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Education key battleground as Rouhani’s second term begins

As President Hassan Rouhani begins his second term, education emerges as a key political battleground.
Iranian and Afghan girls gather at the Emam Hasan Mojtaba school in Kerman, Iran, October 23, 2016.  Picture taken on October 23, 2016.   REUTERS/Gabriela Baczynska     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX2QSS1

Iran's parliament opened negotiations on President Hassan Rouhani’s proposed second-term Cabinet on Aug. 15. That day, the re-elected moderate president said he had been “under no pressure from any faction, party or group” in picking his 17 choices for minister posts.

Yet state media outlets reported in July that Rouhani had traveled to the city of Mashhad to discuss his proposed list with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Several prominent figures have argued the move would reduce the parliament’s freedom to review the Cabinet independently. Outspoken parliamentarian Ali Motahari said any coordination with the supreme leader “would limit the room for discussion.”

Both Rouhani and Khamenei denied that they had determined the choice of “each and every” minister together and insisted they had stuck to the customary mutual understanding over the ministers of defense, foreign affairs and intelligence.

The supreme leader’s office added that Khamenei was “sensitive” about three ministries (education; science, research and technology; and culture and Islamic guidance), putting Rouhani under public pressure to work with Khamenei on these matters as well. The conspicuous absence of a science minister from the president’s proposed Cabinet and the last-minute difficulties in picking a candidate for education underline that education is shaping up to be a key front in the struggle for power, pitting the Reformists and the Rouhani administration against Principlists and the supreme leader.

The relationship between the political elite and education in Iran is complex.

Rival factions are currently clashing over the fate of Iran’s largest private university, Islamic Azad University (IAU), and to a lesser extent over primary and secondary education.

The relationship between the political elite and education in Iran is complex. While primary and secondary schools were already largely in state hands by the mid-1970s, the nationalization of higher education occurred only after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Universities were closed for two years while curriculums were rewritten and opposition students and staff purged according to the new Islamic Republic’s ideology.

By the early 1990s, Iran was forced to step back from its state-centered educational model. The country was experiencing a demographic explosion, and after the eight-year war with Iraq ended in 1988, many young men and women were eager to enter universities to improve their chances in Iran’s tough job market.

President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani addressed this demand by expanding the role of private universities, cleverly prioritizing his own, Islamic Azad. Rafsanjani’s development program was so effective that by 1997, little over a decade after its founding, IAU enrolled more students than the state's entire higher education system combined.

Currently, Azad University has over 1.6 million students enrolled in hundreds of branches across the country.

In the Islamic Republic, private education enjoys only slightly greater freedom than that of the state system. The Ministry of Science and the Khamenei-controlled Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution exert significant control over universities. The Science Ministry directly appoints the senior management of state universities and has a seat on the boards of trustees of most private universities, including Islamic Azad. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution is charged with screening board members at institutions of higher education.

Until his death in January, Rafsanjani maintained a delicate balance in steering IAU away from national politics to prevent scrutiny by subsequent governments. To do so, Islamic Azad University has maintained an extensive on-the-ground organization of basij, or volunteer student militia, tasked with cracking down on critical thinking or student activism. At the same time, IAU was also prevented from turning into a hotbed for Principlist organizing.

Since Rafsanjani's death, this balance has been quickly overturned. Over the past few months, the supreme leader has moved quickly to put key allies in positions of authority within the university.

Less than three weeks after Rafsanjani’s death, Khamenei appointed his foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, a powerful conservative, to head the board of founders, the university’s highest decision-making panel. Soon after, Velayati asserted control over the board of trustees, putting him in a position to control IAU’s general direction.

In April, the university’s pro-Rafsanjani President Hamid Mirzadeh was suddenly ousted. In mid-July, the board of trustees decided to appoint Farhad Rahbar to permanently replace Mirzadeh as IAU’s president. Rahbar is a staunch conservative who, as the former president of the University of Tehran, is known for cracking down on students and faculty sympathetic to the protest movement that emerged in response to alleged fraud in the 2009 presidential elections.

Now Principlists aided by the supreme leader are finding themselves somewhat in Rafsanjani’s shoes: While they have the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution on their side, the Ministry of Science can still throw sand in the gears of any IAU takeover plan. In the coming days, Principlists will do their best to get Rouhani to introduce a science minister aligned with their strategy for IAU.

But the fault lines of education run beyond the Science Ministry. The Education Ministry has been the focus of at least as much factional infighting in recent years, pitting in particular Reformist teachers as well as Principlists against the Rouhani administration. While the Science Ministry is responsible for the university system, the Ministry of Education mainly concerns primary and secondary education as well as teacher training. The supreme leader’s emphasis on combating "foreign influence," particularly cultural influence, as the country’s top political priority is believed to have added impetus to Principlist efforts to control this department.

Rouhani’s first education minister, Ali Asghar Fani, had been the object of multiple failed impeachment procedures and attacks, only to finally hand in his resignation in late 2016 amid the largest national teacher demonstrations in over a decade over low wages, limited benefits and lower pay than that of other civil employees. Rouhani replaced him with Fakhrodin Ahmadi Danesh Ashtiani, who had earlier been blocked by parliament from the position for his alleged connections to the Green Movement.

Before and during the presidential elections in May, Principlist pressure on Danesh Ashtiani had all but prohibited his reappointment. Danesh Ashtiani’s daughter was found to be involved in dealing in smuggled clothes for a shop of hers. In the televised election debates, Principlist candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf took time to publicize Danesh Ashtiani’s “unnecessary cargo imports.”

Taking note of the supreme leader’s reservations, Rouhani opted to replace Danesh Ashtiani with Seyyed Mohammad Batiani, a technocrat from Tehran with prior education experience. The choice indicates that Rouhani hopes to compromise with both Reformist teacher organizations and Principlists.

Rouhani’s moderate position seems to have borne fruit. Batiani was approved by the parliament Aug. 20, with 238 votes in favor and 38 against. But Batiani's appointment could not placate more radical voices from either side. Two lawmakers, a Reformist from Kordestan province strongly involved with teacher welfare and a Principlist from Kermanshah, spoke harshly against Batiani.

Morteza Haji, who was education minister during the Reformist government of Mohammad Khatami in the early 2000s, famously described the ministry in an interview as “a giant organization … in which everyone believes he has the right to intervene.” He went on, “Demands from some to get their children into certain schools, pressures for bureaucratic restructuring, parliament members who want their friends as CEO or vice president of this or that organization and finally the collective demand for wage increases — these chores take all of our time [and] prevent us from thinking.”

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