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Iranian Universities to Close During June Election - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Iranian students avoid teargas at Tehran University during the protests surrounding the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, Sunday, June 14, 2009. Source: AP Photo

Iranian students avoid teargas at Tehran University during the protests surrounding the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, Sunday, June 14, 2009. Source: AP Photo

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Hojjat Al-Islam Mohammadian, the supreme leader’s representative to Iran’s universities, has harshly criticized the decision to close the universities during the upcoming presidential election, according to the Fars news agency. Mohammadian addressed the fourth nationwide congress of Iran’s university faculty members on Thursday, April 25.

The office of supreme leader in universities is a powerful institution overseeing universities in addition to official government administrational and policy control.

In a quick response, the deputy minister of science and technology, Hossein Naderi Manesh, rejected the government’s interference in university teaching.

In an interview with the Isna news agency, Naderi said: “The ministry does not interfere with the universities’ calendars, and it is up to individual universities to decide what to do.” However, he admitted that his department has issued a ministerial directive to all universities stating that exams should not be held in the two-week period surrounding the elections.

Universities in Iran have historically been politically active, and have occasionally played a decisive roll in major political developments. In particular, prior to elections many politicians and potential candidates tend to hold speeches or question-and-answer sessions on university campuses.

This practice has become something of a tradition in the run up to each election, and is aimed at attracting the student vote. For various political reasons, only politicians loyal to the establishment get the chance to take advantage of such lively—albeit controlled—interaction with students.

In July 1999, a protest by a number of Tehran University students against the closure of a reformist newspaper ended with a bloody crackdown on those involved. The tragic episode has caused a lingering embarrassment for both the conservative-backed judiciary and security forces, while the government of former reformist president Seyed Mohamamd Khatami proved incapable of protecting the students’ right to express themselves in safety.

Government control of university campuses has been strengthened during Ahmadinejad’s administration. But in a surprising move less than 2 months ago, Ahmadinejad issued a letter asking his minister to dismiss the chancellors of two big universities, accusing them of “weak performance that is not in line with [Ahmadinejad’s] government’s intention to promote lively debate and interaction.”

Ahmadinejad’s intervention raised some eyebrows within the conservative faction, who feared he might be intending to make room for potentially controversial events at the universities in which Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei could improve his image. Ahmadinejad’s order to replace the university chancellors has not yet been implemented, and seems increasingly unlikely as more time passes.

Winning over university students is crucial for conservative candidates, whose popularity rate is far below that of moderate figures like Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.