Potent victory for Iran's president
Iran's embattled president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is savouring a victory over his moderate opponents, foremost among them one of Iran's most influential powerbrokers.
The country's supreme leader issued a "final and definite" decree giving Mr Ahmadinejad's government control of Iran's largest private university, which has previously been overseen by allies of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, himself a former president.
The Islamic Azad University, which has more than 1.3 million students in 357 campuses across Iran, was a major site of protests against Mr Ahmadinejad's fiercely disputed re-election last year.
Mr Rafsanjani sits on the board of the university, which has significant financial assets and has been one of his main power centres since its establishment in 1982. During last year's presidential election campaign, Mr Rafsanjani was accused of using the university's financial power to promote candidates opposing Mr Ahmadinejad.
The university is viewed as an alternative for middle-class families who do not have the connections or ideological requirements to qualify for publicly-funded higher eduction.
On Monday, Iran's absolute ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the university's tax-exempt endowment - which keeps it financially independent - to be religiously illegitimate and therefore null and void.
"This is a big slap in the face for Rafsanjani," Professor Scott Lucas, an Iran expert based at Birmingham University, said.
The Ayatollah's ruling also boosts Mr Ahmadinejad as he arrives in Lebanon today for a visit designed to project Iran's strength abroad in the face of Washington's attempts to isolate the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme.
But at home Mr Ahmadinejad faces a growing challenge from fellow hardliners highly critical of his economic and foreign policy. They also accuse him of trying to monopolise power in the hands of the presidency at the expense of other institutions, in particular parliament.
Earlier this year, Iran's parliament rejected legislation introduced by Mr Ahadinejad that would have given the government greater control over the Islamic Azad university system.
The Ayatollah's decree marks another milestone in his long and turbulent relationship with Mr Rafsanjani, who was instrumental in Ayatollah Khamenei becoming supreme leader in 1989.
The usually cautious Ayatollah Khamenei took what many saw as a reckless decision last year by describing Mr Ahmadinejad's election victory as a "divine blessing" that must not be questioned.The supreme leader also publicly distanced himself from Mr Rafsanjani.
Mr Rafsanjani at the time had condemned the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protesters and called for the release of hundreds detained during the post-election crackdown.
Now Ayatollah Khamenei has once more sided with the president against Mr Rafsanjani, who had been trying to steer the supreme leader back to the middle ground.
In response to the Ayatollah's diktat, the former president's website re-printed an interview with Mr Rafsanjani last month in which he said that annulling the university's endowment - set up in 2009 in an effort to keep it independent - would be tantamount to fighting God.
He said: "If somebody does that, God will be stronger than him and one day will take the endowment back."
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