Every time trouble has erupted in Iran against the regime—1999, 2003, and, most recently, 2009—university students have been at the forefront of protests. This is partly why Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been battling over control of Iran’s biggest institution of higher learning for the last three years.
Established in 1983, the Islamic Free University (a.k.a. Azad University) has become the largest center of higher education in the land. With 400 branches across the nation and abroad (including Dubai and Oxford), and 1.5 million students enrolled, Azad is a powerhouse. Relying on donations and tuition fees rather than government funding, Azad has accumulated over $20 billion worth of assets over the years. And since its early days it has been firmly in the hands of Iran’s most astute politician – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
As I previously reported in these pages (“A Ph.D. in Torture”), Ahmadinejad sought to snatch control of the university from Rafsanjani under the pretext that the university sided with the reformists in the 2009 presidential elections. In March 2010, Ahmadinejad won his first victory when he managed to get the university’s status changed by limiting a chancellor’s tenure to two four-year terms, which would force out conservative politician and Rafsanjani proxy, Abdollah Jasbi, who had been serving almost thirty years. Rafsanjani tried to outmaneuver Ahmadinejad by transforming the university into a religious endowment in order to shield Azad from state interference, but Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intervened to block this move. Eventually, Jasbi was forced out in January 2012.
His successor is supposed to be Farhad Daneshjou, the brother of Iran’s science minister, Kamran Daneshjou—a duo guaranteed to uphold the most stringent standards of revolutionary orthodoxy inside the academic world.
Kamran may not have been the best choice for minister of science—he plagiarized academic papers and lied about his university education—but he is committed to restoring revolutionary purity to Iranian universities. He is on record as saying that he wishes to purge universities of anyone not demonstrably loyal to the founding principle of the Islamic Republic—the Velayat-e Faqih, or Rule of the Jurisprudent. He is also committed to gender segregation inside universities. And he has blamed “subversive” students and professors for post-electoral unrest in the country.
Moreover, he is a staunch Ahmadinejad loyalist. He ran the 2009 election presidential headquarters and was accused of masterminding the ensuing election fraud. He also earned the dubious fame of being sanctioned by the EU for his past association with Iran’s proliferation activities. Both he and his brother Farhad are implicated in the attempted arson of a Penguin Book shop in the U.K. at the time of the Salman Rushdie death fatwa, issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, against the author of The Satanic Verses. Associating the two Daneshjous with a supposedly free university and the ministry of science would make Kafka proud.
Outside observers should be forgiven for wondering how it is possible that, at a time of intense rivalry pitting President Ahmadinejad against the supreme leader, Khamenei would come down on Ahmadinejad’s side against Rafsanjani and hand the president control of such a strategic asset.
The fact is, power struggles have accompanied the Islamic Republic since its inception, pitching equally dreadful people against one another who were seeking influence, riches and fortune. But beyond Western musings about turf wars fought over by imaginary moderates and real fanatics, there lies a much simpler truth: The supreme leader is committed to the survival of the republic and devoted to preserving his own stewardship as the ultimate guarantee of its continuity. His skills at exploiting internal divisions, factions, and leaders against one another are what keep him, and the revolution, on a steady course.
The fight over Azad is not over. Rafsanjani, who is still the chair of the board of trustees, must sign the letter of appointment for the new chancellor. So far, he has refused. Last month, the Supreme Cultural Council of the Revolution decided to force his hand by endorsing the appointment, saying Daneshjou should take up his post immediately.
But even when all the chips are down – Rafsanjani’s son Mehdi is a fugitive from corruption charges and his daughter Faezeh, a former MP, was convicted of incitement against the Islamic Republic and barred from all political activity for five years – it is not at all clear that Rafsanjani will be the loser or Ahmadinejad the winner.
Ultimately, they all lose. Their futile struggles for dominance, and the ferocity with which they eliminate one another, mean nothing to the outward orientation of Iran’s foreign policy. That is a constant: A paranoid fear of Western influence, a sense of historical righteousness coupled with religious destiny, and a disposition to throw once loyal followers in the dust so that the show can go on.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Corps (FDD Press, September 2011).