Rouhani’s Cabinet Picks

by Farideh Farhi

After more than a month of intense speculation in Iran, Hassan Rouhani’s nominees for 18 cabinet posts were announced on the day of the new president’s inauguration. By law, Iran’s presidents have two weeks after taking office to offer their nominees to the parliament for confirmation hearings. However, as an indication of the task-oriented “competent” government to come, Rouhani followed through on his promise to announce his picks on Aug. 4.

The parliament will begin the confirmation process, which should not take long, next week. There is no guarantee that all the ministers will be approved (several of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ministers who were nominated in his first term were not). But as of today, the bet is that they will all pass, even if a couple face a few hurdles.

Cabinet appointments are watched closely in Iran, not only because ministers are key actors in guiding the direction and management of their ministries, but also because they say something about how the newly elected president will run the country and the compromises he is willing to or must make. In any contested political terrain, including Iran, compromises result from negotiations with other centers of power.

I will get to Rouhani’s compromises shortly but let me first say a little about the power of Iranian ministers.

Traditionally, ministers mostly have substantial control over the operation and appointment of their ministerial team. They are hence vulnerable to individual parliamentary interpellation and impeachment if deemed of insufficiently fulfilling their duties.

I say mostly because this tradition of ministerial independence was severely violated during the Ahmadinejad era, when he and members of his office routinely intervened in the internal matters of various ministries, underwriting many expulsions of top-level appointees as well as the ministers themselves.

Other presidents have also intervened in the appointment process of various ministries. Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani appointed a conservative minister of interior but then intervened in the appointment of many provincial governors, which is the prerogative of the interior minister. Driven by his interests, Ahmadinejad went much further and in effect became a meddling president at every level. Rouhani has promised to change that dynamic and the list of his cabinet nominees suggests he has mostly chosen individuals who will be agenda-setters in their own ministries and not agenda-takers. But he did make compromises and in the areas where he made major compromises, such as the Interior Ministry, he will likely act like Hashemi Rafsanjani and influence the gubernatorial appointments.

Hard Choices

The choice for the Interior Ministry is Abdulreza Rahmani Fazli, who is currently the director of the Supreme Audit Court, which is connected to the parliament. This body’s most important task is to issue yearly assessments of the financial operations of all government institutions and the extent to which their financial operations have been keeping in line with the budget as passed by the legislature.

Rahmani Fazli has been in the news for the past couple of years because of his office’s reports on missing funds that were discovered during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. But he is also a traditional conservative and a very close ally of parliament speaker Ali Larijani. His appointment was therefore a disappointment for Rouhani’s reformist backers who had hoped for someone with a clear record of support for citizens’ political and civil rights. (The interior minister also appoints the chief of police and licenses political parties and civil society organizations).

Rouhani also caved in at the last minute by nominating Mostafa Pourmohammadi, currently the head of Iran’s Inspectorate Office and Ahmadinejad’s minister of interior before he was fired at the end of the previous president’s first term. More importantly, Pourmohammadi was a prosecutor of the revolutionary courts and then deputy intelligence minister in the 1980s. He was implicated in some of the most horrific acts, including mass executions, against political prisoners.

Pourmohammadi is not a hardliner and in fact ran for president as a traditional conservative. But appointing him as justice minister does pose a question, to say the least, for a president who campaigned with the slogan of moderation and descuritization of the political environment — even if the justice minister is effectively the least powerful cabinet position.

It is true that the minister of justice is chosen among the four nominees offered by the head of the Judiciary and has no power in the selection of judges or its internal workings. It is also true that there is a saying in Iran that the justice minister is essentially the mailman between the Judiciary and the other two branches. Still, the appointment is a cave-in, likely to protect other ministerial nominees considered more important to Rouhani and effectively more essential in terms of influence.

