TEHRAN, Iran — After six years as Tehran University chancellor, the Farhad Rahbar, 54, was ordered last week to step down from his position by President Hassan Rouhani’s minister of science. Iranians online celebrated and students at Tehran University even laid out sweets underneath a sign that read “Farhad Rahbar is gone.” The crackdown on the 2009 protests, the forced retirement of critical professors and Tehran University’s unique role in protest movements made Rahbar one of the more controversial officials in recent years.
When he was selected as chancellor in 2008, some individuals saw his first decisions as a distressing sign of what was to come.
Hossein Naghashi, the former secretary of the Islamic Association of Tehran University, told Al-Monitor, “There were no demonstrations when Rahbar replaced Amid Zanjani. The activists were worried, however, because of what they knew about Rahbar’s background. A few months later it became clear that their fear was not unfounded. Installing a gate to control the entrances and exits of the students was just the beginning.”
Commenting on the methods employed by Rahbar to pressure the students and professors, Naghashi said Rahbar “would limit the opportunities of the forward-looking and reformist students by putting pressure on independent student associations. Also, limitations imposed on the cultural and political activities of the students increased during his time as the chancellor of Tehran University.”
One of Rahbar’s lasting legacies and one that will take time to recover from: the forced retirement of professors such as Gholam Reza Zarifian (one of the officials in the Ministry of Science when it was headed by Mohammad Khatami’s minister of science), Ali Asghar Khodayari (the vice president of Student Affairs of Tehran University under the chancellorship of Faraji Dana during Khatami's presidency) and the departure of people like Hossein Bashiriyeh. Those moves resulted in Tehran University becoming politically and scientifically isolated.
Founded 80 years ago, Tehran University is the oldest university in Iran. It has more than 32,000 students, significantly more than other universities in Iran. This is one of the reasons Tehran University is unique when it comes to political and student union activities.
Shirzad Abdollahi, a scholar of education and Tehran University alumnus who was a student during the 1970s, told Al-Monitor, “The weakness of civil society, political society and political parties, are probably the reasons why the student movement is considered to be the engine behind the political activities in Iran. Tehran University is important because it has a strong tradition of resistance.”
In December 1953, barely four months after the coup d’etat that was supported by the United States, then-US Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to Tehran. His trip provoked massive student demonstrations inside Tehran University. The demonstrations turned violent and resulted in three students being killed by security forces. After the 1979 revolution, Dec. 7 was chosen as Student Day.
The history of violence in Tehran University does not end in 1953. In the summer of 1999, during Khatami's presidency, members of the Basij militia entered the men's dormitory during the night and attacked and injured the students who had protested against the closure of the popular Reformist newspaper Salam. Their actions at the time resulted in the most extensive street demonstrations since the 1979 revolution.
However, the most brutal actions against the students of Tehran University came a few days after the 2009 presidential elections, when Rahbar was chancellor. On June 13, 2009, following the news of Ahmadinejad’s re-election and the statements issued by Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the atmosphere in Tehran University was radically fervent.
A Tehran University student at the time spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about the events that transpired after the election results were announced.
“The day after the elections, I was in the central campus of Tehran University,” the student said. “We were chanting slogans outside of the university area but then the police Special Forces attacked us and we had to run back inside. We closed the gates, and the guards did not enter but then they started firing tear gas inside. But the Special Forces entered the central campus by 2 p.m. and beat the students and some were arrested. I am not sure but I have heard that the university’s security guards opened the gates and allowed the Special Forces to enter.”
The real attack, however, came at midnight, June 15, in the men's dormitory. According to eyewitnesses, members of the Basij had been camping outside the dormitories since 2 p.m. and were trying to come inside. Judging by the video clip in winter 2010 by BBC Persian, the Special Forces were helping the Basij. The video, which was recorded by a member of the undercover force known as the "Plain Clothes Militia,” shows that unlike what happened in 1999, this time, members of the Special Forces were the ones beating the students and dragging them on the ground.
According to the law, the police forces can only enter Tehran University or the dormitories after a direct order by the chancellor. A few days after the incident, Rahbar said that he had not issued any such order. Two weeks later, a Principalist member of parliament, Mohsen Koohkan, said, “Regarding the recent events, Mr. Rahbar mentioned himself that, for security reasons, he had asked the security forces to enter the dormitories of Tehran University.” Rahbar once again denied having made any such request.
Abdolreza Davari, who was the head of the Center for Strategic Studies in the Ministry of Interior and served as an adviser to the interior minister in Ahmadinejad's administration, told Al-Monitor, “Since Mr. Rahbar does not have a suitable academic record, and because of his background as the deputy of economic affairs at the Ministry of Intelligence, Tehran University was turned into a security field under his leadership. Doubtless, his nonacademic views are the reason why we had incidents such as what happened on the 25th of Khordad 1388 [June 15, 2009].”
Rahbar, who received his doctorate in economics from Tehran University, served as the deputy of economic affairs at the Ministry of Intelligence during Khatami's presidency, from 1999 to 2002. During Ahmadinejad's presidency, Rahbar was appointed as Tehran University chancellor by the minister of science. His predecessor was Abbas-Ali Amid Zanjani, a cleric whose appointment as the school's chancellor was harshly criticized by the university's students.
After Rouhani's election, the moderate candidate who is also supported by the Reformists, a large number of students of Tehran University used social networks to ask for Rahbar's immediate removal. There was a Facebook page, with more than 2,000 members, called “Campaign for the Removal of Farhad Rahbar as the Chancellor of Tehran University.” After Rahbar's removal, the page changed its cover to: “Farhad Rahbar is Gone.” This headline was created in the style of the historic headline “The Shah is Gone,” which was published by the newspaper Ettela'at in January 1979 after the shah had left Iran.
Despite the damage caused by Rahbar, and that many of the organizations created during Khatami’s presidency no longer exist or have had their activities severely restricted, Tehran University still remains a potent force in Iranian politics.
As many pointed out, Tehran University has gone through many dark eras before and the one positive aspect is that the Islamic Association of Tehran University, which has been in operation for more than 70 years and is the oldest civil educational organization in Iran, managed to survive the hardship to see the start of Rouhani’s moderate era and saved itself from being closed down.
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