Iran on Edge
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|Michael Rubin||July 26th 2012|
The Islamic Revolution has from its victory in 1979 been a work in progress. Revolutionaries were united in their opposition to the Shah, but had no consensus on what Islamic society and culture meant. Revolutionary authorities have always paid special attention to the universities. The revolution was carried on the back of student unrest, and it was hardline students who seized the U.S. embassy nine months after Ayatollah Khomeini’s return. Upon seizing the reins of power, revolutionary authorities sought to implement a cultural revolution in the universities to purge them of Western influence. Revolutions evolve, however, and as Iran rebuilt after the Iran-Iraq War, universities became incubators for the reformist movement.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 he sought to revive traditional revolutionary values. Indeed, what many Western analysts call ‘hardliners,’ Iranians call ‘principalists,’ meaning those who reach back to the principles of the Islamic Revolution.
In order to re-root the universities in traditional values, Ahmadinejad has ordered unknown soldiers from the Iran-Iraq War—called martyrs in traditional Iranian parlance—to be buried on university campuses in ceremonies which students and faculty are forced to attend. While the universities of Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan may be Iran’s most famous centers of higher education, the Islam Azad University has become the Islamic Republic’s largest. Founded during the early years of the revolution, the Islam Azad University was the brainchild of former President ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, largely to get 18 to 22 year olds off the street. The university branches are basically akin to a national community college system.
While they taught basic trades and general subjects, the principalists long complained that the Islam Azad University system was not ideological enough. Ahmadinejad and his allies spent several years during his first term trying to wrest control of the university system away from Rafsanjani’s allies.
Recent moves to begin gender segregation in the Islam Azad University system are one more sign that the hardliners have consolidated control and might presage the start of a new cultural revolution inside Iran. While many Western officials are optimistic that Iranian youth seek Western freedoms, the Iranian government may hope that the youth can be “re-educated” by redesigning universities to prioritize religious indoctrination.
Michael Rubin is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, from where this article is adapted.