In the arenas of foreign policy and economy, Rouhani did not make compromises and nominated individuals who are very close to him and his views. In foreign policy, Rouhani’s dilemma seemed to have been not about compromise but choice. He ultimately chose Javad Zarif over his deputy at the Center for Strategic Research, Mahmoud Vaezi, who was also considered a very strong choice. Others have written about Zarif’s appointment as an “olive branch” to the US. But it is a more important signal to the rank and file of the Foreign Ministry as well as the country as a whole.

Zarif represents the best and the brightest that the post-revolution Foreign Ministry has produced. He climbed the ranks without the help of religiously or politically important familial relations. Zarif’s important appointment is therefore a confirmation of Rouhani’s promise of a competent government. Yet to come, of course, are other foreign policy related appointments, in which Zarif will have quite a bit of say, including on Iran’s representative at the UN and a couple of deputy ministers. The latter becomes particularly important if the decision is made to return the handling of the nuclear file to the Foreign Ministry and send someone in the rank of US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman to talks with the P5+1 nuclear negotiating team.

Vaezi, meanwhile, went to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, where he was director general many years ago. I am not sure if Vaezi is happy with this appointment. There are even rumors — and rumors in Iran should never be trusted — that at the end of the day, Vaezi had to be convinced to take up the position at the prodding of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. He does however have Rouhani’s strong backing and personality to lead the effort if the decision is made to reduce the influence the Islamic Revolutionary Guards has wielded in this ministry (an IRGC commander was leading it during the past couple of years).

This ministry’s revenues from cellular service usage is enormous. Last year it was the third highest depositor of money into the Treasury after the Ministry of Petroleum and the Ministry of Economy and Finance (which is in charge of taxation).

The question of the IRGC being engaged in too many economic activities is now front-and-center in Iranian politics. Prominent MP Ahmad Tavkoli even went as far as suggesting that the country’s leadership has to be decisive in limiting the IRGC’s and security forces’ role in the economy. Vaezi will be at the center of this fight should it take place.

Tackling Iran’s economy

In general, the desire to get state organs out of the economy seems to be the glue that holds together a largely neo-liberal economic team. It is one of the strange ironies of Iranian politics that the leftists of the 1980s were turned politically reformist and economically mostly neo-liberal in the late 1990s and continue to be so. It is true that the reaction Mohammad Khatami’s neoliberal policies elicited in the form of Ahmadinejad’s justice-oriented populism — at least rhetorically — has now been acknowledged and the economic policies pursued will try to strike a balance between “development” and “justice” and not simply assume that development will lead to the downward trickling of wealth. But the thrust of Rouhani’s center-reformist economic appointments indicates more concern with production and productivity in both the industrial and agricultural sectors.

Almost all of the economy-related ministers — with the exception of the minister of energy, Hamid Chitchian, whose political affiliation is not clear to me and seems to be a bureaucrat who has climbed the ranks of that ministry — are of a center-reformist mold. Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, who was Khatami’s petroleum minister, is nominated to return. Mohammadreza Nematzadeh, who was the co-chair of Rouhani’s campaign, will lead the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Commerce. Abbas Ahmad Akhundi will lead the Ministry of Road and Transportation, Ali Rabii will lead the Ministry of Labor, Cooperatives, and Welfare and Mahmoud Hojjati, who was Khatami’s minister of road and transportation, will return as minister of agriculture.

The only odd appointment in this list of like-minded and highly experienced officials is the minister of economy and finance, Ali Tayebnia, who comes in with little known experience and a mostly academic background. He was reformist candidate Mohammadreza Aref’s economic advisor during the presidential campaign and reportedly has academic expertise in monetary and taxation policies. It’s an odd appointment because of his dearth of experience. But perhaps the idea is that he will be part of an economic team that will be led by two key Rouhani economic advisors: Ishaq Jahangiri, a founding member of the center-reformist Servants of Construction party, former governor and minister of industry, who will be the first vice president — and Ali Nobakht, who will likely head the resurrected Management and Planning Organization. Also involved in economic decision-making is Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, currently the head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Not yet known is the person who will be appointed as the head of the Central bank of Iran (CBI). This position, like the positions of the first vice president and head of the Management and Panning Organization, does not require parliamentary approval. So far, the heads of Iran’s two largest private banks have been mentioned as potential CBI appointees.

