Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a campaign rally in the capital Tehran on April 29, 2017. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

As Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi fills out his recently installed ultra-conservative administration, a prominent Tehran university is supplying the lion’s share of top and mid-ranking appointments – marking a notable reversal of the previous Rouhani administration’s preference for Western university graduates.

Named after the sixth Shia Imam, Imam Sadiq University (ISU) was established in 1982 with the mission of synthesizing Islamic sciences and conventional humanities and bridging the gap between academic institutions and religious seminaries.

In Iran’s official lexicon that means instilling Islamic themes in university syllabi taught by professors who predominantly remain secular-minded. The university’s broader, unvoiced agenda is to train generation after generation of Islamic Republic officials with strong ideological credentials.

The new minister of cooperatives, labor and social welfare; minister of economic affairs and finance; vice-president for parliamentary affairs; chief of staff of the president; governor of the Central Bank of Iran; head of the Securities and Exchange Organization; head of the Iranian National Tax Administration and the head of Administrative and Recruitment Organization all hail from ISU, either as alumni or former faculty members.

Moreover, several high-ranking officials including deputy ministers and governors also have ties with the university. Ali Bagheri Kani, deputy foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator steering the byzantine talks with world powers to resurrect the same Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, which he once publicly mocked as a “failed marriage”, is perhaps the most notable public figure prepped by ISU.

Kani is in hot water for some of his controversial statements in recent weeks, his lack of foreign policy qualifications and protocol knowledge, his inability to communicate in English as Iran’s senior JCPOA negotiator and several diplomatic faux pas including attending a meeting with the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan Sohail Mahmood in Islamabad while the flag of Iran was upside down on the meeting table.

Although Iranians don’t expect President Raisi to assign reform-minded or progressive politicians to senior executive positions, which would discount his own conservative credentials, many worry that giving a large number of ministerial and top-tier government seats to the affiliates of a specific ultra-conservative university could jeopardize the nation’s underlying political philosophy and direction.

The entrance to the Imam Sadiq University. Photo: WikiCommons

In the run-up to the June 2021 presidential election, when a slate of distinguished reformist and moderate candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council to pave the way for Raisi’s easy win, whispers about Iran becoming a one-party state began to spread far and wide.

Raisi has since tried to dispel those concerns by pledging not to base his decisions on partisan considerations, familial connections or with an eye on making Iran a more securitized society.

Now, four months after his inauguration, Raisi is floundering to credibly counter allegations of nepotism, cronyism and militarizing domestic politics by outsourcing his administration’s elite jobs to mainly ISU grads.

In a December 7 ceremony on national students’ day hosted by Sharif University of Technology that Raisi visited to make a speech and listen to select students, Mohammad Hossein Bayat, the representative of an Islamic student association, grilled the president for bringing together “the most securitized cabinet of the Islamic Republic by appointing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps generals to each and every administration position.”

The outspoken student didn’t specifically mention the bloated role of ISU affiliates in Raisi’s cabinet, but intoned the president was the “outcome of the most uncompetitive election of the history of the Islamic Republic with the lowest turnout” and has since generously awarded each sector of government to “one of the corrupt or incompetent gangs of power and wealth.”

In a speech to a November 2 parliamentary session, Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash, a conservative MP, warned Raisi of an atmosphere of disillusionment in Iranian society, saying, “excessive reliance on a limited group of the alumni of Imam Sadiq University at the major administrative levels in the country has overshadowed the name of this dear and infallible Imam in society.”

The Shazand district MP also pilloried Raisi’s administration as a “government of the besotted” – an implicit reference to acolytes who paid unconditional homage to him to become top officials – and asked him if there is a dearth of academic and political luminaries in the country which handicapped the president from picking proper statesmen.

Ebrahim Raisi’s election as Iranian president was marred by a low turnout and the banning of moderate opponents. Photo: AFP

The rare remarks by a traditionalist lawmaker put a spotlight on the internal divisions among hardline factions that Raisi has tried to contain since assuming power.

