Imam Hussein University is a specialized institute of higher education for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and one of the most important centers of ideological and technological development within the Islamic Republic. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the former commander of the IRGC, once called the university “the only academic institute of the IRGC.” Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, is closely affiliated with the university, appearing there regularly to deliver speeches and bestow ranks on IRGC personnel.
All IRGC and Basij educational institutes in Iran are under the authority of Imam Hussein University, which approves their professors and faculty, designs their textbooks, and issues diplomas and accreditation. The professors at Imam Hussein University are all members of the IRGC. All senior, middle, and lower-level IRGC commanders undergo annual one-week to one-month training courses at Imam Hussein University that emphasize the ideological and political basis for the regime, and that teach new management and command methods for “countering the threats of the day”—a euphemism for suppressing popular protests.
Imam Hussein University was first established in 1986 as the “Imam Hussein Higher Education Center” at the order of Mohsen Rezaei, the then Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC, with the aim of training specialized manpower and conducting scientific and military research required by the Guards. At the same time, it was licensed by the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education as a university. In 2008, envisioning changes in the nature and function of the IRGC in order to expand its political-security role, Khamenei decreed that Imam Hussein University be divided into two universities with different focuses: “Imam Hussein Officer and Guards Training University” and “Imam Hussein Grand University.”
As its name suggests, Imam Hussein Officer and Guards Training University is focused primarily on training IRGC personnel, and students are selected for and admitted to this university based on internal IRGC exams evaluating their prospects as officers. Imam Hussein Grand University, however, focuses more on scientific development, and accepts students on three levels: bachelor, master, and doctorate, through the country’s national entrance examination. Admissions of students to both universities are accompanied by rigorous and comprehensive interviews attempting to ensure their alignment with the ideology of the Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic Republic.
By order of Mohammad Ali Jafari, the former Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Dr. Mohammad Reza Hassani Ahangar has been president of Imam Hussein Grand University since 2013. Jafari also appointed Brigadier General Ali Fazli as the commander of the Imam Hussein Officer and Guards Training University in 2018. Fazli, who was previously the deputy commander of the Basij force, is one of the IRGC’s most high-profile and controversial commanders. During the popular uprising against the Iranian regime in 2009, he commanded the IRGC’s “Seyyed al-Shohada Division” in Tehran, which played a major role in brutally suppressing the protests that followed the dubious reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Due to his participation in that affair, Fazli has been under EU sanctions since 2011, and under U.S. sanctions since 2012. With his health deteriorating, Brigadier General No’man Gholami was appointed commander of the university in June 2020.
The Officer and Guards Training University has five branches, centered around military and security applications. These are the “School of Security,” which trains IRGC and Basij militiamen in future security and protective duties; the “School of Intelligence,” with eight different intelligence and security orientations; the “School of Technology and Engineering,” which focuses on topics such as passive defense and telecommunications; the “Faculty of Islamic Humanities,” which produces and disseminates the regime’s ideological discourses; and the “Faculty of Basic Jihadi Sciences” (formerly Basic Military Sciences), which teaches basic military sciences to future cadres. According to Brigadier General Morteza Saffari, the former commander of Imam Hussein Officer and Guards Training University, the IRGC seeks an annual quota of students in which roughly 30 percent pursue ideological training, 30 percent military training, 20 percent “soft warfare” training, and 20 percent other kinds of training.
In contrast, the Grand University is less strictly military-focused and covers advanced scientific topics, although military applications continue to play a major role in the institute’s studies. The university admits students through national exams in disciplines such as aerospace, information technology, military intelligence, operations intelligence, cyber warfare, political science, political/military geography, and microbiology.
A Dual-Use Education
The philosophy behind the restructuring of Imam Hussein University during the past two decades is to standardize the process of selecting Revolutionary Guards personnel. In the past, each of the IRGC branches recruited for themselves, creating inefficiencies and inter-service competition for the same pool of potential recruits. Today, at Khamenei’s order, all those who are to be recruited into different IRGC branches—the Quds Force, the Basij, the Intelligence Protection, and others—must first pass through the various subdivisions of Imam Hussein University.
According to a 2006 report by The Telegraph, Imam Hussein University is one of the main centers of nuclear and rocket research in Iran. In fact, in order to prevent international inspections, the IRGC exploits the “academic” status of the institute to cover up the military research carried out in its laboratories. According to the report, 21 professors at the university, each of whom was a senior IRGC officer, were involved in nuclear and rocket research at the time. One of these professors was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a brigadier general in the IRGC widely regarded as the leader of Iran’s nuclear weapons program until his assassination by Israeli agents in 2020.
As the Islamic Republic’s activities in the realm of nuclear arms and ballistic missiles have steadily escalated over the past half-decade, and as Imam Hussein University plays a central role in advancing the regime’s military technology, it is incumbent on both Western democracies and international organizations to carefully monitor the activities of the university and its affiliates, and to take the necessary measures to target it as part of a broader program intended to restore Iran’s compliance with its international obligations and keep the peace in the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.