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Iran's science minister spurs dormant student movement

Conservative members of Iran's parliament have issued a warning to Iran's science minister for hiring individuals deemed close to the 2009 Green Movement.
Dr. Faraji Dana claps as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami receives his honorary international relations doctorate in Tehran.  Dr. Faraji Dana (R), president of Tehran University, claps as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami receives his honorary international relations doctorate from Tehran University April 27, 2005. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl - RTR9DQU

Reza Faraji Dana, Iran's minister of science, research and technology, has received a warning card from parliament. Faraji Dana is the second member of the new cabinet — after Minister of Education Ali Asghar Faani — to be called to parliament to answer questions in an open session. His answers about his hirings, however, did not satisfy conservative members of parliament (MPs), resulting in the warning card. Any MP who receives three warning cards, known as yellow cards in Iran, is automatically impeached.

Conservatives in the Iranian parliament have targeted Faraji Dana for hiring individuals apparently sympathetic to the 2009 Green Movement protests. But what may really concern conservative Iranian MPs is the role he can play as minister of science in revitalizing Iran’s dormant but potentially explosive student movement.

Faraji  Dana had received a vote of confidence from parliament by a rather low margin in the first place, having been nominated only after President Hassan Rouhani’s first choice, Jafar Milimonfared, was denied a vote of confidence. Rouhani’s second choice, Jafar Towfighi, temporarily assumed the position as a caretaker, but was never nominated given conservative MPs' negative view of his political past.

Conservative MPs in parliament first became alarmed when Milimonfared and Towfighi were hired by Faraji  Dana to work under the Ministry of Science. They also objected to the appointment of other individuals, such as Mojtaba Sadighi as the head of the student organization and Saeed Semnanian as chairman of the board of trustees and censorship board in the Ministry of Science. The MPs objected to the hirings because these individuals were supporters of the Second Khordad Front and had worked for the campaign of Reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 presidential election.

MPs critical of the hirings also claim that the Ministry of Intelligence has not approved the individuals mentioned above. This, however, is debatable. Some of the officials of the Ministry of Science, like Towfighi, believe that the ministry’s internal appointments do not require the approval of Harasat (an intelligence agency related to the Ministry of Intelligence). The minister of intelligence, when summoned by the parliament, also declined responsibility.

Faraji Dana responded to the MPs in the open session by saying that if he finds reliable evidence that someone has taken an active part in the sedition — a label used by the government for the 2009 public demonstrations — or has worked toward toppling the establishment, then he would fire them. He then suggested that none of his chosen colleagues can be accused of such actions. He did not clarify his definition of sedition and what he considers reliable evidence.

What worries the conservatives in parliament, the security organizations and the Principlists in general is the revival of the student movement.

Iran's student movement is the traditional and historical focal point of all political actions seeking reform and democracy. During the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, especially during his second term, the student movement went through a tough period of repression and arrests. There was a decline in its protest activities. Ever since Rouhani's election, there have been expectations of a renewal of activities and the defense of academic freedom.

During this year’s ceremony marking the 16th of Azar (Students' Day), there appeared to be a revitalization of sorts, with students gathering at various universities and chanting slogans in favor of reform, without harassment from security agencies. This type of activity has not been witnessed in years.

Currently, various student activists have some main demands: students expelled due to their political activities — the so-called “starred” students (stars are used to mark disciplinary actions against students) — should be allowed to continue their education; the release of the imprisoned students; and the abandonment of certain proposals by conservatives, such as gender segregation. Outside the university environment, the most important student activist demand is the end of house arrest for Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi.

Currently, Iran has 4.5 million university students. The number itself, coupled with the position of respect that university students enjoy in society, creates a social force that can hardly be ignored in Iranian politics. Students were an effective force behind Rouhani’s victory in the presidential elections, showing up in large crowds at his events and helping mobilize campaigns.

Another sign of change at universities under Faraji Dana is a less intimidating social atmosphere, in part because of a decrease in security forces, and a less forceful presence among the security forces that remain.

The majority of Iranian universities have also seen spontaneous activities, such as gathering signatures or creating online petitions to remove chancellors and appoint replacements who are in line with student values and demands. If Rouhani is to keep his campaign promise of completely ending the security atmosphere and having an active student movement, he must heed these calls.

So far, Faraji Dana has changed the chancellors of the University of Esfahan, Khajeh Nasir, University of Science and Technology, University of Guilan and Payame Noor.  While the new chancellors are not known to have strong credentials in activism promotion, they have been a welcome change for many students. Also, a three-person board has been commissioned to review university conditions and chancellor performance and express its opinion as to whether the chancellor should be removed.

However, the chancellors of the flagship universities for student activism in Iran — the University of Tehran, Sharif University and Polytechnic (Amir Kabir) University — have yet to be changed.

Over the past eight years, the independent student organizations were shut down, and the central organizing committee of the student movements, the Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), was taken away from its members and given to pro-establishment students. Rouhani’s administration's ability to return this organization to the original leaders could help establish other independent student organizations.

So far, the return of 145 “starred” students under Towfighi has been a welcome move. However, the majority of the “starred” students have not yet been given permission to resume their studies and the majority of imprisoned students are still being detained, not to mention the student activists who have been arrested in recent months.

Faraji Dana has also taken steps to appease conservatives. The appointment of conservative Zia Hashemi as the deputy minister in charge of cultural affairs was not compatible with Rouhani’s moderate campaign messages, given that Hashemi is politically closer to Principlists. Given the current level of pressure on Faraji Dana, it is understandable that he needs to create a balance between the competing political groups.

The more Faraji Dana listens to the demands of the students, the more the Principlists and the conservative MPs will grow alarmed. However, if the minister of science — and Rouhani’s administration in general — manage to earn the support of the students, and if they are willing to take part in demonstrations on his behalf, it will be difficult for parliament to impeach him.

But if there is to be a confrontation between Rouhani‘s administration and parliament, the minister of science will most likely be one of the first casualties.    

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