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In Iran, Rowhani’s first cabinet strikes a complex balance

Nearly two months after his unexpected victory in the first round of the Iranian presidential elections of June, Hassan Rowhani has finally assumed office and brought a formal end to the contested eight…

Playing it safe? No reformists or women in Hassan Rowhani’s cabinet. Wikimedia Commons

Nearly two months after his unexpected victory in the first round of the Iranian presidential elections of June, Hassan Rowhani has finally assumed office and brought a formal end to the contested eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure.

Little grandeur surrounds the inauguration ceremonies of incoming Iranian presidents. As opposed to Washington or Paris, Tehran did not witness public gatherings or parades. Rather, Iran’s political elite first assembled in the main hall of the Supreme Leader’s office, where Ahmadinejad’s presidential “certificate” was handed first to Ayatollah Khamenei and then to a beaming Rowhani.

The new president then replicated his predecessor’s unusual gesture of kissing the Leader on the shoulder upon receiving his confirmation documentation. Shortly thereafter, Rowhani made the first speech of his presidential tenure which included pledges to bring in more transparency, greater political openness and a foreign policy directed towards upholding “national interest” and removing sanctions.

The following day, Rowhani took to the podium of the parliament, for a swearing-in ceremony which bears similarities to the American one - the head of the judiciary stood by while the new president read out the text of article 121 of the constitution - and, for the first time, faced a front row composed of foreign heads of state and dignitaries.

The last, most significant part of Rowhani’s parliament speech was the handing over of the list of cabinet choices, which the chamber will start debating on Monday and, as required by the constitution, will submit to an individual vote of confidence. Only then will the new “Prudence and Hope” government, as Rowhani has defined his team, get off to a formal and executive start.

First priorities

Rowhani’s two speeches, and the roster of his cabinet choices, contain strong indications of his main objectives. On both occasions, the incoming president made it clear that “upholding national interest” and obtaining the “removal of economic sanctions” were at the top of the list as well as, slightly further down, greater individual freedoms.

The desire to put the resolution of the current economic woes at the very top of the agenda is also clear in his choice of first vice-president, an executive role which is exempt from parliamentary approval. Rowhani’s choice for this influential position was Eshaq Jahangiri, former commerce minister under the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who has built a reputation for competent technocracy.

The rest of Rowhani’s cabinet team is indicative of the need to balance personal preference with factional requirements. Bereft of the support of any tangible faction within parliament or the other upper echelons of the state, Rowhani effectively resorted to creating a cabinet of two halves. One encompasses the key “technical” ministries, the other is made up of politicians chosen and imposed on the president by other powerful interests as a way of exerting their influence.

The new technical ministries, such as foreign affairs, oil, economy and industry will be taken by trusted confidants of Rowhani who have held high office during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidential administrations of 1989-2005. Importantly, these men are not overtly associated with the Green “sedition”, the term through which the reformist Green opposition is still referred to by the conservative majority of Parliament.

Key posts for technocrats

Elements such as the choice for foreign ministry, Javad Zarif, the oil minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, or the pick for industry, Mohammad Neematzadeh, are seasoned managers who have played a role in their respective fields during the challenge-ridden 1990s, when Iran engaged in a crisis-fraught “reconstruction” process. They have also either studied in the West, particularly the United States, or are known quantities outside Iran.

Zarif, who was Iran’s ambassador to the UN between 2002 and 2007 has, in particular, been involved in complex and at times secret negotiations with the West since the 1980s. He has a relatively rare strong command of English and ranks as possibly the most “dove-like” figure with regard to relations with the US. Zarif will therefore be key in breaking Iran’s international isolation, which was underscored by the lack of senior Western figures at Rowhani’s inauguration ceremony and by the fact that the first bilateral meeting of the new president was with the head of North Korea’s People’s Assembly.

Something for conservatives

While endeavouring to place trusted confidants in key management posts, Rowhani has also conceded sensitive positions to figures linked to the mainstream conservative groupings which currently control the parliament and other powerful bodies, such as the Guardian Council. Abdulreza Rahmani Fazli, a long-standing associate of the ultra-conservative parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, has been appointed at the Interior ministry.

Seyyed Mahmoud Alavi, a little-known cleric who has in the past been in charge of ensuring the ideological adherence of army officers to the Islamic Republic, has been nominated at the sensitive post of Information minister. This also makes him the head of the intelligence services.

Another key post, that of the culture ministry, which oversees the media and publishing industry, has been assigned to Ali Jannati, a son of the arch-conservative head of the Guardian Council. Jannati has pledged to act differently from his father and loosen up the restrictions on expression which have been a mainstay of the past few years.

Finally, the Justice ministry post has gone to the controversial cleric Mostafa Purmohammadi. All three have a background laden in the security organisations of the state and are key allies of Larijani, who therefore seems to have received a substantial share of cabinet positions in exchange for steering a swift vote of confidence to the entire cabinet, something which eluded Ahmadinejad in both 2005 and 2009.

But no women

This variously-composed cabinet has a few glaring omissions. First, the cabinet list includes only men. This is a backward step from 2009, when Ahmadinejad finally broke the ice regarding female participation in the higher tiers of the Iranian state. Another curious omission, given his crucial support for Rowhani’s candidacy, Khatami and his reformists have no close political allies in the cabinet. Rather, the figures shared by his administration and the new one are the largely technocratic, non-political ones.

While not lacking in managerial competence, the Rowhani cabinet could fall short on a pressing and key demand of a substantial portion of the new president’s electorate, that of encouraging greater political openness and the end to the current “securitised” atmosphere. This is manifested by the continued incarceration of the two Green movement leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Fitting this little-represented dimension in his already crowded agenda could well feature as one of the biggest challenges in Rowhani’s first 100 days in office.

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