DUBAI - President Hassan Rouhani called on Tuesday for Iran's universities to admit more foreign students and lecturers, dismissing conservatives' fears that more interaction with the outside world would encourage espionage.
His remarks at Tehran University appeared to be a fresh riposte to hardliners in the Islamic Republic's faction-ridden political leadership who have been waging a determined campaign against his policies of international engagement.
In a speech marking the start of the academic year broadcast live on state television, Rouhani urged the establishment of a university teaching in English and suggested Iranian academic life had much to gain from more international exposure.
"Some people say that if we have contact with the outside world, if our teachers go abroad and their professors come here, maybe someone will be a spy among them. Stop making excuses!" he said to audience applause.
"Even if I don't have expertise in anything else, at least your president has expertise in national security," said Rouhani, a relative moderate with a decades-long pedigree in senior government posts, including chief nuclear negotiator with major powers.
Though there is an English-language faculty of world studies at the University of Tehran, there is no university in the Islamic Republic at which classes are entirely in English.
Rouhani, who received his PhD from a university in Scotland, called on Iran to interact with the world, not just in the realm of politics, but through economics, science and technology.
"Our universities have empty seats in certain subjects. We either have to make them smaller or invite foreign students. "I'm not saying let's start from those places that are scary to some people," he added, in an apparent reference to Western countries generally considered enemies since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. "I mean let's just start with our neighbors."
He added: "Let our students go abroad for a term. At least create one university that has English as the main language so that we can attract foreign students."
Although successive Iranian governments have insisted they support free speech and welcome constructive opposition, liberal-minded students and academics have accused the authorities in practice of clamping down on dissent on campuses.
Rouhani has repeatedly clashed with conservatives in parliament and other state institutions - including the judiciary and elite Revolutionary Guards - who disagree with his conciliatory rhetoric, liberal approach to intellectual and social life at home and his decision to revive negotiations with the Western powers over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
Iranian students are allowed to study abroad but many use the opportunity to settle overseas. International educational exchanges involving the Islamic Republic are weighted towards Iranians studying overseas. Foreign students admitted to Iranian campuses tend to focus on religious studies.
Conservative hardliners scored a victory in August when the Iranian parliament sacked Rouhani's science, research and technology minister, the first time the assembly impeached and dismissed a minister since his landslide election in June 2013.
Their complaint against Reza Faraji-Dana was that he had allowed students expelled from university over anti-government unrest in 2009 to return to classes.
The unrest was sparked by the re-election of Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Reformist-minded Iranians believed the vote was rigged. Security forces stamped out the protests and the two figureheads of the reformist "green movement" were placed under house arrest, where they remain.