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Iran’s Islamic Azad University rocked by layoffs of pro-reform professors

In Iran, conservative elements appear to be targeting pro-Reformist professors at Islamic Azad University.

Iran’s Islamic Azad University (IAU), which was established by moderate Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is now in the hands of hard-liners who have decided to lay off pro-reform professors.

After Rafsanjani’s death in January 2017, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei named his conservative foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati as the head of IAU's board of founders. Velayati then chose Farhad Rahbar — a senior member of conservative Ebrahim Raisi’s campaign in the 2017 presidential elections — as chancellor of the university. Following these appointments, Yaser Hashemi Rafsanjani, the late ayatollah’s youngest son, was dismissed along with a number of other figures within IAU who were seen as loyal to Rafsanjani.

Of note, Islamic Azad University is the biggest university in Iran and has campuses throughout the country. 

After the apparent purge of the administrative apparatus, it seems that pro-reform professors are now being targeted. On Feb. 28, prominent professor Sadegh Zibakalam, who is well-known for his outspoken remarks against hard-liners, told local media that he had been laid off by IAU.

Zibakalam believes that the reason for his and a number of other pro-reform professors’ dismissals is politically motivated.

“When you accurately look at this issue, it seems that the layoffs don’t stem from economic issues, because the professors who have been laid off do not think like the managers of Azad University, and their approaches are not identical to the political system’s approaches. Thus, a political payoff has been done with those [professors] whose views and behaviors are the same as the political system continuing to work [at the university],” said Zibakalam.

In response to the criticisms, the chancellor of IAU stated that he will not tolerate any professor who harms Islam.

At a gathering with a group of IAU staff, Rahbar said Feb. 28, “[Some] professors go to a class and they say whatever nonsense they like, and when we question them, they shout and say that [academic] freedom is in danger.” He added, “We will not tolerate any professor who would like to harm the religion [Islam], the Quran and the Prophet [Muhammad] for one second.”

Rahbar also confirmed Zibakalam’s dismissal, saying, “We didn’t lay off anyone, but we announced that your action is illegal because you receive salaries from two workplaces.”

Zibakalam is a professor at the University of Tehran as well. However, this may not be the reason behind his dismissal as Goudarz Eftekhar Jahromi, another pro-reform professor, said he has also been laid off.

Lawmaker Mohammad Ghomi announced Feb. 28 that the parliament’s education commission will pursue the matter. He said the dismissal of university professors for the sole reason of having different views must be “condemned.”

Meanwhile, citing an unnamed source, the Reformist Etemaad daily reported Feb. 28 that Rahbar had suddenly resigned.

The daily said Feb. 28 that the chancellor resigned due to discontent with Velayati’s alleged constant interference in Rahbar's domain, but that Velayati has yet to accept the resignation. Islamic Azad University dismissed Etemaad's report.

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