course content and ensure it is not anti-religious. This has strait-jacketed the sciences in particular.

However, "Khamenei has shown little interest in the financial control of universities, which has been Ahmedinejad's agenda," Paivandi said. "The [Khamenei] decree was to the detriment of Rafsanjani, but Khamenei did not favour Ahmedinejad either. In my view the conflict between the two sides remains open."


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