Islamic Azad University, Iran’s largest academic institution, has seen a change at the helm, with its president of nearly three decades, Abdollah Jasbi, removed and replaced by Farhad Daneshjoo. Daneshjoo, according to Payvand, is an Ahmadinejad ally, and his appointment was opposed by the quasi-moderate former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rather liberal son Hassan. In this regard, it’s a defeat for the moderates–an enemy has been placed at the helm of a massive educational institution, a position that gives him significant political leverage given the active role that Iran’s students have long played in the nation’s politics. What’s most surprising about this is not that the moderates lost a battle–for they’ve done a lot of that since the end of the Khatami presidency–but that they were even able to contest it at all. In most areas of Iranian politics, the moderates have long been squeezed out, and the real battle is now between the clerical and anticlerical conservatives.
I do wonder if there’s a bit of erroneous reporting going on here. An pseudonymous Iranian journalist, Babak, wrote a lengthy piece for Foreign Policy on the politics surrounding Islamic Azad University’s leadership. He suggests that the conflict is rooted in the 2009 election. The former president, Jasbi, had for years kept political activity at the university on a short leash. However, when controversy erupted after the vote, Jasbi began to aid opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and the students followed suit. Ever since, non-moderates have been out to take IAU away from Jasbi and Rafsanjani. They succeeded in forcing reform of the university’s governance. In response, Rafsanjani attempted to sequester the university’s resources as a waqf, one of the many forms of quasi-religious endowment funds found in Iran. Rafsanjani is well-known for his ability to shuffle money around behind the scenes, so it was at this point that Khamenei intervened, declaring that the endowment was in violation of religious law (one of the only ways to “break the spell” of an endowment). This latest move further loosens Rafsanjani’s grip on IAU, and shows just how much of a spent force he’s become.
What’s missing from this discussion, however, is a discussion of how this relates to the split in the conservative factions of Iranian politics. Payvand offers no detail on Mr. Daneshjoo’s political affiliations beyond identifying him with Ahmadinejad, and the previous commentary on the IAU struggle is from before the split between Ahmadinejad and Khatami, when more or less any conservative figure was described as an Ahmadinejad ally. This is where things get interesting. Jasbi and other IAU leadership, according to Babak, are tied to the Motalefeh Party, a bastion of mainline religious conservatism popular with the bazaaris (the old middle classes). This sort tends to favor a relatively open market system, a religious public sphere, and a less aggressive foreign policy. Their ties to Rafsanjani should thus come as no surprise. Motalefeh backed the re-election of Ahmadinejad, but has been unhappy with him–and the distaste is mutual. Ahmadinejad’s populist reform of the subsidy structure has been quite unkind to many on the production side of the economy, and his social policies have been (despite his hardline reputation in the west) rather moderate for bazaari tastes. For Ahmadinejad, they represent the old feudal Iran–not merely pre-Revolution, but pre-Pahlavi, a force against his social programs. Regardless of Daneshjoo’s alignment–Khamenei or Ahmadinejad–this is a small victory for Ahmadinejad over Khamenei. Motalefeh, Jasbi, and Rafsanjani are hardly reformists, but they are clericalist. Islamic Azad University has taken a step towards Ahmadinejad’s camp, and away from those of Rafsanjani and Khamenei.