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Azad University: A Schooling in Power Politics


08 Jul 2010 04:503 Comments

The Azad University saga.

azad.jpgBy now, practically everyone in Iran has become aware of the long-simmering battle between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his rivals over the control and status of Azad University (AU). Since the day he took office, Ahmadinejad has covetously eyed the holdings of the largest private university chain in Iran -- and possibly the world. With an enrollment of 1.3 million students, 351 campuses, and more than $200 billion in known assets, there are few institutions in its league. By comparison, Harvard University's assets are estimated at $43.8 billion; the University of California system's, $60 billion.

Founded in 1982, AU's original governing board had six members, all prominent: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ayatollah Khomeini's son Ahmad, judiciary chief Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, and university president Abdollah Jasbi, who still holds the post. After Ahmad Khomeini's death and Khamenei's resignation once he became Supreme Leader, the remaining four -- representing three distinct factions -- presided over the university's affairs: Reformists Mousavi and Ardebili, pragmatist Rafsanjani, and hybrid traditionalist-pragmatist Jasbi. With the balance leaning toward the modern technocratic side of the ledger, the university's curriculum, hiring practices, campus environment, and general orientation took on a relatively progressive quality. Millions of students were thus exposed to a moderately post-traditional educational and social experience. When it came to factional fights, the university either took a neutral or anti-hardline stance.

Soon after he was sworn in, Ahmadinejad reactivated the dormant Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR), the agency that instituted the wholesale purge of nonconformist professors in the 1980s, to counter the influence of other factions in higher education and eventually start a second cultural revolution.

With Ahmadinejad in office, it was natural to expect a contest over the university's vast property holdings and others assets as well as its potential as a factional stronghold. A blunt power grab by the president's faction was out of the question, though. Rafsanjani was still a powerful figure in the establishment and the chair of the SCCR, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi -- then head of the judiciary -- was opposed to any outright transfer of control.

Thus started a low-intensity battle which has yet to be resolved.

Ahmadinejad fired his first salvo in January 2006, when he warned ominously that he wouldn't "allow rampant waste and corruption to fester in the higher educational system." That summer, his allies in the Majles (parliament) put his words into action. A special AU supervisory committee was established to oversee and audit the school's activities. The committee was headed by Alireza Zakani, an old buddy of Ahmadinejad's and one-time head of the student Basij (militia).

Zakani's attempts to demonstrate widespread malfeasance and corruption at AU didn't get very far. Jasbi had powerful backers in the Majles, including his brother-in-law Ali Abaspoor, chairman of the Education and Research Subcommittee. Over the years, the university had educated tens of thousands of technocrats and cadres who had made careers in government, including many Majles deputies. Jasbi had made a point of engaging them in various activities such as teaching, studying and provostship at local Azad branches, securing their bonds with the school. In frustration, Zakani published an eight-page indictment of the AU system on his website.

In November 2006, Ahmadinejad tried to gain the support of AU students and their parents by criticizing an announced tuition hike. "If the university does not reconsider the tuition increase, we will show them some revolutionary action," he told students at an AU cafeteria. In response, Jasbi promised to offer the students interest-free loans. To the chagrin of the president's supporters, 204 Majles deputies subsequently signed a letter of gratitude addressed to Khamenei praising AU and Jasbi for "great services rendered to the nation."

An extended period then passed without a move by the hardliners. On September 19, 2007, government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham announced that "revolutionary action" against AU had been suspended on account of "certain expediencies." When asked to clarify of those expediencies, Ahmadinejad pointed to the nuclear challenge. Experts believed the actual primary factor was instead that Khamenei and Shahroudi had counseled against any move -- the former feeling it premature, the latter suspicious of the president's intentions.

Then without warning, on October 8, 2008, the SCCR announced that it was altering the constitution of the university. Jasbi's deputy responded by saying that only the AU's founders had the right to change the school's constitution. After several volleys back and forth, the SCCR finally issued a two-month ultimatum: either amend the constitution to reflect the council's wishes or an entirely new one would be drafted as a replacement. The ultimatum was ignored.

New Reality

Last year's presidential election dramatically altered the political terrain, heightening tensions to new levels. For the principal players, like Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, it was now a contest for survival.

Sensing the danger of an imminent takeover of AU by a determined Ahmadinejad, on August 29, Rafsanjani executed a master stroke. He announced that the private university would be converted to a vaghf (religious endowment) run by a board of trustees appointed by the founders' board. Rafsanjani added that the Supreme Leader had in principle agreed to the conversion.

Just three days later, the office of the Supreme Leader disputed Rafsanjani's claim. Khamenei and Rafsanjani were involved in delicate negotiations at the time, and the Supreme Leader's relations with Ahmadinejad were still cordial. Soon after, the SCCR submitted a list of five new members for the school's board.

This April, a judge ruled that the road was open for a takeover by the government. By May, two rival constitutions and effectively two rival governing boards had been put forward by the opposing camps and a resolution of the long-simmering saga seemed at hand.

On June 19, a higher court overruled the earlier decision, passing an injunction against the takeover by Ahmadinejad's SCCR. The fight finally came to a head two days later when the Majles passed a resolution upholding the injunction and endorsing the university's conversion to a religious trusteeship. The next day, several hundred young hardcore militants were bused to the area around the parliament building, where they staged a rowdy demonstration that was joined by three notorious hardline deputies. They chanted such colorful slogans as "Death to the British Parliament", "Death to Hashemi [Rafsanjani]," and "Death to Hashemi's Cronies". The widely publicized demonstration prompted a new bill that endorsed the government's claim. It won passage, but not without several inflamed speeches and a fistfight involving some outraged parliamentarians. Simultaneously, the new judiciary chief, Sadegh Larijani, sided with the Ahmadinejad administration.

