For almost the first time since June's contested election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed confidently at the helm last week when nearly all his cabinet picks were approved by Parliament. He even signaled a willingness to restart nuclear talks. But the regime's hardliners haven't backed down from their persecution of political rivals and are now turning their attention to a potent new threat: the start of the school year. Throughout history, universities from Beijing to Berkeley have served as petri dishes for dissent, and with classes beginning this month in Iran, a widespread crackdown is likely. At a gathering of university professors last week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched an attack against academia when he claimed that "many of the liberal arts and humanities are based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism" and can "lead to the loss of belief in godly and Islamic knowledge." He asked the government to pay "serious attention" to the issue. Khamenei is right to worry: campuses were hotbeds of unrest during the 1979 revolution, and young radicals, including Ahmadinejad, later helped to purge them.
There are now signs that a second "cultural revolution" is brewing. Just three days after the June election, plainclothes security thugs sent a message to students everywhere when they stormed a dormitory at Tehran University, wielding axes, and murdered approximately half a dozen students. Similar attacks were reported at universities in Shiraz and Isfahan. When students at Shiraz University chanted "Death to the dictator" and similar slogans on their return to campus two weeks ago, a heavy security presence--including both police and Basij, the government-linked militia--descended on campus, according to reports. The Intelligence Ministry has stepped up its interrogations, and dozens of students have been called in for questioning. One likely target of further crackdowns: the Islamic Azad universities, Iran's largest network of private schools, which were founded by former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Ahmadinejad's top rivals. So far, government officials say they won't shut down any campuses this semester. But clearly, grades aren't the only thing students have to worry about this year.