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Impeachment casts doubt on return of Iran student movement

The impeachment of Hassan Rouhani's science minister and the president's inability to protect him raise doubts about whether the student movement in Iran can return as Rouhani promised.
Iranian MPs wait for the results of impeachment of Minister for Science, Research and Technology, Reza Faraji Dana as other MPs (top L) count the ballots after voting at parliament in Tehran on August 20, 2014. Iran's conservative-dominated parliament voted to sack the science minister for wanting to recruit people accused of involvement in the 2009 protest movement. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI        (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Minister of Science, Research and Technology Reza Faraji-Dana was impeached after 145 MPs, out of the 270 present, voted in favor of impeachment. This came as a shock to many Iranian observers because prior to the impeachment session, it was believed that Faraji-Dana would receive a vote of confidence from the parliament.

However, things changed when, on the morning of Aug. 20, the Followers of the Leader faction (Rahrovan-e Velayat) decided that it would not follow any particular policy regarding the impeachment and that its members would decide individually on this issue. The management committee of the Followers faction had previously mentioned that it opposed the idea of impeaching Faraji-Dana. The impeachment motion was presented by the Endurance Front (supporters of hard-line cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi) and the Association of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution.

Eventually, the entire Principlist faction of the parliament, headed by Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, joined the impeachment bloc. However, a review of decisions made in the 9th parliament shows that together all these factions had only 90 members. Supporters of the impeachment managed to persuade 50 more MPs, who were either independent or belonged to the Followers of the Leader faction, to join them. As a result, although the proposal for impeachment came from the radical Principlists, its success was due to some of the moderate MPs joining the Principlist MPs.

Faraji-Dana's impeachment started approximately a month ago when, in the early days of Ramadan, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with a number of university professors and warned against universities being turned into political groups and how such a thing would weaken the scientific atmosphere of the universities.

At the same time, Faraji-Dana had already received a "yellow card" from the parliament back in January because of his new appointees both inside the ministry and in the universities.

For the past month, the Principlist faction has been seriously working toward impeachment, although prior to that it was only used as a threat. Originally, there were supposed to be discussion sessions between the administration and the MPs. However, based on what was later reveled by Haddad-Adel, the discussions were not fruitful and eventually the date for impeachment was announced.

The main reasons given for the impeachment were:

  1. Refusing to accept the scholarships, for postgraduate studies, awarded to certain students who have close ties to the Principlists; reinstating professors who were previously dismissed.
  2. Appointing members of political groups, some of whom had supported Reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 presidential elections, as experts. In assessing the performance of the university chancellors, changing the process of choosing a chancellor (asking the faculty members) instead of continuing with the usual process set forth by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution.
  3. Appointing individuals who were involved in the 2009 post-election unrest as ministry staff and removing officials with close ties to then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration and the radical Principlists.
  4. Failing to confront the political activities of opposition groups, critics and independent student activists inside the universities. Promoting certain publications with anti-religious and radical ethnic tendencies (or separatists tendencies, as the pro-impeachment MPs contend).

The speech by Mohammad Hassan Asfari, the paliament member representing Arak, is helpful in clarifying the reasons why Faraji Dana was impeached: "propaganda against the parliament and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, trying to whitewash the bad reputations of some problem-causing political figures, attempting to diminish the role of imperialism in the 1953 coup d'état, questioning the idea of Guardianship of the Jurist (velayat-e faqih), praising [the late] Ayatollah [Hossein Ali] Montazeri, calling the theory of velayat-e faqih flawed and numerous other issues which are today being reflected in certain university publications."

While the issues mentioned above were all political, during the nine months that he was the Minister of Science and Education, Faraji Dana managed to calm the atmosphere of the universities and also managed to bring back a limited amount of excitement to the campuses, especially allowing the return of students expelled by the previous minister for political reasons.

His biggest achievement was removing those officials who had created a negative atmosphere inside the universities, when Ahmadinejad was in office, under the supervision of outside security forces. The comments made by the pro-Impeachment MPs were actually a list of praises for Faraji-Dana, as far as most students were concerned.

However, he had shortcomings. He was not completely successful in helping those student organizations critical of the government and paving the road for student activism. His deputy minister in cultural affairs, Zia Hashemi, was collaborating with the Principlists. However, his refusal to collaborate with organizations supporting the supreme leader, and universities no longer being under the sole control of these organizations, resulted in authoritative forces no longer tolerating the changes he was making.

Unless Faraji-Dana is replaced with a minister who shares his ideals and belief, his impeachment will have a negative effect on the professors as well as the student movement and will shatter hopes of change for the universities under this new administration. Right now, people are worried that ideological and political measures might be once again used in selecting students and the regular activities of students and the faculty members might be blocked. If that happens, the student movement will be once again under attack.

President Hassan Rouhani appointed Mohammad Ali Najafi as acting minister of education, showing that Rouhani is still hopeful, and serious, about reforming the universities. Najafi had earlier received a vote of no confidence to become science minister.

The biggest blow to Rouhani's administration, however, was that it showed that his calculations regarding the moderate Principlists were not accurate, since he was not able to bring them over to his own side. Speaker of parliament Ali Larijani tried to indirectly influence the voting and push Faraji-Dana through, but his actions were unsuccessful.

Hard-line parliament member Hamid Rasai even taunted Larijani with by holding up a handwritten sign after the impeachment, showing how unhappy the Radicals in the parliament were about Larijani's actions.

Faraji-Dana's impeachment was a warning sign to the moderate administration that the rival group has recovered from its loss in last year's presidential elections. Rouhani, Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Majid Ansari, as well as his media team, were weak in their defense of Faraji-Dana. Rouhani's rivals are determined to defeat him and make his supporters lose faith in him. If Rouhani cannot find a way to stop them, then his other ministers, who have already received yellow cards, will be impeached as well.

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