A dispute over control of one of the world's largest universities has turned into a fight between government bodies that is exposing deep fissures within the Iranian establishment.
At the center of the tug-of-war is Azad University: its leadership, board, 1.4 million students, and tens of billions of dollars in assets.
On one side are hard-liners within the Iranian establishment, most prominently President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who appears ready to punish Azad University for its alleged support for opposition candidates in the 2009 presidential election. Supporting Ahmadinejad is the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR), whose resolution to alter the Azad University's charter, replace its current head of Azad University, and change its governing board was recently approved by the president.
On the other side are the conservatives within the same establishment, mainly former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who co-founded the university in 1982 and now the heads its board of trustees. Also supporting the conservatives are parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, and Abdollah Jasbi, the university head who is up for replacement and is a close Rafsanjani ally.
Matters came to a head on June 19 when the university's board secured a temporary injunction that prevented the SCCR from enforcing its revision of the university's charter.
The next day, a bill was rushed through the 270-member parliament that effectively circumvented the government takeover of Azad, by allowing universities to endow their properties to the public.Azad University's board had previously decided to endow the properties of the university, which has 357 branches and satellite campuses throughout the country.
The legislative move was quickly met with demonstrations outside parliament by Ahmadinejad loyalists.
In the wake of the heated protests, 100 legislators made a counter move by voting for emergency discussion of legislation that would support the SCCR's authority in the matter. This, in turn, could result in a bill that would effectively overturn the endowment bill passed on June 20. The counter move led to an uproar in parliament, with legislators exchanging insults.
Now it is up to the Guardians Council, which must approve the legislation, to decide on the matter, and for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to weigh in. The result could either strengthen Ahmadinejad and his allies or give some leverage to his rivals who are trying to curb his influence.
The fight has already been ugly at times. During the June 22 protesters outside parliament, which included members of the Basij militia, threatened to place the parliament "under fire" unless it backed away from its bill.
The legislators who passed the bill were labeled traitors and parliament speaker Ali Larijani "a disgrace." Radio Farda has reported that the editor of the hard-line "Kayhan" daily, Hossein Shariatmadari, has called for the names of the lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill to be made public.
Larijani has responded by calling the response to the bill "vindictive," saying that criticism of government branches is welcome, but that it should be voiced without "bad language." He said that the bill is intended to strengthen the education system and that, if the Guardians Council decides to enter the legislation into force, it should be respected.
Conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari said that the back and forth undermines the legislature.
"The parliament should defend itself and not let some put it under question," Motahari said.
During their protests, Basijis and pro-Ahmadinejad students claimed the bill was against the will of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Addressing Basiji students and faculty members from various universities the next day, Khamenei called for "unity of thought"
"I object to any comment, move, action, or written text that leads to division and rift, even if they are made with the right motive," Khamenei said. "If anyone is interested to know my opinion, my view is what I just told you. We need to promote consolidation.
The stakes are high -- and not just because of the university's immense assets. Politics and control reign supreme in this dispute. If Ahmadinejad wins, Rafsanjani stands to lose influence in Iran's political scene and the university's campuses could be controlled by the government's security and military apparatus.
Saeed Paivandi a Paris based sociology professor, says Ahmadinejad has had an eye on the university since he came to power in 2005.
"Ahmadinejad has wanted to take control over the university since he was elected because of the university's assets and facilities, but also because he believes the university is one of the centers of power in the Iranian society that still remains in the hands of his rivals," Paivandi said.
Paivandi, who has extensively written on Iran's education system, adds that as the government tightened its grip on state universities over the years, the atmosphere of Azad University remained relatively free. And this, he says, raised concerns among hard-liners.
"I just returned from a the World Education Congress in Istanbul where many professors from Iran's universities were present and they suspected that at state universities the government has installed [listening devices] and everything that the professors say is being monitored. It's not the case at Azad University," Paivandi said.
Will Guardian Council Intervene?
Italy-based student activist and Azad University graduate Ahmad Rashidi says the government's moves against the university are linked to the recent antigovernment protests that have taken place at its various branches.
"Azad University has recently become even more [politically] active than state universities. After the presidential vote [in 2009] there was a protest every Tuesday at different branches of the university. This has been very difficult for the leadership," Rashidi said.
Following last year's disputed presidential vote Azad University came under attack by officials who accused the university of having funded opposition candidates. The University rejected the charges and said that its resources were not used for or against any candidate.
Earlier this week an Ahmadinejad ally, former government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham, made it clear how hard-liners view the university. Elham said Azad University is "the financial continuation of the sedition," a term Iranian officials use to describe the opposition Green Movement.
For now, Rafsanjani might be winning the battle over Azad University. But things could change in the coming days. Some analysts, including former student leader Ali Afshari, are already predicting that the Guardians Council will ultimately reject the endowment bill.
"If the bill is rejected by the Guardian Council and MPs don't send it to the Expediency Council and surrender to pressure groups then we can say that the pro-government hard-line groups and military forces have gained the upper hand," Afshari said.
U.S.-based political analyst Reza Fani Yazdi tells Radio Farda that the developments have wider implications, in that they demonstrate the tools the hard-liners will employ to oppose future legislation.
"It seems that from now on any bill that is due to be ratified by the parliament [must] be approved by the security military forces, otherwise the same thing will happen and they will bring their pressure groups to the streets and force the parliament not to make any independent decisions -- even the current parliament, which includes many former members of the [Revolutionary Guard] and close aides of Ahmadinejad's government, " Fani Yazdi said.
Alireza Kermani of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report