A temporary ceasefire has been called in the long-running battle between two Iranian political heavyweights to control the Islamic Azad University, following the intervention of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The power-struggle pits Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against a prime opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who now chairs two important institutions in Iran, the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts
Rafsanjani sits on the university’s board of founders, and has a close ally in Abdollah Jasbi, who has been president of Azad University since it was established in 1982. Rafsanjani’s son Mehdi Hashemi is both head of the university’s Research Centre and chief of staff of its board of trustees.
Ahmadinejad has always viewed Azad University as a hotbed of opposition support, and began trying to wrest control of the university in the first few months after he was first elected in 2005, and has continued doing so since then, with ever-increasing intensity.
His attempt to cut tuition fees there was hailed by students, but was seen as a way of undercutting this wholly private institution’s wealth and thus its independence.
Yet despite Ahmadinejad’s best efforts, the university remains firmly in the hands of his opponents.
A legal battle over management broke out this spring, but after small victories for both sides, Ayatollah Khamenei called a halt to the arguments, describing them as a “tedious dispute”.
Azad University is centred in Tehran but in reality is a nationwide network of academic institutions. As such, it is the largest university in the Middle East and the third-largest in the world in terms of student numbers – currently 1.5 million.
Sheer numbers make this institution central to shaping the education of current generations of young Iranians. It has offered educational opportunities to many who failed to get into Iran’s state-run universities.
It receives no government money and is entirely reliant on the tuition fees it charges. It is believed to have earned 1.2 billion dollars in the last academic year, and this figure does not include income from sideline activities like managing ten large hospitals and 600 schools across the country.
With over 350 branches and educational centres across Iran, the network has brought modern education to the remotest areas and has transformed the conservative texture and culture of many small towns.
Take Masjid-e Soleiman, a city of 200,000 in Khuzestan province in the southwest of Iran. After Azad University opened premises occupying a vast area of desert land just outside town, the arrival of 10,000 students provided a real economic boost for the area. Shabby homes were renovated to provide rented accommodation, and shops found a new and lucrative customer base.
Further south, in Fars province, the effects of having one’s own university did not go unnoticed. Charitable citizens of the small town of Evaz realized that the government had little interest in developing their predominantly Sunni area, so they funded the construction of a large educational centre and handed it over to Azad University. They clearly felt this was a worthwhile way of promoting Evaz’s identity.
“Azad University has achieved two significant feats in the Islamic Republic – contributing to the modernisation of society, and strengthening national integration by bringing together students of different ethnicities to live and get to know one another,” said a sociology lecturer at Azad’s main institution in Tehran.
Critics of the university’s inclusive approach say it lowers educational standards and many of its graduates will merely go on to swell the ranks of the unemployed.
University head Jasbi counters with the argument that “it’s better to be educated and unemployed than uneducated and unemployed”.
The reasons why Azad University is constantly in the government’s crosshairs come down its wealth, its influence and its political independence.
First, it is a desirable asset, worth 250 billion dollars by Jasbi’s reckoning, and it is truly private, controlled neither by government nor by a quasi-state body like one of the “foundations” that proliferate in Iran.
Second, it has huge influence across all political divides thanks to the numbers of people who have been through its doors, many of them going on to senior positions. And third, its financial autonomy allows it to be politically independent-minded, with opposition leanings.
All these factors came to a head in last year’s presidential election, in which the incumbent Ahmadinejad faced a challenge from Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the candidate put up by the opposition Green Movement.
In his final televised speech before the ballot, Ahmadinejad accused Azad University’s directors of using institutional resources to fund the Mousavi campaign.
Recently, former government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham, an ally of Ahmadinejad, described Azad University as the “financial source of sedition”.
Like Rafsanjani, Mousavi – who was prime minister in 1980s – sits on the university’s board of founders.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Mehdi Hashemi set up a centre to monitor the electoral process, where staff collated and logged information round the clock. Two days before the vote, Hashemi told The New York Times that data gathered by his centre gave Mousavi a much higher chance of winning than Ahmadinejad.
