Rowhani’s Government

By Rachel Ehrenfeld, Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center
Saturday, August 10th, 2013 @ 2:16PM

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Before his June election as Iran’s new president, Hassan Rowhani promised reform domestically and a new, more “moderate policy” to help establish better foreign relations. But these, as Rowhani’s own election, will reflect the will of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

The Western educated and sophisticated Rowhani was an excellent choice. His background and familiarity with the West make him more appealing both domestically and internationally.

Some care appears to have been taken in balancing political interests among the “electorate.” How the Mullahs and the president manage the government must have a good deal to do with Iranian social control. How Hassan Rowhani is setting up his government, who (and who not) in the populace it aims to appease now in order to keep the lid on the people, and how lesser Iranian “politicians” see themselves have been detailed here by The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.

Rowhani’s Proposed Government Line-Up: Characteristics and Implications

Earlier this week [Iran’s] president Hassan Rowhani submitted to the Majles presidency a list of ministerial candidates for his new government. The nomination of the candidates requires the approval of the Majles members, who are to hold a special session in the beginning of next week to review the candidates.

Rowhani’s proposed government is made up mostly of technocrats with strong academic backgrounds (over half of the ministers have Ph.D. degrees, some from universities in the West). Politically, most of the designated ministers are centrist conservatives. A number of them held ministerial posts in the governments of former presidents Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. There are no women in the proposed government, nor are there representatives from Iran’s Sunni ethno-linguistic minorities (Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs).

Pressure from left and right as Rowhani assembles government

While assembling the government, Rowhani was pressured both by the conservative right and by elements in the reformist left that had supported his candidacy during the last presidential election. This week some radical right-wingers warned Rowhani against nominating ministers affiliated with the reformist faction. During his last Friday sermon in Tehran, Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said that the radical reformists who led the 2009 riots cannot be part of Rowhani’s government, based as it is on the principle of moderation.

Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-chief of the dailyKayhan, called on Majles members to disqualify ministerial candidates affiliated with the reformist camp. In a controversial article published last week, titled “The Gift of the Majles to Rowhani and the People”, Shariatmadari said that, by disqualifying those candidates, the Majles would do a good service to Rowhani, who is being forced to nominate reformist ministers against his will due to heavy pressure put on him by the reformist opposition.

On the other hand, elements in the reformist left called on Rowhani to ignore the pressure from the right and appoint ministers capable of promoting political and civil reforms. The reformist daily Bahar called on Rowhani to appoint ministers who can fulfill his pre-election promises and institute reforms in civil liberties, as he promised. In particular, the daily stressed the importance of the ministries of interior, intelligence, Islamic guidance, and science for promoting the reforms. The daily argued that those who do not want to see reformist ministers appointed might suggest that Rowhani appoint Kayhan’s editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari as vice president and representatives of the radical right as ministers of interior, intelligence, and science. Rowhani should not back down from his intent to focus on implementing his plans in the sphere of economy, Bahar said, but it will only take one or two radical ministers in his government to foil his efforts to solve the economic crisis and defuse the tension between Iran and the international community. The daily noted that, while Rowhani is required to consult with the Supreme Leader about appointing his ministers, it is not the Supreme Leader’s custom to force any particular ministers on the president, and those who say that Khamenei is allegedly opposed to one minister or another are taking advantage of the Supreme Leader’s name to enforce his own will on the people of Iran.

In an editorial published earlier this week, the daily Mardom Salari also argued that the radical conservatives are trying to discourage Rowhani from carrying out the wishes of the Iranian people as seen in the election results. The reformist newspaper called on the Majles to approve the cabinet ministers proposed by Rowhani and fulfill the demands expressed by the people in the last election.

At the same time, a group of lecturers from universities and higher education institutions released an open letter to the president-elect calling on him to appoint a minister of science who will take action to change the policy instituted by Ahmadinejad’s government. In their letter, the academia members said that, instead of becoming involved in students’ and lecturers’ admission to and expulsion from universities, making decisions that undermine the universities’ independence, and implementing plans for gender segregation in higher education institutions, the Ministry of Science must improve the international status of Iranian universities, secure their budgets and needs, improve their scientific and academic level, and prevent brain drain, a phenomenon where young educated Iranians leave their homeland for other countries.

A centrist government with preference for economic over political reforms

Hassan Rowhani’s proposed government line-up reflects his ambition to strike a balance between opposing political forces. On the one hand, Rowhani is committed to his allies from the moderate wing of the reformist camp, who supported him during the election. On the other, he sought to avoid nominating controversial reformist ministers who might have provoked opposition from the conservative religious establishment headed by the Supreme Leader, and could even have been disqualified by the Majles.

To avoid opposition from the conservative right, Rowhani chose not to nominate ministers clearly affiliated with the reformist faction to government ministries that are viewed as “sensitive” by the conservative religious establishment, particularly the ministries of interior, intelligence, Islamic guidance, and justice. What’s even more, his picks for the ministries of interior and justice are candidates clearly affiliated with the conservative right. Rowhani’s attempt to prevent clashes with the conservative establishment could also be seen in the fact that he did not invite former President Mohammad Khatami to his swearing-in ceremony.

In addition, Rowhani did not accept proposals from the reformist left to bring notable reformist politicians into his government, such as Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as Khatami’s vice president and quit the race in favor of Rowhani just days prior to the last election; Ahmad Masjed Jame’i, who served as the minister of Islamic guidance in the Khatami government; and Safdar Hosseini, who served as the minister of labor and social services and as minister of economy in the Khatami government.

