TEHRAN // Growing up in the city of Hamadan, in western Iran, Mehran dreamed of becoming a university professor.
For years, he studied hard and in May 2009 he was accepted into a master’s degree programme at Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology.
But only four months later the government suspended him from university for alleged political activities and he was detained for questioning.
Mehran is one of Iran’s so-called starred students, pupils who arrived at university to find a star on their academic transcripts.
The star was a sign that the intelligence ministry deemed the student a threat. Their university IDs were revoked and they were banned from campuses in an attempt to keep them from influencing other students and also as a warning to others wanting to express dissent.
Mehran recalls the outrage he felt when he saw a star next to his name.
“We were a group of more than 1,500 students in master’s programme that were denied access to enrol and attend our classes in 2009,” said Mehran, who, like others interviewed for this article, did not give his full name.
The second half of 2009 was a tumultuous time for Iran as then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad clung to power amid mass protests and allegations that results of a June presidential election were fraudulent. His successor, the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani, has made headlines for a deal with world powers to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment in return for limited sanctions relief.
He has also instituted domestic reform by expanding the country's food handout programme and promising fundamental changes to the university system, including allowing starred students to resume classes.
Last week, in his sixth appearance among academics in his first seven months as president, Mr Rouhani asked students and professors to play a more active role in the political life of the country.
“Some groups threaten students and professors but this government considers them a national asset and they must be allowed to be critical,” Mr Rouhani said.
While the election of Mr Rouhani as president has offered thousands of so-called starred students a glimmer of hope there has been little action besides promises.
And even the limited actions are criticised by conservatives.
In September, Mr Rouhani ordered that students who were starred between 2011 and 2013 be permitted to resume their studies but the decision was opposed by conservatives in Iran’s parliament.
“Those hardliners who were in charge four years ago are still in the parliament and rejected changes in the ministry,” said Mehdi, 28, from Tehran, another starred student.
Mehdi thinks the reason he was marked as a starred student is linked to articles critical of Mr Ahamadinejad’s policies published in his university newspaper during his undergraduate studies.
Students generally discover stars on their transcripts when they are attending graduate courses, although undergraduates may also face suspension for political activity.
University officials never warned him about his articles at the time, Mehdi said.
In Mehran’s case the alleged offence was more clear.
“I was named a starred student and banned from continuing my education for running one of the campaign headquarters of Mehdi Karroubi in Iran’s 2009 presidential election.”
Mr Karroubi, along with Mir Hossein Mousavi, were presidential candidates in that election. Both men have been under house arrest since 2011.
While Mehran believes his political activities did not break any laws, he has given up on his studies and now works in a low-level position for an engineering company owned by a relative.
He still has not told his father, a day labourer who worked seven days a week so Mehran could afford to study, that he was barred from university.
In an attempt last month to block the government’s promised changes, three legislators filed a complaint against the minister of sciences, research and technology, Reza Faraji-Dana, for the ministry’s decision to permit about 400 starred students to continue their education.
“Mr Faraji-Dana must provide lawmakers with lists and political backgrounds of the students for further review,” Mohammed Ali Pour-Mokhtar, a conservative legislator, said last week.
Legislators also threatened to impeach Mr Faraji-Dana last week for replacing the most conservative heads of several leading Iranian universities.
“There is so much pressure on Rouhani that prevents him from making active political decisions. He speaks about changes but his hands are tied,” said Mehdi, who delivered a letter, signed by a group of fellow students, to Mr Faraji-Dana two months ago requesting that they be allowed to return to university.
Another important factor in the debate over Iran’s starred students is the 2016 parliamentary elections.
Students said conservatives are preventing reforms at universities as part of a larger effort to maintain their positions in parliament.
“Universities are their front line in their battle against reform, especially with the upcoming parliamentary elections,” Mehran said.