IRAN: University at heart of power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani
A dispute over control of a vast network of semi-private universities is starting to resemble a bitter custody battle, pitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against one of his political rivals, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for control of the schools and the 1.5 million faculty members and students.
The parliament on Tuesday rejected legislation introduced by Ahmadinejad that would have given the government greater control over the Islamic Azad University system, dealing another blow to Ahmadinejad in his efforts to rein in the opposition movement that has taken root on many university campuses.
The measure would have challenged the status of the school's assets as a tax-exempt endowment and allowed Ahmadinejad to appoint a new dean and trustees.
The parliament's decision is considered a victory for Rafsanjani, the former president and power broker who sits on Azad's board of trustees and whose family is highly influential within the school, which is viewed as an alternative for middle-class families whose kids sometimes don't have the smarts, political clout or ideological requirements to qualify for publicly funded higher education.
As the chairman of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani is a government insider, but he has fallen out with extreme hard-liners, who have the upper hand after last year's tumultuous presidential elections. During the campaign, he was accused of politicizing the university and even using its largess to promote reformist candidates opposing the incumbent president.
Since then, Ahmadinejad has sought to undermine Rafsanjani's authority and gain greater control over Azad, which has 357 campuses across the country. Tuesday's decision came as a blow to the president, who is coming under fire by fellow conservatives over comments he made criticizing the police crackdown on improper veiling among women.
Ahmadinejad and his allies presented a united front in reaction to the decision over Azad University, which prompted protests by the president's loyalists and led to the resignation of 11 lawmakers.
Some hard-liner lawmakers criticized the decision, citing last month's raid on the dean's office, which allegedly turned up documents related to oil contracts with foreign companies. The lawmakers have called for the documents to be made public.
Photo: Azad University is the largest private university in Iran with hundreds of campuses all over the country. Credit: Azad University website