Interim Higher Education Minister Jafar Tofighi seeks to reverse the legacies of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era

For the first time in months – since the end of high level P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations in early 2013 – there is a momentum in Iranian foreign policy which may translate into progress in nuclear negotiations and potentially a resolution of the nuclear crisis. Hopes are high and Iranians from across the political spectrum, from the hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the Centrist President Hassan Rouhani, to Reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, have indicated that Iran may be more flexible in negotiations.

While the Islamic Republic’s political leadership appears more or less united on the need to resolve the nuclear crisis, no doubt in part because of crushing economic sanctions, there is far less unity when it comes to domestic issues. And herein lies the challenge for Rouhani: He must convert foreign policy success – if indeed he achieves any – into currency which he can use to advance his domestic agenda as well. One of the dangers Rouhani faces is that his hardline political rivals will pocket the gains of his foreign policy success while frustrating his attempts at domestic reform. And, once Iran’s most pressing foreign policy issues, especially nuclear negotiations and sanctions, are resolved, domestic affairs are likely to come back into the spotlight.

Despite his emphasis on foreign policy, Rouhani has been active domestically as well and made important moves which have stirred controversy and can be viewed as concessions to the Reformists. This has especially been true in the areas of education and culture, with the Ministry of Higher Education and Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance taking actions which can be viewed as advancing the domestic reform agenda Rouhani promised voters during his election campaign. The area which may be emblematic of his approach is higher education. When Rouhani’s choice to lead the Ministry of Higher Education Jafar Meyli-Monfared did not receive the requisite votes from the Iranian parliament to assume the job, in part because he was viewed by hardliners as having ties with the Reformists, the Iranian president appointed an even more radical figure with ties to the repressed Green Movement as interim minister. His choice, Jafar Tofighi, can legally remain interim minister for three months before Rouhani must select a permanent nominee to go before parliament for approval. Already however, Tofighi and Rouhani allies in the higher education sector have taken steps which are undoing some of the hallmarks of the Mahmoud Ahamdinejad era higher education policy.

The Ahmadinejad era in higher education policy was marked by a number of changes which were seen as hearkening back to the early days of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In particular, there was an attempt to Islamize universities in terms of the curriculum, environment, and personnel. There was a renewed emphasis on bringing the regime’s version of Islam into education, particularly the humanities and social sciences which were viewed as being too Western and having a negative influence on Iranian youth and society. In 2012 a gender quota was introduced, albeit in an uneven and ad hoc manner, with the aims of limiting the number of women in Iran’s highly competitive higher education system. In more recent years there was also discussion of segregating men and women in universities. Finally, students and professors who were socially and/or politically active were marginalized and in some cases removed from universities.

The changes being introduced by Tofighi, in his capacity as interim minister, amount to a reversal of policies in higher education of the last several years. He has called on students and faculty who believe their rights have been trampled on to lodge an official complaint with his ministry, estimating that “Until now, 400-500 have complained to the committee set up for this purpose.” He has spoken out against the plan to segregate universities. He has also lashed out against the reverse-affirmative action gender quotas seeking to limit women in higher education, declaring that: “The ministry of higher education is not that much in agreement with gender quotes and these [female] students can speak their concerns and we on our part shall pursue [the matter] so that no rights are trampled.” On this issue Tofighi expressed his hope that: “God willing, an opening shall be created.” Tofighi’s ministry has also targeted some of the worst offenders in higher education of the Ahmadinejad era, namely Allameh Tabatabaei University President Sadreddin Shariati who was viewed by some as being the most hardline university head in all of Iran. Shariati’s removal led Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline Kayhan Daily Newspaper editor-in-chief believed to be close to Khamenei, to remark that Tofighi is removing those who have done the greatest service to the revolution. Beyond the higher education ministry, Rouhani allies linked to former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani sitting on the board of directors of Islamic Azad University, a nationwide chain of private universities, have removed that university’s head Farhad Daneshjoo. The latter is the brother of Ahmadinejad-era Minister of Higher Education Kamran Daneshjoo, and was seen as having been imposed on the Islamic Azad University by hardliners.

Thus far, Traditionalist Principalist figures appear to be tacitly supporting these moves by Rouhani and his deputies, at least in the field of higher education. Traditioanl Principalist and Member of Parliament Ahamd Tavakoli backed Rouhani’s choice of Tofighi, saying that the majority of the Ministry of Higher Education support the Reformist political current and that for this reason: “For this ministry [we] cannot choose a Principalist…Of course we must use a Reformist who is steadfast to revolution and the principals of the regime.” Tavakoli indicated that Tofighi was indeed such a Reformist. Hardliners, as already indicated, have been far less conciliatory. Former Speaker of the Parliament and current MP Gholam-Hossein Haddad-Adel, addressing the removal of Daneshjoo from Islamic Azad University’s presidency, asserted that: “This hasty action, which is still sweet in the mouths of those who designed [Daneshjoo’s downfall], shall in the future become bitter and regretful.” Haddad-Adel indicated that parliament’s Education and Research Commission would pursue this issue further.

Rouhani, via Tofighi and others such as the Islamic Azad University board, appears to be gradually shifting how the regime approaches higher education. Such actions can be characterized as reforms rather than revolutions. Still, these are likely only the first moves in a more drawn out battle which will be waged between Iranian moderates and hardliners on domestic issues. In order to avoid being outmaneuvered by hardliners, Rouhani and his moderate allies must match gains in foreign policy with gains in domestic politics, and for the time being this appears to be precisely what he is trying to do.