by Farideh Farhi
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani began his second term with the nomination of 17 proposed ministers for his 18-member cabinet on Tuesday (the nominee for the ministry of sciences, research, and technology has yet to be proposed). And, as is usually the case in Iran’s highly contested terrain, it was not without controversy. As a politician who unapologetically claims to occupy the middle ground in the country’s contested terrain, Rouhani made appointments that generated unhappiness and disappointment on both sides of the political spectrum. But with the return of more than half of his first term cabinet, including key ministers, continuity and stability are the watchwords of the transition to the second term.
No doubt, some reformists and liberal voters, who rightly see themselves as making the impressive size of Rouhani’s electoral victory possible, are disappointed that he did not appoint a woman or a Sunni minister. Their accusations that he didn’t keep his campaign promise are valid. In both the 2013 and 2017 elections, candidate Rouhani promised to ease cultural and political restrictions and open higher levels of state bureaucracy to largely excluded constituencies. Such promises help motivate people, especially liberal urban voters, to come out to the polls in higher numbers. Non-conservative candidates generally make such promises in order to bring voters out because they don’t have a stable base of support among regime diehards who vote no matter what.
Rouhani’s hasty response to criticisms the day after he named his ministerial candidates—by appointing two women as his vice presidents for women and family affairs and legal affairs and designating his first term VP for women and family affairs as his special assistant for citizenship rights—is unlikely to mollify critics. None of these positions has significant executive power. Nor will First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri’s promise to appoint women and Sunnis at deputy ministerial, upper managerial, and provincial levels soothe critics. Plenty of assurances have been given before, and women were given a few high-level managerial positions in Rouhani’s first term. But promises adequately not kept have a tendency to increase expectations even more, followed by more disappointments.
But Rouhani is not the first candidate in the world who hasn’t kept his campaign promises. In any case, my own direct personal observation during the campaign was that people’s motivation to vote was shaped more by the fear of cultural and political clampdown if Rouhani’s opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, were elected. This was a fear, both his opponents and supporters agree, that Rouhani masterfully used during the campaign, presenting continuity and stability as a better option than a reversion to a pre-Rouhani past.
There are also political realities that cannot be ignored. The reformists in the parliament are simply not strong enough to confirm only candidates they prefer. Accordingly, in his cabinet selection, Rouhani also has to be mindful of conservative MPs whose votes he needs. In this context, the reformist unhappiness with the re-nomination of at least one minister—the interior minister—will be tested during the confirmation hearings. As a political bloc, the reformists do not have enough votes to reject Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, a conservative politician close to parliament speaker Ali Larijani. The reformists consider him to be too hesitant in replacing provincial officials left over from the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era and not bold enough in his dealings with the Guardian Council meddling in election results. Whether they will try blocking a key minister of the president they supported in the election remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the hardliners, who are publicly relishing the disappointments of Rouhani supporters, have even more reasons to be unhappy. There are no ministers that could be remotely considered hardline in the cabinet. Even more to their chagrin, the two key ministers they have vociferously complained about in the past four years for bowing to Western influence—Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Petroleum Minister Bijan Zangeneh—have been re-nominated and should sail through their confirmation.
Zarif is confident enough about the direction Iran’s foreign policy has taken during Rouhani’s first term that, according to the spokesman of the committee on foreign relations and national security, Zarif told the committee that the “reduction and management of tensions with the US will be among the most important duties of the foreign ministry in the next administration.” He went on to say that the Americans could not impose the cost of canceling the nuclear deal on Iran: “If they want to halt it, they have to pay for its costs as well.” He also pointed to the upcoming reorganization of the foreign ministry to include a new deputy foreign minister for economic affairs for the sake of “making diplomacy more active in the economic arena.”
In the petroleum ministry, Zangeneh, with an agreement with French firm Total under his belt, will be back with the intent to announce more oil and gas agreements with European (including Russian) and Asian companies. The hardliners and some conservatives did everything they could to block the agreement for the development of Phase 11 of the South Pars gas field. Iran’s sovereignty is at stake, they declared, and the agreement undermines the “resistance economy” declared by Ayatollah Khamenei to be Iran’s guiding principle. Total, they added, has engaged in corrupt practices in Iran in the past. Their arguments led to delays but did not ultimately succeed. A blunt man who does not shy away from confronting hardline accusations, Zangeneh was rumored to be tired of all the insults hurled against him—at 65 he is the oldest cabinet nominee—and was not coming back. Much to the hardliners’ disappointment, those rumors proved untrue or, at least, those spreading them underestimated Rouhani’s persuasive capabilities.