Political boldness

Irrespective of whether one approves of the neo-liberal tendencies of these individuals, one has to marvel at the fact that three of these nominees were former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s 2009 campaign advisors, and one is possibly former president Khatami’s closest political advisor. These appointments come in the midst of dire warnings by Hossein Shariatmadari of the hardline Kayhan Daily against appointments of “supporters of sedition” to key positions. Indeed, there is no doubt that Zangeneh will have a tough time getting by the parliament. But he is backed by his stellar record in both the ministries of energy and petroleum and the fact that his diehard opponents have so far failed to find any financial shenanigans on his part. He is “squeaky clean,” an academic who lives in Tehran told me.

Another minister who may have difficulty getting through is the nominee for the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, which supervises the university system. Jafar Milimonfared was not Rouhani’s first choice. His first choice was received as too reformist and elicited harsh reaction from hardline and conservative forces. Still, Milimonfared was deputy minister of the same ministry during the Khatami era and even became its caretaker for a short when it was between ministers. This position elicits sensitivity because the new minister may reverse the Islamicization trend that has been pursued in Iran’s universities and remove some of the appointed faculty in the past 8 years. So, the fight is over both ideology and pork.

Interestingly, the nominee for Irans’ Education Ministry, Mohammad Ali Najafi, is expected to pass through relatively easily. He is also a founding member of the centrist Servants of Construction party and was until recently a member of the Tehran city council. Many considered him to be a more appealing reformist candidate for president than Mohammadreza Aref, who withdrew his candidacy in order for the reformists to line-up behind Rouhani. Najafi was the director of the Planning and Budget Organization (later renamed as the Management and Planning Organization) under Khatami. He was also the minister of culture and higher education when Mousavi was prime minister,.

This leaves the three key ministries of Defense, Culture and Islamic Guidance, and Intelligence — all of which ended up with a compromise choice. Note how I say a compromise choice and not an imposed choice. If the reported names are valid, none of the three nominees  — Hossein Dehghan for Defense, Ali Jannati for Culture and Islamic Guidance and Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mahmud Alavi for Intelligence — were among Rouhani’s first choices. But these individuals cannot be considered as anyone else’s imposed choice either.

All three have worked for Hashemi Rafsanjani or Khatami and all three have a good relationship with Rouhani. Dehghan is a member of Rouhani’s Moderation and Development party, and Alavi was his link to Qom during the presidential campaign. And Jannati, whose father Ahmad Jannati is the Secretary of the Guardian Council, is much closer ideologically to Hashemi Rafsanjani than his father. He was deputy minister for international affairs at the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance during Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency and ambassador to Kuwait during Khatami’s presidency. He has the distinction of being removed from office by Ahmadinejad twice; once as deputy minister of the interior and once as Iran’s ambassador to Kuwait. Those working in the art, music and publishing world would have preferred a more reformist-minded nominee, but they are not complaining — at least not yet. This ministry has operated in such an erratic manner — for example by granting permission for movies to be made and then refusing to allow their release after much cost and effort — that anyone who brings consistency as well as lesser interference will be appreciated for now.

All in all the cabinet seems well-balanced with regard to Iran’s widely disparate political strands as well as the electorate that coalesced to make Rouhani’s victory possible. Expectedly, it features no hardliners since they were the clear losers of the presidential election. It does include a number of traditional conservatives but the cabinet mostly bends to the middle, as promised, while some individuals who are very close to former reformist president Khatami have been slated for key positions.

We’ll just have to wait and see if they will survive their confirmation hearings. The deputy-level appointments, which for many of those who deal with the various ministries are sometimes even more important than the ministerial heads, come next. It will take quite a few months before the depth of Rouhani’s efforts and commitment to instilling change will become clear.

Photo Credit: Roohollah Vahdati

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.