Yet IAU is by far the largest of these private universities. Founded in 1982 as a private technical and engineering university, the size and scope of IAU exploded after Rafsanjani became president in 1989 and limits on private education were lifted. For a short while during the early 2000s, IAU boasted a larger student cohort than the entire state university system combined, according to data from the Institute for Research and Planning in Higher Education. In 2014, it had an enrollment of 1.7 million students — reportedly the third largest university in the world.
Unlike state education, IAU does not have an urban base. The university has branches across the country, including in even smaller rural towns. Its monopoly on education in the countryside endows it with particular political weight. Indeed, according to the 2016 census, up to a fourth of Iran’s population resides in rural areas.
While Rafsanjani was seen as a centrist during the 1990s, he moved closer to the Reformists after the election of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential vote and the popular protests against his allegedly fraudulent re-election in 2009.
As a result, conservatives feared that IAU, too, would be turned into a bastion of Reformist power. Some hard-liner groups even accused IAU of contributing actively to the 2009 protest movement and of fostering a Reformist culture.
After 2009, the Ahmadinejad administration steadily upped pressure on IAU. In 2010, Rafsanjani was forced to replace Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated presidential candidate and Reformist leader of the protests — and a member of the IAU board of founders — with a less contentious figure.