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Tehran’s Imam Sadiq University Incubated Iran’s New Government Under President Raisi



Located in a posh district of northern Tehran, Imam Sadiq University’s campus is one of the capital’s captivating examples of modern architecture. Originally designed to house a branch of Harvard University’s Iran Center for Management Studies, it was envisaged as a training ground for the upper reaches of Iran’s economy, educating managers in the latest scientific and economic research.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution changed those plans. But the university still serves as a pipeline to Iran’s elite—the political elite.

Renamed after the sixth Shiite Muslim imam, Imam Sadiq University was established in 1982, becoming Iran’s first university to open following the Cultural Revolution that closed all universities and purged professors, students, and other academic staff considered to be “Westoxificated.” The university was thereafter dedicated to training “politicians and jurists preaching Islam,” with a focus on theology, political science, and law. Later, communications, management, and finance were added as disciplines. Today, the university’s operations are financed via different channels, including factories established with the help of rich benefactors as well as funds from powerful religious foundation Astan Quds Razavi.

Located in a posh district of northern Tehran, Imam Sadiq University’s campus is one of the capital’s captivating examples of modern architecture. Originally designed to house a branch of Harvard University’s Iran Center for Management Studies, it was envisaged as a training ground for the upper reaches of Iran’s economy, educating managers in the latest scientific and economic research.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution changed those plans. But the university still serves as a pipeline to Iran’s elite—the political elite.

Renamed after the sixth Shiite Muslim imam, Imam Sadiq University was established in 1982, becoming Iran’s first university to open following the Cultural Revolution that closed all universities and purged professors, students, and other academic staff considered to be “Westoxificated.” The university was thereafter dedicated to training “politicians and jurists preaching Islam,” with a focus on theology, political science, and law. Later, communications, management, and finance were added as disciplines. Today, the university’s operations are financed via different channels, including factories established with the help of rich benefactors as well as funds from powerful religious foundation Astan Quds Razavi.

The extraordinarily deep networks established at this university have long been a key to understanding the upper ranks of Iranian politics. Many Imam Sadiq graduates have held office in Iran, spanning the country’s establishment and representing its various ideologies. But their influence—and the public’s awareness of that influence—has never been so strong as it is now under the conservative administration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.


Gaining admission to Imam Sadiq University is not easy. Potential candidates have to pass an entrance exam as well as a draconian vetting process during which they are interviewed about their political, cultural, social, and religious tendencies and beliefs. Candidates are also subject to a background check to confirm their firm allegiance to the Islamic establishment’s ideology. Specifically, religious issues, however, are not a decisive criterion; the university truly searches for the most talented and intelligent young people—so long as they are willing to serve the country under its current constitution.

Among the students have always been a fair number who have been reform-minded. The school’s graduates, for example, include Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, who served as spokesperson for reformist former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and former politician Mostafa Kavakebian. That diversity used to be echoed on the faculty, where a large number of prominent reformists and even opposition figures once had prominent positions. The university’s policy had traditionally been to welcome various political viewpoints to prepare future leaders for the Islamic regime.

Mohsen, an Imam Sadiq graduate who spoke on condition of anonymity because he currently works in Iran’s government, insists students are still relatively diverse in their views. “When we look from outside, we only see conservative and revolutionary Imam Sadiq graduates who represent a specific inclination and are in the majority,” he said. “But there are also numerous graduates who are critical of the current conditions and are not conservative at all.”

Nevertheless, the university clearly experienced a narrowing debate in the late 2000s. Faculty with unorthodox views left the school. Professors were purged, and “unclean” ones gave way to little-known instructors, among them bright graduates of the same university.

Hossein, an Imam Sadiq law school graduate who also spoke on condition of anonymity, laments the changes. “The university witnessed its most brilliant years in 1995 and afterward because it invited the most competent professors from leading universities from across the country for teaching,” he said. “The professors were highly qualified while students were under less pressure both scientifically and religiously. One could even claim that, at the time, Imam Sadiq was the top university in Iran.”

Over time, the university has sought to increasingly incorporate seminary courses into the academic curriculum. Today, almost all the academic departments at the university begin with the phrase “Islamic teachings”—for example, Islamic teachings and law or Islamic teachings and economics. To complete a bachelor’s degree, students have to show proficiency in the Arabic language and familiarity with Islam in addition to studying other foreign languages, such as English and French.

What has remained constant is the collective identity fostered by the university and the deep-seated networks that link students to graduates across the political establishment. The friendships one develops at the school tend to be more important for one’s future career than one’s ideological beliefs. “Wherever there is any job opportunity, Imam Sadiq graduates support one another and invite university friends to grab the jobs even though they might have differences of opinion and views,” Mohsen said.

