One steamy hot Tehran afternoon late this past spring, Ahmad Saei received a letter that struck him as especially odd. A professor of law and international relations at Tehran University, he was used to receiving a daily notice addressing mundane school matters–religious holidays, ceremonies, talks on campus. That day’s mail, however, was different. Written on behalf of the university administration, the note announced that the university would be sorry to lose four longtime professors to retirement as of the fall. He scanned down, surprised to see that the charismatic head of the faculty of law and political science–of which he was a member–was on the list. Just below that, he saw his own name–first, middle, last. He took a long sip of his black tea, shut off his computer and walked to his first lecture of the day.
Saei’s “retirement” took almost everyone by surprise. He had been a professor at Tehran University since the late 1970s, when this and other campuses throughout the country were caught up in heady political storms that ended in a revolution. He had long considered himself among the revolutionaries; like thousands of other young people of his generation, he had agitated for the overthrow of the US-backed Pahlavi monarchy. But something had changed. A self-described reformist, Saei does not seem to share the vision of the new set of men who have been running the country since last year’s presidential election. “They want to make the university yek dast [made of ‘one hand’],” he told me of the country’s leadership. “But it will take a second revolution to do that.”
One year into office, a second revolution may not be that far removed from what Iran’s new leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has in mind. A man of now famously humble origins who rose from simple foot soldier of the Revolutionary Guard to become mayor of Tehran, the president has made no secret of his plans to return his country to what he has obliquely referred to as “true Islam.” Ahmadinejad’s stance is anti-corruption, anti-decadence, vehemently anti-imperial. He fancies himself a rock star of the people (he has been known to dive into adoring crowds), a king of the photo-op, a sort of Gamal Abdel Nasser of the Iranian street. Speaking to a rapt group of university students during the first week of September, the new president blithely equated secular education with the evils of colonialism, continuing, “Students should shout at the president and ask why liberal and secular university lecturers are present in the universities.” Ahmadinejad’s comments may augur grim changes. Dozens of professors have already been sent packing. And as the new academic year begins, there are rumors that many more will soon follow.
At Tehran University, the dismissal of the professors inspired unrest. On the heels of the first set of retirements last spring, students organized a sit-in that devolved into two days of demonstrations, spilling out of the faculty of law and into the courtyard, and continuing into the night at the university dormitories some miles away. At the stark, military-style dorms, the demonstrators appropriated sundry causes beyond the fate of the professors–from the publication of a cartoon some weeks before that had offended Iran’s ethnic Azeris, a Turkic-speaking people who make up a quarter of the population, to living conditions in the university dorms and more general political gripes. There, students clashed with plainclothes security as well as police, ending in injuries and arrests. For some, this seemed an eerie throwback to 1999’s violent clashes at the same site over the closure of a number of reformist newspapers, in what were the most significant student protests in Iran’s recent history.