"Separation of male and female university students is wrong and we are opposed to it," Ali Abbaspour Tehrani, chairman of the Majlis Education Commission, said in an interview with Khabar Online earlier this week.
In a letter to Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Kamran Daneshjoo, who oversees the universities, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered him to stop both the forced retirement of professors and implementation of the plan to separate students in classes by gender.
"It has been heard that in some universities, classes and disciplines are being segregated without considering the coincidences," the president said on his website dolat.ir. "Urgent action is required to prevent these superficial and non-scholarly actions."
Daneshjou has said Iran will separate sexes at universities from the start of term on Sept. 23."Following the implementation of the Hijab (Islamic dress) and Chastity Plan, university classes will be separated. If there is not the facility to separate the classes, students will sit in separate rows," the minister was quoted by Iran Persian daily.
But according to IRNA on Thursday, the minister has promised to obey the president's order and stop the segregation plan.
The forced retirement or outright dismissal of academics, however, began almost immediately after Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 and is not a new issue.
More than half of Iran's 3.7 million students are women, studying alongside their male classmates, and education has become a focus for conservatives who want to head off "corrosive Western values" among the youth born long after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
On the instruction of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran is already reviewing the curricula of certain subjects deemed too Western, including law, philosophy, psychology and political sciences, to ensure they do not run counter to Islamic teachings.
Last year, some conservative clerics began lecturing about the "Islamization" of universities, advocating separation of male and female students, along with revisions to the curricula. In the process, many prominent academics, particularly those in the fields of law, political science, and the social sciences have been forced to retire or simply fired.
Nosratollah Torabi, a member of the Social Affairs Commission of the parliament, supported Ahmadinejad's letter, declaring that gender-based separation of the students is "superficial" and women should decide for themselves what to wear and how to cover themselves. He added that the universities should seek to employ experienced academics instead of forcing them to retire.
But Ahmad Khatami, an influential conservative cleric who regularly leads Friday prayers in Tehran, came out in favor of segregation.
"With what logic should a head of a Tehran university be reprimanded for separating the classes of women and men? We should give him a medal."
Prominent reformist Ali Shakouri Rad, who served as a deputy in the Sixth Majlis (2000-4), said that Ahmadinejad's letter should be viewed in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections, to be held next March. "To prevent such things, there is no need to write a letter," he observed, but added that the administration's attempt to correct a mistake is positive.
Just before Ahmadinejad issued his letter, Khajeh Sarvi, Daneshjoo's deputy, saw fit to announce that three groups are opposed to gender-based separation of university students: (1) counterrevolutionaries outside Iran, (2) politicians who want to exploit the issue to garner votes, and (3) those who want to change the Islamic identity of the culture.
As evidence for his claim, Khajeh Sarvi said that the majority of the BBC's and Voice of America's Persian programs are devoted to the issue of mandatory hejab. At the same time, a senior official at the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology said that the ministry has not received any letter from Ahmadinejad regarding the issue.
Meanwhile, hardline cleric Ahmad Khatami said that those university chancellors who enforce gender-based separation of the students must be rewarded. He rebuked those who criticized the "chancellor of one of Tehran's universities" for saying that separate classes would be held for female and male students. Khatami was referring to Reza Rousta, chancellor of Sharif University of Technology.
Alef, the website published by Majlis deputy and Ahmadinejad critic Ahmad Tavakoli, asserted that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei is also opposed to the gender-based separation of university students. Alef claimed that the Supreme Leader's office was explicitly asked about the issue and that it responded that Ayatollah Khamenei has not issued any order for such separation and does not favor the current plan. Alef also claimed that the plan was conceived by the "perverted group" -- Ahamdinejad's chief of staff and potential presidential aspirant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and his inner circle -- to create chaos in the universities.