The return of Zarif and Zangeneh leaves very little doubt about the agenda of further economic engagement with the global economy, building on the nuclear agreement to do so, and the support this direction has from other key players, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The focus on continuity, stability, and economic engagement is also evident in the choices for economy-related ministries. Although both the economy minister and the minister of industry, mine, and commerce have been replaced, there is no evidence that the replacements are bringing in alternative economic philosophies. Both replacements are technocrats molded during the presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. They have shown an ability to work across the political aisle and have been the biggest cheerleaders for Iran’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization. Also returning will be the minister of roads and urban development, Abbas Akhoundi, whose ministry negotiated the Airbus and Boeing agreements as well as other road and railroad agreements with the Chinese, Italians, and Russians. Finally, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran will not change, and in all likelihood neither will the head of the Planning and Budget Organization.
To be sure, a few of Rouhani’s cabinet choices may face a challenge in parliament for their perceived lack of appropriate experience and/or lack of fit at a time when severe economic difficulties, entailing both increased unemployment and recession in key economic sectors, require coordination among all ministries. But this challenge will be different from the one posed during the confirmation hearings for Rouhani’s first cabinet when a conservative-dominated parliament questioned several nominees and rejected some for their political leanings and affinity with the “seditionists”—i.e., Green Movement leaders and protesters. Electoral politics has significantly changed the balance of political power since 2009. On Thursday, the newly elected reformist city council selected Mohammad Ali Najafi— one of the ministers rejected for being close to the “seditionists”—as the new mayor of Tehran.
Conflicts to Come
This is not to suggest that Rouhani’s second term will be conflict-free. Although Rouhani will mostly have the legislative branch’s backing – along with Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for the foreign policy and economic direction of the country despite his occasional public protestation to the contrary – there are plenty of other areas of political conflict. There is a reason Rouhani has yet to introduce the minister of sciences, research, and technology (and why several of his nominees for this position in his first term were rejected and the one that was approved was subsequently impeached). The extent to which cultural, political, and scientific expression will be allowed is a highly contentious issue, and control of the state universities, the political environment and leadership of which are influenced by who heads the ministry, stand at the center of the conflict.
In general, with the exception of Iran’s first president, who was quickly impeached and booted out in his first term, Iran’s presidents, including Ayatollah Khamenei when he was president, have mostly come into direct conflict with the office of the Supreme Leader during their second term. The sources of the conflict are structural, constitutional, and currently also ideological.
The Iranian constitution has endowed the Islamic Republic with two executives that have different missions. The presidency is the only nationwide elected office and subject to both the secular exigencies of running a technocracy and the changing sentiments of the electorate. The Office of the Leader, on the other hand, is both the keeper and promoter par excellence of, and dependent for its survival and power on, revolution-inspired institutions and values. In addition, the lack of term limits for the office of the Leader and effective oversight has allowed the expansion of extra-constitutional powers, including intervention in cabinet selection. This reality is the source of conflicts no matter who is the president. Even Ahmadinejad, with whom Ayatollah Khamenei famously acknowledged close ideological affinity, ended up not going to work for more than 10 days because the latter would not allow him to remove his minister of intelligence, a prerogative of the president.
Of course, Rouhani and Khamenei also have genuine differences of opinion about what is best for the survival of the Islamic Republic. To be sure, neither is a hardliner nor reformist per se. Furthermore, Iran’s complex politics can in no way be reduced to the conflict between these two men and the institutions they head since both men are also subject to a multiplicity of forces and burdened by other pressures. But at this point in Iran’s post-revolutionary history they represent the two ideological poles within which contention occurs and compromises are made. Their differences came out loud and clear during the campaign and helped Rouhani gather quite a few more votes. The row has ebbed at the onset of the new term, but it is sure to flow again.