Rouhani between a Rock and a Hard Place

Rouhani between a Rock and a Hard Place
Will the Iran’s President Succeed to Form a Nonpartisan Cabinet?
You can change the font size of the text by pressing the + and - buttons.

On August 5th, President Hassan Rouhani is expected to announce the twelfth cabinet which will include 18 ministers, 11 vice-presidents, the head of the presidential office, the chief of staff, and head of cultural heritage and tourism. With the date approaching, Iran’s political atmosphere is heating up and Rouhani faces two tough challenges. Compared to Rouhani’s first presidential term, global and regional trends have turned unfavourable for Iran. Furthermore, amid the American pressure on the country and the developments in the Gulf, the political climate at home is hardly suitable for reformist breezes to blow. From the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s and his cliques’ standpoint, the nuclear deal of 2015 was in vain, as the new American administration is strengthening the anti-Iran campaign. Iran entered a troublesome period and from the viewpoint of the Revolutionary Guards (RG) extreme circumstances require a tougher stance. Consequently, during the last few months, it seemed that Rouhani routinely criticized the RG for their economic and political activities. Yet, if he continues to do so, he may pay a heavy political price. On the other hand, there is a strong popular demand for further reforms in Iran. During his first term Rouhani spent much of his energy on the nuclear deal and did not materialize any structural reforms. Yet in his second term, he must accomplish more to appease those who voted for him. Rouhani’s upcoming cabinet will foreshadow his prospective policies in the following years. Moreover, there are a number of factors to be ruminated over by the moderate President.

First, the much-referred limitations on Rouhani’s executive powers. Not only the Supreme Leader’s overarching hold over the executive branch but also the multi-axis Iranian political system significantly limit Rouhani’s options. The Supreme Leader is particularly powerful on picking names for the Ministries of Interior, Exterior, Intelligence, Defence, Culture and Islamic Guidance as well as Science, Research and Technology. For instance, President Ahmadinejad’s Intelligence Minister, Heydar Moslehi, a close ally of Khamenei, had stepped down on 17 April 2011 under pressure from Ahmadinejad but was reinstated by Khamenei, which caused a major rift between the President and the Supreme Leader. Second, Rouhani’s nominees for ministries need to win a vote of confidence from the Parliament. In this, the Iranian President has the upper hand in the current tenth Parliament compared to the ninth when three of the proposed ministers failed to win the Parliament’s confidence and one minister, Reza Faraji-Dana, the Minister of Science, Research and Technology, was unseated via impeachment in August 2014. On the contrary, in November 2016 the tenth Parliament endorsed Rouhani’s limited cabinet reshuffle and gave a vote of confidence to all three nominees for the Ministries of Education, Youth Affairs and Sports, and Culture and Islamic Guidance. Yet, other Parliamentary challenges await Rouhani. Nader Qazipour, a deputy from Orumiyeh and the second man of the 110-membered Turkish faction in the Parliament, shared his expectation to see more Turkish ministers in the new cabinet. Although the conservative Qazipour’s expectation may not be mutually shared by other members of the faction, he certainly has a point. Furthermore, Iranian Sunnis who voted for Rouhani expect to see a Sunnite minister or deputy minister in the new cabinet. Similarly, there is an increasing pressure on the moderate President to appoint a female minister in the new cabinet as most recently voiced by Shahindokht Molaverdi, Rouhani’s Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs in the eleventh cabinet. The third factor concerns the nature of the “Coalition of Hope” as the main basis of Rouhani’s political power. Mohammad Reza Aref, head of the “Hope” faction in the Parliament, tweeted on July 13th about the significance of forming a reformist cabinet. Yet, on July 19th Rouhani stated before the cabinet meeting that the twelfth cabinet will be nonpartisan (fara-janahi). This is certainly easier said than done.

Although at this point Rouhani has not provided any clues as to who his nominees for the ministries will be, his eleventh cabinet choices can offer important insights about his upcoming cadre of cabinet members and vice presidents. Moreover, a striking feature of the eleventh cabinet is the dominance of individuals who hold foreign degrees. Apart from the President himself, some of his prominent teammates, namely Javad Zarif, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Mohammad Nahavandian, Head of the Presidential Office and Chief of Staff; Mohammad Reza Ne'matzadeh, Minister of Industry, Mine and Trade; Mohammad Bagher Nobakht Haghighi, Vice President and Head of Plan and Budget Organization; Ali Akbar Salehi, Vice- President and Head of Atomic Energy Organization; Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi, Minister of Road and Urban Development; and Mahmoud Vaezi, Minister of Information and Communications Technology, received at least part of their graduate education from Western, mostly American, universities. Another feature of this cabinet is the “Rafsanjanism” imprint it bears. Such individuals as Haghighi, Ne'matzadeh and Es’haq Jahangiri, Rouhani’s First Vice President, were some of Rafsanjani’s close associates. Jahangiri remained in Hashemi Rafsanjani’s close entourage from the earliest stages of the latter’s presidency until his death and was a founding board member, along with Akbar Turkan, Rouhani's chief adviser and Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, Minister of Oil of the Pro-Rafsanjani Executives of Construction Party of Iran-ECPI (Hezb-e Kargozaran-e Sazandegi-e Iran) which was founded in 1999. The existence of some well-known conservative figures is another notable feature of the eleventh cabinet. Rouhani’s Minister of Justice, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi Pourmohammadi who is a member of the conservative Association of Combatant Clerics is an example of this. Also, in his first post-election press conference, Rouhani had announced his intention to form a younger cabinet with higher participation from women. Surprisingly, the average age of the eleventh cabinet, 55 years, is the highest it has been since 1989 and nine years above the age average of the previous six cabinets. Besides, there were three women in Rouhani’s first cabinet, Shahindokht Molaverdi Vice President for Women and Family Affairs; Zahra Ahmadipour, Head of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization; and Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice- President and Head of Environmental Protection Organization, although none held a ministerial position.

President Rouhani will certainly remove some cabinet members. Akhoundi along with Mohammad Farhadi, Minister of Science, Research and Technology, Ali Tayebnia, Minister of Economy and Ali Rabiei, Minister of Labor, Cooperative and Welfare will presumably be excluded in the next cabinet. Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, Minister of Interior, can also be added to the list. Furthermore, 72-year old Ne'matzadeh, Fakhroddin Ahmadi Daanesh Ashtiani, Minister of Education and Hassan Qazizadeh Hashemi, Minister of Health, announced that they will not take part in the twelfth cabinet. Indubitably, Rouhani is particularly happy about Hashemi’s performance over the last four years but the latter seems to be determined to step down as minister. Yet, Zarif, Jahangiri and Salehi are expected to keep their seats. The cabinet ins and outs will soon be announced by Rouhani but his intention of forming a non-partisan cabinet might not be so easily materialized. While initiating major political reforms, Rouhani must find ways to get the country out of dire economic conditions. The degree of his success remains to be seen. Nevertheless, one thing is beyond doubt: a discordant and uncontrollable cabinet is the last thing he needs.