In an aggressive rebuke to President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s parliament voted on August 20th to impeach Minister of Science Reza Faraji-Dana, whose forceful attempts to push back against hardline patronage and ideological gender quotas across the country’s university system drew the ire of conservatives.

Among the 270-member majles 145 members voted for his ouster. Faraji-Dana took office in October 2013 with a 159-vote confirmation vote. While 70 hardline MPs voted against his confirmation, on Wednesday the votes for impeachment included a number of deputies outside the hardline faction.

The impeachment proceedings were expected to also involve charges questioning the academic credentials of a number of senior political figures, but it appears that a backroom deal forestalled this move.

In recent months a core of hardline parliamentarians belonging to the Endurance Front have led the opposition against Faraji-Dana. In the summer of 2013 the same group successfully blocked Rouhani's previous nominee for the same post, Jafar Towfighi, mainly on grounds that he had held the same post under former President Mohammad Khatami. Rouhani then put forward the name of Jafar Mili-Monfared, another reformist figure, but with 162 votes against him, the parliament did not confirm him either. Faraji-Dana emerged as the third candidate and was eventually confirmed.

Shortly after his confirmation Faraji-Dana appointed the two rejected candidates to high-level positions in the Science Ministry: he sought to make Jafar Towfighi a senior advisor and Jafar Mili-Monfared deputy in education affairs, though parliament rejected both nominations.

The parliament interpreted these appointments as a show of defiance, and the reformist tendencies of his appointees exacerbated tensions. Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology supervises all state-run universities and colleges (except medicine) and when the conservative Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution reacted negatively to his appointments to manage universities, the conflict deepened.

 

Universities as battleground

Universities have emerged as a significant battleground in Iran’s contested political landscape. Hardliners have sought to remake universities in line with their ideological and exclusivist vision for the country, pushing forth gender segregation policies and gender-based quotas across disciplines, while also seeking to flood institutions with political loyalists from the Basij militia and children of hardline officials.

For Iranian reformists, and indeed Iranian middle class, these developments were deeply alarming, threatening to shift the country’s high-powered university system – which in key subjects has served as feeder schools to top Western universities like Stanford – into divisively-run portals of establishment corruption and privilege.

Under Faraji-Dana the ministry went on the offensive against these moves, investigating and issuing reports about unjustified scholarships to the children of influential figures and corruption and embezzlement in the ministry under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It also permitted the formation of student bodies critical of hardliners and allowed the return of numerous students and professors who had been expelled from university places and positions after the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

 

Larijani fails as mediator

A fear around the return of critical students and professors seems to have been driving the impeachment. According to Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, former Speaker of the Parliament, conservatives feared that the return of political student bodies to the universities would lead to a repeat of past reformist upsurges in 1999 and in 2009.

On the morning of the impeachment proceedings the majles faction that supports Speaker Ali Larijani, a moderate conservative allied with Rouhani, came out against the motion. With 170 MPs this faction is the largest in the Iranian parliament but its leadership was unable to keep the faction united and some lent their support to the impeachment.

This lapse may harm the standing of Larijani personally, whose ability to marshall a sizeable faction in the majles has been key to his political clout.

During the past month Larijani sought to mediate between the Science Minister and his majles opponents. He met twice with Faraji-Dana and discussed removing certain reformist figures from the ministry, but the understanding they reached collapsed and then too the mediation.

There was a last-ditch effort during Wednesday’s session to avoid the impeachment. Faraji-Dana told the majles that he would allow Larijani to make the final call on some of his controversial appointees. Larijani reminded him that he had failed to fulfill his past promises but that if Faraji-Dana committed to dismissing the appointees, then the crisis could be averted. But the majority of members dismissed this offer, inflicting a blow on Larijani’s credibility in the parliament.

 

Rouhani avoids the fray

President Rouhani might have stepped in to protect his minister, but declined to attend the impeachment session. Usually the presence of the president can be effective in organizing the undecided vote. In Wednesday’s session Faraji-Dana was only ten votes short from winning a vote of confidence. But the president’s failure to show up at the majles seemed to convey that the government was not terribly bothered by the felling of its minister.

Hardliners exploited Rouhani’s silence to push forward their agenda. Elias Naderan, a pro-impeachment MP, argued that an advisor to Rouhani himself had said recently that the president opposed the appointment of reformist figures in the Ministry of Science. Two days earlier two members of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution reported that in the meetings of the council Rouhani had taken Faraji-Dana to task and did not seriously support him.

Rouhani’s press team and his advisors did not step in to clarify these doubts. Even when Parliamentary Vice-President Ansari was quoted as saying that the government policies at the Ministry of Science would not change even if Faraji-Dana was impeached, Ansari’s office denied the remarks.

The Rouhani’s government passivity in the face of the hardline toppling of a key minister is baffling to many. One tension is that the hardliners’ key objection did not so much concern the minister himself, but the policy of allowing reformists back into government and the re-emergence of politically engaged student bodies who support that reformist worldview.

In the impeachment session Faraji-Dana presented a well-documented and powerful defense of his record and the past problems but was mostly silent on political questions except when he criticized the reformists.

 

Bartering in Public

Faraji-Dana’s other tactical mistake was his bartering with the speaker during the impeachment session. He publicly made the speaker the arbiter of the fate of some of his appointees. Regardless of the outcome of the dealing, giving such a power to the speaker who leads a faction in the parliament and is trying to play deal-maker at the last hour could not have made his opponents happy.

The impeachment committee showed a 26-second video clip in which Faraji-Dana said, “I will not pay ransoms such as scholarships to remain a minister and avoid confrontation with the MPs.” Showing this clip was a master stroke by hardline opponents, helping secure the decision of many fence-sitting members.

 

For Rouhani, no friends in the majles

Rouhani’s administration has shown a striking inability to create a loyal, supportive faction in majles to back government policies. Certain MPs such as Ali Motahari and Mohammad-Reza Tabesh played an important role in stirring some debate in the media before the impeachment, but inside the majles itself they lacked the credibility and influence to change the course of the proceedings.

In the short term there is no doubt that the impeachment of a senior official who had more reformist tendencies than other ministers will create at atmosphere of intimidation, discouraging other ministers with such impulses from pursuing either reform-minded policies or appointing figures with reformist background. This is exactly as the outcome the hardliners intended.

 

A hardline victory after the epic defeat of 2013

Now the hardliners have succeeded in rehabilitating themselves after their massive defeat in the presidential elections of 2013. It scarcely matters that not all of the 145 MPs who voted against Faraji-Dana share their hardline viewpoints, but importantly, they succeeded in garnering the support needed to carry out their political project.

The only space now for Rouhani’s government to control the damage is how the administration handles finding a successor to Faraji-Dana. By appointing Mohammad Ali Najafi as the Science Ministry’s caretaker and Faraji Dana as his advisor for science and technology, Rouhani has shown that he is displeased with the impeachment, but these appointments are bound to elicit negative reactions from the parliament.

Rouhani must be aware that his administration has to pay a heavy price before the eyes of the public for these political failures. He had given hope to many voters by promising that he would end the house arrest of the Green Movement leaders. Now his administration is under house arrest by majles hardliners. Maybe he hopes that with the next parliamentary elections the voters will give him the keys to the house of parliament.

Whether Rouhani can manage to swell the majles with supporters remains to be seen, but the government treads a dangerous path by ignoring the demands of the electorate who voted him into office. Perhaps the embarassment of this impeachment will propel the Rouhani administration – ever subtle, ever playing the long game – to step up. 

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