One of the favored ways Imam Sadiq graduates have traditionally gained influence is through state radio and television stations, officially held under the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Imam Sadiqis, as they are often called, first gained toeholds in the influential broadcasting corporation’s news division before finding their way into more executive cultural policymaking functions. (Among them is alum Peyman Jebelli, who was recently appointed by Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the head of IRIB.)

That’s not to suggest their judgment is always impeccable. Some of the most controversial programming decisions made in recent years can be traced back to Imam Sadiq graduates. This was seen with the dismissal of a widely viewed sports program’s popular host after he challenged hard-liners and the judicial appointment of an Imam Sadiq graduate as well as with prominent celebrities participating in an awkward knockoff of America’s Got Talent that was widely derided by the public.

Imam Sadiqis gained broader entry into the Iranian state apparatus following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential election win in 2005, which Hossein ascribes mostly to “all-out and well-organized campaigning by Imam Sadiq students all across the country.” Therefore, the new administration opened its arms to university graduates, giving them key posts at various levels. These included Saeed Jalili, a former graduate, who was appointed secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Ahmadinejad’s chief nuclear negotiator.

Under Ahmadinejad, Imam Sadiq graduates occupied more government positions than ever—although Hossein insists the Ahmadinejad administration helped “bring to the fore the Imam Sadiq graduates not just for having studied there, rather thanks to their qualifications and scientific merits.”

As soon as Hassan Rouhani came to presidential power in 2013, his administration actively sought out graduates of foreign universities and nonideological technocrats. But that’s not to suggest he ignored Imam Sadiq’s graduates. For instance, Rouhani named Hesamoddin Ashna, professor of communications at Imam Sadiq, as his personal aide, although he eventually had to step down because of scandalous revelations from a leaked interview with then-foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which he criticized Ashna’s military interference with politics.


Raisi, who owes his 2021 election win to having run for president in a field cleared of any powerful competitors by the clerical establishment, has repeatedly said he would pick his ministers and staff from among people he deemed to be sufficiently “revolutionary.” In practice, his cabinet shows he has largely outsourced the testing of those credentials to Imam Sadiq University.

Two young ministers in the Raisi administration—Ehsan Khandouzi, minister of finance and economic affairs, and Hojjatollah Abdolmaleki, minister of cooperatives, labor, and social welfare—are young Imam Sadiq graduates. Both graduated before the school’s ideological purges of the 2000s, although Abdolmaleki is known to have especially dogmatic views. Raisi also appointed Meysam Latifi, an Imam Sadiq faculty member with a learned but dogmatic reputation,  as head of the Administrative and Recruitment Affairs Organization. Latifi is expected to hire yet more Imam Sadiq graduates to serve under him.

Among many others, Raisi also named his longtime confidant and Imam Sadiq graduate, Gholam Hossein Esmaili, as his chief of staff. Esmaili previously served as judiciary spokesperson during Raisi’s term as Iran’s top judge. In addition, Mohammad Hosseini, an Imam Sadiq graduate who earlier served as Ahmadinejad’s culture minister, is now vice president for parliamentary affairs. Imam Sadiq graduate Ali Baqeri, a former staff member for Jalili’s nuclear negotiating team during the Ahmadinejad administration, has been named a top deputy foreign minister under Raisi, thereby a senior nuclear negotiator ex officio. Baqeri, who holds a doctorate in economics from Imam Sadiq, has expressed hard-line views very close to Jalili’s own views regarding the Iran nuclear deal’s viability.

Although it is impossible to deny Imam Sadiq graduates’ clout with the Raisi administration, any success or failure of nuclear talks or other Raisi’s election pledges would depend on other factors as parallel powerful bodies play instrumental roles in decision-making processes.

According to Hossein, “Imam Sadiq graduates are endowed with the privilege of good interaction with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Supreme Leader’s office. However, some young graduates of Imam Sadiq who have now joined the administration are by no means conservative despite their scientific merits; rather, they are radical revolutionaries who would by no means back down from their beliefs, which may pose challenges to the Raisi administration in some cases.”

In the meantime, reports of rising numbers of Imam Sadiq graduates joining the government have sparked uproar and met with resentment among reformist activists and ordinary citizens, especially on social media. Although some criticized the “unfair” privilege and preference given to Imam Sadiqis, others mockingly expressed regret for not choosing Imam Sadiq as their own university as it would have guaranteed them a spot in the government later.

Iran’s conservatives, however, would be right to treat Imam Sadiq University as a success story in the country. If the university’s goal was to nurture cadres of ideologically aligned office-holders and managers to run state affairs, it has undoubtedly been a success.



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