Iran's hardliners target top private university

/ Source: The Associated Press

Iran's leader issued a decree Monday paving the way for a hardline takeover of the country's largest private university, a crushing blow to the country's moderates.

The Islamic Azad University is the center of power for former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, noted pragmatist and a key supporter of Iran's moderates. The institution was a major site for opposition protests against the 2009 disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which opponents say was fraudulent.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's decree declared the university's endowment, which keeps it financially independent, to be religiously illegitimate and therefore null and void.

The endowment, or vaqf in Farsi, was a strategy by founder Rafsanjani to keep the university independent. It can now be taken over by the state.

The move is a public humiliation of Rafsanjani and a huge boost to his archenemy Ahmadinejad and his extremist supporters.

The university, which has more than one 1.3 million students in over 350 branches nationwide, allowed opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi free access to its huge resources during his election campaign, allowing his voice to be heard all over Iran.

Even since, Ahmadinejad and his extremist camp have intensified efforts to strip Rafsanjani of this multibillion dollar power house.

In his decree, Khamenei said he had tasked two delegations comprised of legal experts and scholars headed by one of his supporters with conducting an "in depth and comprehensive" study of the issue and the final result found the endowment to be illegitimate.

"The endowment has major legal and jurisprudential problems including the legitimacy of the endowment and the competence of the university's founders to create it," Khamenei said, according to the state news agency.

Azad University is considered a private institution and is supposed to be immune from state interference.

But Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, said the university would be neither private nor government-controlled, possibly meaning that it will now be under his own control.

It was not immediately clear how Rafsanjani and his moderate supporters will react to the ruling but the savvy politician said last month that annulling the endowment would be tantamount to fighting God.

"I don't think God will let anybody to disallow this endowment. And if somebody does that, God will be stronger than him and one day will take endowment back," he said at the time.

Rafsanjani said four legal scholars, including himself and Hasan Khomeini, grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the architect of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, had approved the endowment.

Khamenei, who backed Ahmadinejad as the winner of the disputed 2009 election, has publicly distanced himself from Rafsanjani, saying last year, that his views were closer to that of the president.