Jamsheed Choksy, distinguished professor at the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, says cynical reactions to Raisi’s overreach to Imam Sadiq University “reflect concern even within the Islamic Republic’s ruling class that a more hardcore radical faction is consolidating power and could hold on to their gains, once current Supreme Leader Khamenei passes, through elevating the current president, who also is seen as the frontrunner, to lifetime appointment at the pinnacle of the theocracy.”

“Clearly that university and its alumni network benefit much from the institution’s selecting and training of current and future generations of upper bureaucrats and clerical and non-clerical leaders of the government.

“Those individuals within the regime who are part of the university’s network benefit as well through increased influence, authority, resources and appointment to elite offices, including Raisi himself,” he added.

To be sure, that a certain university is reserved for educating future leaders or diplomats for a country is not a peculiarity. In the United States, for example, Georgetown University fulfills an almost similar function.

But the fact that ISU is emerging as the main recruiting ground for Raisi government politicos is raising concerns due to the nature of the atypical educational center.

In Iran’s bustling capital Tehran, where resistance to government-imposed cultural dogmas is more prevalent, ISU is one of a handful of gender-segregated universities where males and females study on separate campuses.

ISU faculty aversion to what they often call “Westoxified” humanities has culminated in ferocious and often fruitless debates about the Islamic world’s civilizational clash with the West. Some of the nation’s most diehard religious preachers, meanwhile, find the university mosque a receptive pulpit for their often fiery, socially polarizing sermons.

Although ISU’s leadership has constantly comprised fundamentalist seminarians, including several family members of the late jurist Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani, who was the university’s founder and chancellor until 2014, some observers and experts say it still promotes a culture of debate.

“The quality of education at this graduate school is high for two reasons. First, they have always been well-funded given their agenda for training the cadre elite of the state bureaucracy. The second reason is the relatively open academic atmosphere,” said Ahmad Sadri, James P Gorter chair of Islamic world studies and professor of sociology at Lake Forest College in the United States.

“They have consistently employed highly qualified professors who were either unable to gain posts at regular universities or were expelled from them. Inspired by the tradition of debate in seminaries and the closeness of the university to the center of power, one witnesses more diversity of opinion and less political correctness at Imam Sadiq,” he told Asia Times.

Women supporters of Iran’s newly-elected president Ebrahim Raisi hold posters depicting him as they celebrate his victory in Imam Hussein square in the capital Tehran on June 19, 2021. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

Still, observers say the rising political domination of ISU associates and alumni is an unprecedented if not curious phenomenon. And not all believe that this couldn’t have been expected or speaks to a sweeping change in Iranian governance or statecraft.

“Rather than think of Imam Sadiq or these past organizations as a cause of radical change in the regime, I find it more helpful to consider the Islamic Republic as perpetually in need of reproducing its elite and it has to do so without a party, as is the case with China, or a royal family, as is the case with a monarchy,” said Arang Keshavarzian, associate professor and chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.

Keshavarzian says that for the Iranian establishment to continue functioning it needs to replace the personnel running the state to cope with turnover resulting from purges and factional rivalries. Yet, there are questions about why each new president finds it necessary to reshuffle the previous administration’s personnel with a new corps when they are all vetted trustees of the “revolution.”

“Clearly there is a lack of trust and deep factional cleavages but also a lot is at stake personally and in terms of policy, and Raisi feels compelled to turn to the graduates and faculty of Imam Sadiq to try and impose his will on the apparatus of the state and society,” he added.

Sociologist Sadri says hardliner efforts to ultimately usurp power are paying off, and this will wipe out the last remnants of democratic representation: “Religious conservatives wish to monopolize the administrative posts. The game of push and pull between the hard, theocratic center on one side and the democratic institutions, parliament and presidency that reflect the increasingly disenchanted population has ended,” he said.

Follow Kourosh Ziabari on Twitter at @KZiabari