On the other hand, Rowhani appointed ministers who are considered moderate reformists to ministries perceived as less sensitive by the conservative right, such as the ministries of foreign affairs, education, health, petroleum, labor and welfare, communications, and agriculture. In addition, he named a number of politicians recommended to him by the reformist faction as vice presidents, whose appointment does not require the approval of the Majles. For instance, the president-elect named Ali Younesi, the former minister of intelligence in the Khatami government, as the vice president on political and security affairs, and Morteza Bank, his former advisor in the Expediency Discernment Council’s Center for Strategic Studies, as the vice president on executive affairs.

Rowhani’s choice not to appoint ministers affiliated with the reformist left to major government ministries in charge of formulating interior and law enforcement policy is also a reflection of his preference for promoting economic reforms over political and civil reforms. The president-elect’s ability to institute significant political and civil reforms, such as releasing political prisoners, promoting civil society institutions, and lifting restrictions in the field of Islamic enforcement and media censorship, was rather limited to begin with. This is because the conservative religious establishment is opposed to such reforms, which it perceives as a threat to the values of the revolution and the regime. Appointing conservative-right oriented ministers to the ministries of interior, justice, and Islamic guidance could make it even more difficult for Rowhani to fulfill the promises he made during the election campaign with regard to promoting civil reforms and easing the security atmosphere that prevails in Iranian society.

The appointment of technocrats with Western academic education, some of whom held senior positions in the governments of Rafsanjani and Khatami, to top economic posts lends credence to estimates according to which Rowhani intends to promote neo-liberal economic reforms. The appointment of Mohammad Nahavandian, until now the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as the chief of the president’s office may also be an indication of the president’s intent to focus on economic policy and promote reforms that will strengthen the private sector.

The appointment of veteran diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif as the minister of foreign affairs may be indicative of Rowhani’s desire to defuse the tensions between Iran and the international community and improve the country’s relations with its neighbors. One should note, however, that designing Iran’s foreign policy strategy is, to a large extent, the province of the Supreme Leader. What is more, the authority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is usually limited: it is just one of the bodies involved in the field of foreign policy, others being the Supreme National Security Council, the Department of International Affairs in the Supreme Leader’s office, and the Strategic Council for Foreign Relations.

Rowhani’s proposed government a disappointment for some

Rowhani’s proposed government line-up may provoke criticism from three main groups: the ideological hard core of the reformist camp, women, and the Sunni ethno-linguistic minorities. The appointment of two conservative politicians Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli (an ally of Majles Speaker Ali Larijani) and Mostafa Pourmohammadi as the ministers of interior and justice, respectively, has already become a target for criticism on social networks. Pourmohammadi’s appointment is being particularly criticized in view of claims made by human rights organizations according to which he was involved in the killing of political prisoners in Iran’s jails in 1988 and in the “Chain Murders” of Iranian intellectuals in the 1990s.

For several days now, Rowhani’s decision not to bring women into his government has drawn criticism from women’s rights organizations and on social networks. Last week women’s rights activist Fatemeh Rake’i criticized the lack of women in the proposed government. In an interview given to ISNA News Agency, the former reformist Majles member said that the president should appoint at least three women as ministers in his government. She noted that integrating women into the government is no longer taboo since presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad already appointed women ministers in their governments. No one can claim, therefore, that the clerics are opposed to the appointment of women to ministerial posts. She said that women in Iran have the ability to direct numerous government ministries, such as the ministries of labor and welfare, education, Islamic guidance, sports, youth, and economy. According to Rake’i, even though women’s rights activists have been unable to meet with the president in person in the past several weeks, their demands have been communicated to Rowhani through various channels.

Criticism about not bringing women into the government could also be heard at a conference dedicated to the integration of women into Rowhani’s government organized last week by Iranian women journalists. Zahra Bahramnejad, a member of the Iranian Women Journalists Association, said at the conference that women’s active participation in the government can help improve the situation of women in Iran. She noted that there are high walls in Iran holding back women from entering politics, and that the insignificant presence of women makes it impossible for them to play a constructive role in the decision-making process. Bahramnejad argued that the proposed government line-up goes against the statements made by Rowhani prior to the election on the need to let women participate in the country’s political decisions, and is not consistent with men-women equality.

The non-integration of representatives from Iran’s ethno-linguistic minorities (Arabs, Kurds, and Baluchis) is also likely to draw criticism, particularly considering the high percentage of votes that Rowhani got in the last election in provinces populated by Kurds, Baluchis, and Turkmen. Since the election, the minorities’ representatives have voiced their expectation that Rowhani will fulfill the promises he made before the election about promoting the rights of the minorities, abolishing the discrimination practiced against them, and bringing them into his government.

It should be stressed, however, that, by itself, the composition of the government is not enough to create a crisis of expectation among Rowhani’s supporters, and that public support for the president-elect depends to a great extent on his actual policy, the accomplishments of his government in the next several months, and his ability to deliver on his promises.

Further Reading:

Al Arabiya: Iran’s Rowhani pulls off Cabinet balancing act

Linda Frum, Michael Ledeen: A Chance for the New Iranian President to Prove He’s a Reformer. Western diplomats at the Rouhani inauguration Sunday should challenge him to release political prisoners.

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