Raha Tahami (Source: Mianeh)
President Ahmadinejad has so far failed to wrest control of academic institution
he accuses of backing his opponents.
Rafsanjani (left) beside his ally Abdollah Jasbi, who has led the
Islamic Azad University for nearly three decades. (Photo: Javad
Moghimi, Fars News Agency)
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
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
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
Yet despite Ahmadinejad's best efforts, the university remains firmly in the
hands of his opponents.
The university is in reality a network of academic institutions
across the country, this one at Sari in the north. (Photo: Azad
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
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
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
"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
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
University head Jasbi counters with the argument that "it's better to be
educated and unemployed than uneducated and unemployed".
Jasbi attends as would-be students sit entrance exam. (Photo: Yunes
Khani, Mehr News Agency)
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
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
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.
A student at Azad
University protests about accusations made against Jasbi. (Photo:
Hossein Salmanzadeh, Fars News Agency)
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
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
students protest outside Azad University office in Tehran. The
placard reading accuses university chief Abdollah Jasbi of
"ransacking public property". (Photo: Mehdi Marizad, Fars News
after the protest meeting, parliament approved yet another bill, this time
annulling the earlier law preventing government from intervening in Azad
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
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.
Still expanding - Jasbi at a groundbreaking ceremony for yet another
university, on this occasion in the southwestern city of Abadan.
(Photo: Hadi Abyar, Fars News Agency)
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
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."
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a
project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net)
the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across
the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and
engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where
writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the
country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic
society that is Iran today.
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