In policy disputes such as this, where conflicting parliamentary bills are issued, the Guardian Council arbitrates before sending them back for reconciliation. That is what happened on July 1. The council, under the chairmanship of hardliner Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, voted to reject the university's motion to convert itself into a religious endowment and returned the bills to the Majles for adjustment. The council had tipped the balance decisively in Ahmadinejad's favor and the drama seemed to have reached its denouement.

A New Chapter?

While surprising twists in the saga had come to be expected, absolutely no one foresaw what transpired on July 5. That evening, the website of the AU founders' board informed the public of a powerful slap against the hardliners by Khamenei. "Since the disputes over Azad University have given rise to tedious and unnecessary dialogues between some officials...it is advisable to suspend for now both the issue of the religious endowment and the new SCCR-proposed constitution," said the tersely written message, addressed to both Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani.

"This is nothing short of a shocker for everyone concerned," said a journalist, recently released from jail, to Tehran Bureau. "For one thing, it marks the first time in years that the Supreme Leader has taken a public stance against the hardliners and vigilantes." In addition, by calling for a temporary truce between the two sides, he was stealing the wind from the hardliners who had begun to smell victory. "I can see them recoiling in anger from this," said the reporter, who speculated that Khamenei's move must have been part of a secret deal with Rafsanjani. Otherwise, "Jannati would not have made a fool of himself just four days prior."

As for AU's future, Farda News, operated by Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf of Tehran, ran a story the morning of July 6 that sheds light on what we may expect. According to the report, Khamenei has appointed a group of jurists and legal scholars headed by judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani to arbitrate and "give expert opinion" on the dispute.

The Next AU President

Depending on the outcome of the current deadlock, the following individuals stand a good chance of becoming the AU system's next chief, a position in which a great deal of power is invested:

1. In the event of an unqualified Ahmadinejad victory, Farhad Daneshjoo, brother of Minister of Higher Education Kamran Daneshjoo (notorious for his central role in the rigging of last year's presidential election), is likely to win the coveted post. One of the SCCR appointees to the school's board, he is a former head of the Teachers Training College and thus has some university experience on top of his political connections.

2. In the event of an outright Rafsanjani win, Hamid Reza Mirzadeh has the best chance of winning AU's presidency. A long-time member of the old AU board of governors, he served in Mousavi's government as governor of Kerman province and then as a deputy prime minister. He also headed the planning agency under Rafsanjani.

3. In the event of a partial Ahmadinejad victory, Mohammad Hassan Shojaifar has a good chance of succeeding Jasbi. Hailing from Ahmadinejad's circle of Science and Industry University alumni, he has been the busiest member of the new AU governing board in terms of media outreach.

4. In the event of a partial Rafsanjani victory, three individuals stand out: Seyed Mohammad Mirmohammadi, former Rafsanjani chief of protocol; Mohammad Mehdi Mazaheri, son of Ayatollah Mazaheri and currently Jasbi's vice president for culture; and Mohammad Ali Najafi, bearer of a Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT, co-founder of the Kargozaran Party, and member of the Tehran City Council.

5. In the event of a complete draw, we could expect the following individuals to emerge as compromise candidate: Khamenei insider and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; and Khamenei in-law and former Majlis spokesman Gholamhossein Hadad Adel.


Khamenei's declaration marks the first time in several years that the Supreme Leader has taken a public position demonstrably at odds with his own hardline constituency. To understand what prompted this important development, we need to return to the 2009 election, a watershed event for the Islamic state.

The spectacular failure of the troika comprising Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to achieve a successful political coup forced a permanent transformation -- in the case of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, a breakdown -- of their old alliance. From that moment on, Khamenei's view of Ahmadinejad was fundamentally changed: once seen as an obedient if sometimes irksome surrogate, he was now perceived as a potential rival, akin to other contestants for ultimate power.

In the new post-election political dynamic, the Supreme Leader has reverted to his old habits, playing off political factions against one another to ensure that none acquires too much power, maintaining his unchallenged position. Had he not reacted to the Guardian Council's move, the hardliners would have acquired intolerable strength and jeopardized his standing in the hierarchy.

As far as Rafsanjani is concerned, Khamenei would be perfectly happy to see his old rival cut down to size, but this could overly strengthen the hand of the Ahmadinejad faction while causing strife that might be avoided. Hence, the appointment of his judiciary chief to forge a compromise solution.

This indicates that the next president of AU will emerge out of a stalemate -- that is, from category 5. On July 7, Velayati made a public statement declaring that he would not assume the post. This leaves Hadadadel or a third "neutral" candidate to take the helm.

Photo: Rafsanjani and Jasbi at an Azad University meeting in 2007.

Hamid Farokhnia, a staff writer at Iran Labor Report, covers the capital for Tehran Bureau. He writes under a pen name.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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I think the numbers at the beginning are exaggerated greatly. To compare Azad University and Harvard is also out of persepctive. Harvard is one single university while Azad University is more like a network of universities. Most campuses rely on their own resources and assets. Their different branches do not have the same quality of program and thus their diplomas vary in credibility. All in all it is not prudent to repeat Tehran's gossip as journalistic facts.

Ali Baba / July 8, 2010 7:42 PM

hyena (kaftar) fighting over scraps.

Ahvaz / July 8, 2010 8:04 PM

Great reporting. A very informative report on what is going on with this endless saga.

Anonymous / July 13, 2010 9:29 PM