Two months prior to the presidential election, he had also turned the university’s weekly newspaper Farhikhtegan into a daily and brought in a team of reformist – read opposition – journalists to work on it. A few days before the election, more than a million copies of a “shabnameh” or covertly produced leaflet opposing Ahmadinejad were distributed. Credible sources say the leaflet was published by the newspaper.
Farhikhtegan’s website was blocked two days after Ahmadinejad was declared the winner and shortly afterwards its editor-in-chief Reza Noorbakhsh was arrested.
As the authorities launched a crackdown on protests against the election result, Hashemi left the country. He was rumoured to have taken with him incriminating documents that he would release if anything happened to Rafsanjani’s family. To date he has not done so, although Ahmadinejad’s supporters have repeatedly demanded that he return to Iran to face prosecution.
Three months after the election, Azad University’s directors took steps to counter any attempt to seize control of it by announcing they were to turn its assets into an “endowment”, a legal formulation with a long history in the Muslim world which effectively insulates property from seizure by the state and from being used for purposes other than those intended.
The reaction from the Ahmadinejad government was predictably fierce. The hardline newspaper Keyhan said the move amounted to the privatisation of public assets and was thus illegal.
In spring 2010, the government and pro-Ahmadinejad legislators launched a simultaneous attack on the university.
Parliament approved a bill to probe the university’s affair, while the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which is headed by the president, ruled that the university’s charter should be amended. The wording in the new charter made the government responsible for appointing the head of any branch of Azad University that has more than 5,000 students.
The council also dropped Mousavi’s name from the list of the university’s founders and added five new members to its board of trustees, to create a pro-Ahmadinejad majority.
These actions did not go unopposed. For a start, the old board members never allowed the new ones to attend their meetings.
The university’s directors challenged the legal changes in court and succeeded in blocking the new charter. Then, on June 20, a day after the court issued its ruling, a bill banning the government from meddling in the affairs of Azad University went through parliament with a slim majority. In effect, this nullified the council’s order.
But this victory was short lived.
Student members of the pro-government Basij militia staged a protest outside parliament castigating legislators as “thieves” and even threatening to open fire on the building. Their action clearly had tacit approval from senior officials, given that opposition protests are dealt with ruthlessly by the security forces.
A day after the protest meeting, parliament approved yet another bill, this time annulling the earlier law preventing government from intervening in Azad University affairs.
Acting on a request from the prosecutor general, Ayatollah Sadegh Ardeshir Larijani, who heads the Iranian judicial system, declared that the earlier court ruling blocking changes to the university’s charter was wrong, and ordered a new hearing in the case.
It looked like Ahmadinejad was winning. But at this point, Rafsanjani paid an unexpected visit to the Supreme Leader. Despite his differences with the current Iranian political establishment, Rafsanjani retains a lot of influence in high places. As a result, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered an end to the wrangling and demanded that both sides step back – the university by abandoning plans for an endowment, and the Ahmadinejad camp by halting efforts to impose the new charter.
Jasbi may yet be a casualty of this enforced peace. After Khamenei spoke publicly about the need to end the war, Jasbi hinted that his long tenure as first and to date only university president might now be drawing to a close.
Jasbi comes from a technocratic background, having studied industrial management in Britain and the United States in the 1970s.
He is a member of the Motalefeh party, which holds conservative views and is influential among the powerful class of bazaar merchants. He also has a lot of friends across government, parliament and the judiciary, whose current views may differ radically from one another but all of whom went through the Azad University system.
Khamenei’s disapproval of the fight over the university, and the solution he found to stop it, looked pretty final. Such is the status of the Supreme Leader that a categorical pronouncement of this kind is rarely defied, whatever those on the receiving end think of it.
If the wrangling resumed, as some predict it might, it will therefore be seen as a sign that Khamenei’s status as final arbiter on all matters has diminished.
According to a political analyst in Tehran who asked to remain anonymous, “The Supreme Leader no longer wields the power to determine fate. Very soon, another round in the struggle for Azad University will begin.”
Raha Tahami is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and social affairs analyst in Tehran.