Iran's 'second cultural revolution' seeks to purge universities from dissenters

Iran's 'second cultural revolution' seeks to purge universities from dissenters
4 min read
06 September, 2023
Over 110 professors have faced dismissal from Iranian universities in a sweeping "political cleansing" at higher education institutions.
Iranian Basiji (Members of Basij Paramilitary force) university students are pictured in front of portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (L), and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in front of the main gate of the University of Tehran. [Getty]

As the new academic year approaches in Iran, more and more university professors are discovering they have been suspended, faced salary cuts, or even expelled, with senior professors coerced into retirement.

The latest wave of expulsion of dissident professors in Iran began when the ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi took office in August 2021. However, this process has recently accelerated.

Iranian analysts and higher education experts labelled this a "political cleansing" of universities, with some dubbing it the "Second Cultural Revolution," a reference to the post-revolution crackdown on universities (1980-83).

Following the 1979 revolution, Islamists in power ousted thousands of leftist and nationalist students and professors from higher education institutions in what was officially hailed as "the Cultural Revolution".

Inquiry into these cases by The New Arab, as revealed on social media and official channels, revealed that Iran's higher education ministry barred at least 110 professors from teaching at universities nationwide.

A former lecturer who spoke to TNA on condition of anonymity suggested that the actual number stands much higher, as many professors choose not to discuss their situations with the media to avoid becoming targets of intelligence services, hoping to return to their teaching positions eventually.

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IRGC takes aim at dissident academics

Despite official denials of any politically fueled expulsions from Iranian universities, numerous sources and professors asserted that these actions were taken in response to academics' support for protestors who opposed the authority last year.

In 2022, an anti-establishment movement rocked the country following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman in the custody of Iran's Islamic morality police.

The authorities violently suppressed the protests, resulting in over 500 deaths and the arrest of approximately 22,000 individuals. Iranian universities played a pivotal role in this movement, with many professors publicly endorsing the protestors.

A former lecturer who spoke to TNA stressed that Azin Movahed, dean of the Department of Performing Arts and Music at Tehran University, was suspended due to her unwavering support for the movement and the underground protest songs created and disseminated by university students on social media.

"Movahed, in support of the movement, stopped her classes and music students created several anti-establishment songs. The security forces could not tolerate such open defiance in a public university," the former lecturer explained to TNA.

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Experts first sounded the alarm about political dismissals in universities during the height of the anti-establishment uprising. Even after the street protests were suppressed, university campuses continued to witness anti-establishment demonstrations organised by student activists.

Professors' support for the movement and student protests were met with a heavy-handed crackdown by Iran's notorious security service and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

At the time, a leaked letter allegedly attributed to Ahmad Vahidi, an IRGC commander serving as Minister of Interior in Raisi's administration, called for removing "non-aligned professors." Vahidi is among the Iranian officials sanctioned by the EU and US due to human rights violations.

In the letter, Vahidi wrote about the necessity of appointing 15,000 professors who were politically aligned with the establishment as university academic staff.

"In the recent riots, it was observed that one of the primary causes of the crisis was the active role played by certain professors in fueling the actions of protesting students," the letter stated.

This letter again came to the centre of public attention in August as more professors were dismissed from universities.

"Last year, no one paid attention to this letter, but now the real-life experience of academics prove that the expulsion and cleansing of universities are serious endeavours… There is no need to verify this letter because the reality we see is an attack on academia," wrote the progressive Ham Mihan Daily on 20 August.

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From tragedy to comedy

The scale of the purging was so concerning that even some professors close to the establishment voiced their displeasure.

In an open letter, Mohsen Ranani, an Iranian economist and academic, warned President Raisi about the consequences of political cleansing at universities.

"A second cultural revolution that commenced in 2021 against academia has entered a more aggressive phase. This will not be different from other historical phenomena; as the first Cultural Revolution was a tragedy, so this second one is destined to become a comedy," Ranani emphasised.

He also referred to this move as "a coup orchestrated by the intelligence forces of the political establishment against the scientific establishment," pointing to the leaked letter by the interior minister.

Sadegh Ziba Kalam, a staunch advocate of the first Cultural Revolution in Iran, was another academic who criticised the establishment for the university cleansing.

Ziba Kalam, one of the figures who had supported the "Islamisation" of Iran's academic system immediately after the revolution, criticised the interior ministry for "interfering" in the higher education ministry's responsibilities.

"Now, we finally understand that the Cultural Revolution and Islamic University are synonymous with directing the university through the interior ministry," he posted on his Telegram account.

"It is not difficult to comprehend why professors are being expelled. The revolutionaries are sending this message: 'If the student movement renews its activities at the beginning of the academic year, professors should not support them, or they will face dismissal'," he concluded.