By ETHAN BRONNER
One day in late September, Iranian security officials fanned out across their country and raided some 500 homes and several office buildings owned or rented by members of the Bahai faith, confiscating material and arresting dozens of people.
This was hardly the first time that Bahais, Iran's largest religious minority, felt the sting of attention from the Shiite Muslim government. As in the past, the United States condemned the action.
But what happened Sept. 29 was remarkable because it brought to an abrupt end an elaborate act of communal self-preservation. The materials confiscated were neither political nor religious, and the people arrested were not fighters or organizers. They were lecturers in subjects like accounting and dentistry; the materials seized were textbooks and laboratory equipment.
The enterprise that was shut down was a stealth university, with nearly 1,000 students, scores of volunteer faculty members, basements converted to biology and language laboratories and a network of couriers, foreign advisers and sympathizers.
Started in 1987 in reaction to the virtual banning of Bahais from Iranian universities after the Islamic revolution of 1979, the Bahai Institute of Higher Education operated so quietly over the years that many Bahai officials abroad and many Iranian intellectuals within were unaware of it.
Professors at Indiana University provided course materials and curriculum advice, and American Bahais on visits to Iran would carry suitcases stuffed with textbooks bought at the Harvard Coop.
Begun on a tiny scale, the institute grew to include 10 areas of major, including civil engineering, computer science, psychology and English. Courses were by correspondence but included sessions with lecturers in private homes.
Some 145 students graduated with bachelors' degrees. Some work in Iran and others have continued their studies abroad, their degrees sometimes accepted despite the university's lack of official recognition.
"We did everything with our own empty hands," reflected one former faculty member, who like virtually everyone interviewed requested anonymity out of fear for his safety and that of relatives in Iran. "It was like a miracle that brought hope to the Bahai youth."
Accounts of the university's activities and closing come from two dozen interviews with former faculty members and students, some of them still in Iran, others in North America.
The Iranian government has said nothing about the operation and has not responded to requests for comment.
The Bahai faith, whose adherents number 300,000 in Iran and 5 million worldwide, began a century and a half ago in Iran. Among its central principles are full equality between the sexes, universal education and the establishment of a world federal system.
Bahai representatives say that while the university was begun in secret, the government became aware of it in the early 1990s and permitted it to continue.
Within the Bahai community and among political scientists who watch Iran, there has been speculation about why the university was closed now, given the more liberal approach advocated by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami since his election in May 1997.
"There has always been very active discrimination against Bahais," said Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University who is a specialist in Iran. "It would be very difficult for even the most well- meaning leader to deal with such a university openly and tolerantly."
In July a Bahai was hanged on charges of having converted a Muslim, the first execution of a Bahai in Iran since 1992. Two other Bahais have been condemned to death.
Bakhash noted that the Iranian security forces are not controlled by Khatami but by the country's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is far more conservative.
One possible explanation for the university's closing is that Khamenei and his followers want to discredit or defy Khatami.
A second theory is that Khatami is permitting the crackdown as a gesture to the traditionalists as he tries to improve relations with the West. A third possibility is that Khatami, who comes from a clerical background, has no disagreement with tightening up on the Bahais. Whatever the explanation, for the Bahais, the closing is ominous.
"I see this as a reactivation of general pressure on the Bahai community," said Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh, a retired professor of history at Yale University and secretary for external affairs of the Bahais in the United States.
In 1993 the Bahais revealed a 1991 Iranian government document signed by Ayatollah Khamenei on containing the community by barring adherents from universities and treating them so "that their progress and development shall be blocked."
Baharak Norouziani, 23, an Iranian Bahai now living in Santa Monica, Calif., and one of the few interviewed for this article willing to have her name printed, said that before she graduated from high school in Tehran in 1993, she had to state her religion to apply to a university. She wrote "Bahai." The principal of her school told her that unless she changed her stated religion, she could not take the exam. So she signed up for the Bahai university and studied pre-dentistry by correspondence. "Once a week we would get together in someone's house to get materials and books and sometimes listen to a lecture," she said.
For now, the university remains shut, its 17,000-book library confiscated, its computers and equipment gone, its administrators freed on bail. But Bahais say it will not be long before they begin the process of setting up the university again. "Education is such a central goal for us," said one, "that we must rebuild. It is like a light at the end of a tunnel."