TEHRAN, Iran – Islamic religious authorities have begun tightening their grip on Iranian public schools, a report said Wednesday, as hard-liners expand an ideological "soft war" against Western influence.
The effort appears to be part of a wider drive to counter opposition groups and other pro-reform factions that have been emboldened by the unprecedented protests after June's disputed presidential election. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi strongly attacked the Revolutionary Guard in a new statement Wednesday, accusing the elite corps of using brutal force to crush the massive street protests.
Authorities have recently emphasized the need to battle the reach of Western media, viewpoints and culture — which resonate strongly in a country where nearly half the population was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Officials have stepped up blocks on Internet links and closures of the few remaining liberal-leaning news outlets, while expanding state-run media arms and giving hard-liners more sway over education.
"Now, the enemy has put soft war on its agenda and the top priority today is to fight the soft war," Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state television Wednesday during a meeting with Revolutionary Guard commanders and its affiliate paramilitary Basij forces.
Mousavi's statement said the Basij, the street wing of the Guard, was created as a popular body to serve the public and not to become stooges of the government and kill citizens holding peaceful protests.
Mousavi says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the June 12 election from him through massive vote fraud. Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets in the weeks after the vote, prompting a violent government crackdown.
Although the street protests died down months ago, Mousavi and other leading opposition figures have refused to silence their protests and their pressure on the country's Islamic leadership.
Cleric Ali Zolelm, who heads a joint school-seminary committee, said Islamic clerics have already widened control in some schools, the daily Etemad newspaper reported.
Full details of the plan have not come out and it was not known whether the Education Ministry would relinquish full oversight. But hard-liners, including Ahmadinejad, have criticized Western influence in school curriculum.
"Recently, seminaries took management control of some schools in several provinces," the paper quoted Zolelm as saying.
Elementary grades were believed to be the focus of the nationwide plan. It was not immediately clear whether higher grades also would fall under clerical influence.
Earlier this month, Iranian officials announced plans to appoint a cleric in every school — a move widely seen as an effort to bring stricter Islamic interpretations into the public education system and address growing divides between clerics and many young, secular-oriented Iranians.
An Education Ministry official, Ali Asghar Yazdani, was quoted as saying that the clerics could lead collective prayers in schools and answer religious questions by students.
Last month in Tehran, pupils elected a classmate in student elections because his name was similar to opposition leader Mousavi's.
In the central city of Isfahan, a student running for school office copied Mousavi's campaign and used the green as his signature color.
While Iranian government officials tried hard to stop spread of the news, words of the student vote spread across the nation.