Rouhani’s Challenges to Form His New Cabinet

by Adnan Tabatabai

Hassan Rouhani will be sworn in for his second term as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran during the official inauguration scheduled for August 5, 2017. The tahlif ceremony will take place in parliament, symbolizing the republican nature of Iran’s political system. Its Islamic or theocratic nature was displayed during the tanfiz ceremony on August 3, when Rouhani received Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s endorsement. This process is just one of the many examples of the way that the Islamic Republic reconciles “legitimacy from below” and “legitimacy from above.”

Rouhani now has two weeks to nominate ministers for his cabinet. According to informed sources and media reports, however, he has already made his picks. All nominees will have to seek a vote of confidence by Iran’s parliament by introducing themselves and their programs. Members of parliament (MPs) can then speak at the plenary either in support or opposition to the nominated candidate. Through this process MPs can exert real impact on the executive branch’s composition.

The voting behavior of parliamentarians is mainly based on policy-oriented considerations and factional preferences. Given that the majority of parliamentary seats is now in the hands of Rouhani-friendly MPs, the president is expected to have a rather easy job in convincing the majles of his choices. And yet, those who oppose the Rouhani government will try all they can to prolong the voting process and make the president look weak by blocking his attempt to muster the necessary two-thirds majority vote for every single ministerial post.

Some parliamentarians who view themselves as being particularly loyal to the Supreme Leader follow a certain “pre-emptive obedience” as to whom they believe Ayatollah Khamenei likes to see in key ministries. Through informal channels these MPs are informed about Khamenei’s preferred candidates. Particularly posts such as ministers of foreign affairs, interior, intelligence, and defense are believed to be coordinated with the Supreme Leader. Public debate on the extent of Ayatollah Khamenei’s influence was so intense that the Supreme Leader’s office issued a statement that Rouhani had “a free hand” in choosing his cabinet members.

But the pressure Rouhani faces for his new cabinet composition goes far beyond parliamentary procedures or the Supreme Leader’s preferences. The continued political tensions in the aftermath of the elections were symptoms of competing factions trying to force themselves into Rouhani’s cabinet.

The Electorate’s Expectations

Elections in Iran certainly offer the voters a limited choice. But once the stage is set, a genuine competition for votes takes place. Hence, candidates had to invest a lot into campaigning. On election day, 41 million Iranians queued up for hours to cast their vote.

Rouhani’s voter base has reaffirmed the very same demands they voiced four years ago when they first elected him to office. Their most urgent demand is the improvement of the country’s economy: more jobs, higher purchasing power for the average citizen, modernizing industry and infrastructure, and fighting corruption. People acknowledge the important first steps Rouhani’s government has undertaken during its first term but will expect much more actual improvements leading up to 2021.

Second, calls for opening up social, political, and cultural space once again resounded during the election campaign. Iranian voters are very well aware of the many limits Rouhani is facing in delivering on his campaign promises to create more freedom. But they will continue pressuring him to make improvements on minority rights, gender equality, political participation as well as media freedom.

Third, Iranians as a proud people want to see their country respected globally. The nuclear agreement has certainly given international relations a positive boost. And yet, the travel ban to the United States, continued visa restrictions for trips to Europe, the low exchange rate of Iran’s currency and the difficulties that Iran’s trade relations are facing show that the nuclear agreement has not delivered everything that ordinary Iranians had hoped. Hence, the next four years will be critical as Iranians evaluate whether their country’s diplomatic outreach has born fruit.

Iranian voters differentiate between the status quo and trends. Although the vast majority of voters see a lot of ills in the status quo, they do acknowledge that Rouhani has introduced important trends. Many voters see him, therefore, as the single alternative at hand who can tackle the various challenges and in forming a cabinet of technocrats and experts.

The massive presence of Iranian voters on election day on May 19 reaffirmed the electorate’s confidence. They will keep pushing Rouhani in the direction they want him to move. Indeed, Iranian voters are much more aware of their agency in shaping Iranian politics than external observers tend to think. Skeptics should see for themselves how vibrant this electorate has been.

Elite Expectations

Iran’s Reformist camp, most importantly former president Mohammad Khatami, threw its political weight behind Rouhani’s reelection. Without this mobilization, Rouhani would not have become president in the first place and his reelection would have been in serious danger. The latest electoral victory—presidency, parliament, city councils, and the assembly of experts—has given the Reformists new momentum. This camp therefore expects to translate its political capital into ministerial posts. However, meeting these expectations may end up being costly for Rouhani given the pushback from Iran’s deep state against too prominent a role of Reformists.

The Principlists, on the other hand, are undergoing a profound transformation. Some of their key figures, such as parliament speaker Ali Larijani and senior cleric Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, are now open Rouhani supporters, and form the center-leaning pragmatist wing of the Principlists. They have teamed up with pragmatist Reform figures to form the Moderates (etedaliyoun).

Although Principlists lack the mobilization capacities of the Reformists, their key figures are highly influential within the political and clerical elites. They, therefore, see every reason to demand cabinet positions from Rouhani. Ali Larijani’s support for the government in parliamentary affairs, for example, will come with the price tag of seeing some of his associates in ministries.

Hassan Rouhani will have to find cabinet positions for as many Reformists as possible, and as many Principlists as necessary.

Some sitting ministers are uncontested—among them foreign minister Javad Zarif, oil minister Bijan Zangeneh, and health minister Hassan Ghazizadeh-Hashemi. Rouhani’s bureau chief Mohammad Nahavandian has announced that half of the cabinet positions will be changed.

The Quest for More Inclusiveness

Many Iranians have demanded the appointment of more women to government positions. If the various lists of ministerial nominees published so far can be trusted, this demand will once again not be met and the underrepresentation of women in government positions will continue. Appointing female politicians as vice presidents—as in Rouhani’s first term—is valuable, but it will not match the demands by activists and political figures alike. Opposition to this demand comes conservative, high-ranking political and clerical figures.

President Rouhani has to reconcile not only the demands of competing political factions but also those of progressive and conservative elements of society, the political elite, and the clerical establishment. He will be hard pressed to serve all sides.

A truly inclusive government, which represents different political camps, mirrors the ethnic and religious diversity of Iran, and overcomes the underrepresentation of women, is still far off on the horizon. But as the electorate in Iran has expressed through its votes, Hassan Rouhani has introduced the right trends that may point toward this goal.

He will be closely monitored, both by the electorate and the elites.

Photo: Ali Larijani

Adnan Tabatabai

Adnan Tabatabai is co-founder and CEO of the Germany based think tank CARPO – Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient. As an Iranian affairs analyst, he is consulted by European policy-makers and businesses, as well as by research institutions and political foundations. Tabatabai holds an assigned lectureship at the University of Dusseldorf, and is the author of the book "Morgen in Iran“ (2016, Edition Korber Stiftung). Twitter: @A_Tabatabai