In Iran, three universities offer training for the top jobs in government — but the courses are only open to Twelver Shias, the country’s dominant religious group.
People following other religions, including Shia Muslims who do not abide by the Twelver doctrine, are pushed aside. For them, the message is clear: Twelver Shias are “more Islamic”
The institutes that offer training for some of the country’s most influential positions are Malek Ashtar University of Technology, an affiliate of the Ministry of Defense, Imam Hossein University, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, and Imam Jafar Sadegh University, which is controlled by the family of the late fundamentalist and influential Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani.
Twelver Shias believe in the sanctity of 12 imams who follow a straight line of descent from the Prophet Mohammad. According to Twelver beliefs, the last of the imams, Mahdi, will one day reappear on earth to establish justice.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of non-Shia Muslim Iranians. According to some reports, somewhere between 5 to 10 percent of Iranians are Sunni Muslims — in other words, from between 4 to 8 million people. If other religious minorities in Iran are taken into account — mainly Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews — the number of non-Shia Iranians totals around 10 million. These 10 million people are blocked from the three elite universities, and therefore barred from taking on leadership and other key roles in government.
Written and Unwritten Laws
“You must recognize that there are two kinds of laws in the Islamic Republic — written and unwritten,” Kaveh, an expert in Sunni affairs who lives in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan, told IranWire. Kaveh, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, says discrimination and restrictions on minority religions are part of the country’s unwritten laws. “Of course, the doors of these universities are not only closed to Sunnis. Even Shias who do not conform to the way that the regime thinks cannot study at these universities.” He says the regime has its “own standards for choosing students who are to be trained to become future leaders.”
Kaveh says that, in order to evaluate the Islamic Republic’s policies towards minorities, it is necessary to judge the regime’s actions — looking at the country’s laws will not give a true picture of the discrimination that determines the country’s future. “No country boasts of unity more than Iran does,” he said, “and in no country is [the concept of] unity flouted as much. Sunnis have no presence in a number of key government institutions, but not because of any legal prohibition. Sunnis are included in the Basij [the paramilitary organization controlled by the Revolutionary Guards], but not in the Revolutionary Guards proper. The Intelligence Ministry uses Sunnis as informers but has no Sunnis in its official ranks. The same goes for the military and the police. They are used as soldiers but not as officers. The few Sunnis who are officers are leftovers from the Shah’s time and have reached retirement age. There are no new Sunni recruits. Sunnis have repeatedly protested about this.”
Under the laws of the Islamic Republic, only Shias can be appointed to influential and high-ranking offices such as the supreme leader, the president of the republic and the head of the Supreme Court. There is no law barring Sunnis from the military, the Revolutionary Guards, government ministries or Iranian embassies. But in practice, Sunnis have been kept out. Although two Sunnis held ambassadorial roles in recent years, Kaveh says they had most likely converted to Shia Islam before their appointment.
According to Kaveh, Iranian authorities have replaced professional and moral qualifications with religious ones. Sunni students are allowed into universities affiliated with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) or with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but they must meet certain requirements to qualify, such as having worked with the Basij. They will not be considered for these jobs if anyone in their family has displeased security or law enforcement agencies in any way.
In general, religious minorities in Iran suffer from a range of discriminations. By now the situation for Iran’s Baha’is is well known. Despite being the country’s largest religious minority, they are routinely persecuted and their religion is not officially recognized. But in addition, in Sunni-majority areas the conditions and the quality of education is markedly inferior to other places in Iran.
The Secret Faculty
Malek Ashtar University of Technology was once known as the Defense Industries Research Institute. Founded in Isfahan before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in 1984 the High Council of the Cultural Revolution gave its approval for the university to continue its work and gave it a new name. Because of its affiliation with the Ministry of Defense and the resulting security concerns, the names of faculty members are kept secret and any papers they produce are published under the university’s name.
In 2010, the UN Security Council added Malek Ashtar University to its sanctions list because of its links to the military and Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and because of its refusal to allow inspectors from the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to interview staff or see documents. According to Iranian exile opposition groups, reported the BBC, the university has also been a key player in the development of stocks of biological weapons.
The Revolutionary Guards established the Imam Hossein Garrison in 1983, and it was officially recognized as Imam Hossein University in 1987. It currently teaches approximately 6,000 students and Revolutionary Guards cadets who study in 15 undergraduate and postgraduate programs including aerospace. Students are carefully selected for training in future positions with the Guards. In fact, all applicants for the university’s entrance exams must present written approval from the Revolutionary Guards.
Imam Sadegh University was established in 1982, and was the first new university set up after the Islamic Revolution. But in fact, before the revolution, its campus operated as a branch of Harvard University and offered management courses. When it became Imam Sadegh, the goal was to bring together Islamic seminary and religious teaching with humanities and modern science and train students for key positions in the government of the new Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Alireza Mahdavi Kani, a leading principalist and chairman of the Assembly of Experts, headed the university until his death in October 2013. It remains a family business and Kani’s son Mohammad Saeed Mahdavi Kani took over the running of the university.
Entry to Imam Sadegh University is not easy. In addition to the entrance exam and interviews, the university carries out an extensive background check, digging into each applicant's social, political and cultural past. According to one university official, graduates of the university are usually given jobs at IRIB and at the ministries of interior, foreign affairs and culture.
Among these three universities, Imam Hossein University has been most rapidly expanding its activities in recent years. The Revolutionary Guards Corps also runs other institutions of higher education too — all following the same goal and ethos: the production of a cadre of loyalists. And the outcome is the same: Widespread discrimination in education and opportunities for Iran’s religious minorities.
Imam Sadegh’s stated mission is to bridge the gap between religious teachings and modern humanities, but in practice it has not learned even the most basic lesson in tolerance. The same can be said for the other institutes for learning. Like Imam Sadegh, they lead the way in perpetuating the regime’s elitism and blocking a significant proportion of the country’s people from having any kind of influence in the way the Islamic Republic is run.