University vs. Intelligence Ministry

2013 Presidency of The Islamic Republic of Iran, official photographer

Iran President Rouhani opens the academic year at Tehran University on October 14, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Tehran University is symbolically important to the Islamic Republic.

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  • While the Islamic Republic might be a dictatorship, it is far from autocratic.

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  • That Rouhani used his inaugural visit to the University of Tehran to reinforce academic freedom suggests a desire to make good on some of his campaign’s reformist promises.

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Tehran University is symbolically important to the Islamic Republic. The university became a major center of social agitation against the Shah in the run-up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Upon Ayatollah Khomeini’s victory, the campus became a center for the regime’s new religious activism and the site of weekly public sermons by Khomeini or handpicked substitute prayer leaders. The University also became subject to a cultural revolution, as religious commissars purged many women faculty members and those teaching subjects—especially in the humanities—deemed corrupted by Western philosophy or liberalism. Because of its symbolic importance, authorities are especially sensitive to political activity at Tehran University, and not without reason: the 1999 civil unrest, which would remain the largest anti-government protest in the Islamic Republic’s history until the election protests a decade later, began with a press freedom rally outside a Tehran University dormitory.

While the Islamic Republic might be a dictatorship—the Supreme Leader, after all, is not subject to popular election and only those whom an unelected Guardian Council approves can run for president—it is far from autocratic. Over the years students have continued to test the limits of free political discourse at the University of Tehran, occasionally heckling senior regime officials who come to speak. In order to curtail politically embarrassing episodes of students ruining photo-ops with blunt or disrespectful questions, both the Intelligence Ministry (literally the Ministry of Information and National Security) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ paramilitary Basij have maintained a robust presence on campus.

That newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani used his inaugural visit to the University of Tehran to reinforce, at least theoretically, academic freedom suggests a desire to make good on some of his campaign’s reformist promises. That he spoke so directly regarding the Ministry of Intelligence presence on campus, however, reinforces Iran’s subtle police state. He may have called upon the Intelligence Ministry to give students space, but he did not demand that they depart the campus. Accordingly, Rouhani’s policy might be understood to be “report but do not interfere.” Nor did Rouhani condemn the Basij presence on campus, where they retain both faculty and student chapters. This might suggest that Rouhani either does not believe himself strong enough to take on the Basij, strong supporters of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or, conversely, he simply does not want to constrain the paramilitaries.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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