Ahmadinejad calls liberal purge of universities

Iran's hard-line president urged students Tuesday to push for a purge of liberal and secular university teachers, another sign of his determination to strengthen Islamic fundamentalism in the country. With his call echoing the rhetoric of the nation's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ahmadinejad appears determined to remake Iran by reviving the fundamentalist goals pursued under the republic's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iran still has strong moderate factions, and since taking office a year ago Ahmadinejad has moved to replace pragmatic veterans in the government and diplomatic corps with former military commanders and inexperienced religious hard-liners. His administration also has launched crackdowns on independent journalists, Web sites and bloggers. Speaking to a group of students Tuesday, Ahmadinejad called on them to pressure his administration to keep driving out moderate instructors, a process that began earlier this year. Dozens of liberal university professors and teachers were sent into retirement this year after Ahmadinejad's administration, sparking strong protests from students, named the first cleric to head Teheran University. The country's oldest institution of higher education remains home to dozens more professors and instructors who outspokenly oppose policies that restrict freedom of expression. "Today, students should shout at the president and ask why liberal and secular university lecturers are present in the universities," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying during a meeting with students. The president complained that reforms in the country's universities were difficult to accomplish and that the educational system had been affected by secularism for the last 150 years. But, he added: "Such a change has begun." It was not clear if Ahmadinejad intended to take immediate specific measures, or if he was just urging the students to rally. Ahmadinejad, in his role as head of the country's Council of Cultural Revolution, would have the authority to make such changes himself. But his comments seemed designed to encourage hard-line students to begin a pressure campaign on their own, thus putting a squeeze on universities. "This is the beginning of a so-called cultural revolution. Ahmadinejad and his allies plan to sweep their opponents from the universities," said Saeed Al-e Agha, a Teheran University professor. "They want to rule the brains of youth there." "Ahmadinejad wants to settle scores with the most important center of critics and opposition and close the door to any opponent before municipal elections in late November," said Kouhyar Goodarzi, a human rights activist. "But his move may prompt a new round of student unrest." Liberal and secular professors teach at universities around the country, but they are a minority. Most are politically passive and do not identify with either the hard-liners or the liberal camp. Public opinion is difficult to gauge because of a lack of independent opinion polls. But Ahmadinejad must tread carefully among various factions, and strong moderate voices remain. Hard-liners increasingly control the top rungs of government but still encounter resistance from some members of the public. Moderates also remain in government. Even among conservatives, there are different goals and powerful political factions. It remains unclear, for example, how tightly Ahmadinejad controls the government, or the exact nature of his relationship with the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad surprised his conservative backers in April by deciding that women could attend soccer games, but Khamenei didn't agree and the supreme leader's view prevailed. Shortly after the Iranian revolution, Iran fired hundreds of liberal and leftist university teachers and expelled many students. It had a brief period of reform in the 1990s under then-President Mohammad Khatami, but hard-line factions cracked down then, too, especially on university students, dissidents and journalists. "It's horrible. I did not expect at all that Ahmadinejad ... would try to deprive others of their jobs because of political differences," Reza, a university graduate who did not wish to be identified further for fear of retaliation, said of Ahmadinejad's statement Tuesday. The president, who won election based on promises of economic reform, has sharpened the government's stance both on human rights issues and on its controversial nuclear program. Meanwhile, in spite of Ahmadinejad's bluster, the purge has not yet taken place, a human rights activist pointed out. "At the moment, these words haven't been followed with actions," he said, but they signal a "possible coming crackdown," said Hadi Ghaemi, a researcher on Iran for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Cautioning the international community not to be "fixated" on the Iranian nuclear issue, Ghaemi added, "We should not forget about human rights violations within the country."