Rouhani’s Cabinet

Guest post by James Devine:

Since Hassan Rouhani’s election, Iran watchers have been keenly anticipating his cabinet nominations. How this process plays out will likely yield valuable information about how Rouhani plans to deal with the polarized domestic political environment, what kinds of policies he hopes to purse, and how aggressive his conservative adversaries will be in their opposition.

On Iran’s political spectrum, his choices ranged from pragmatic conservative to moderate reformers. They all have plenty of experience, but none of them have had very high political profiles. The balance he is trying to strike should probably not be too surprising; he is trying to satisfy the Reformers and Greens who backed him after Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified from the elections, without waving any red flags in front of the conservative bulls in the Majlis (parliament) or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who have been making threatening noises about “seditionists” in the new government.

No one really expected him to pick high-profile reformers like former president Muhammad Khatami. Nevertheless, there was a possibility that he might reach across the aisle, so to speak, and pick a few more moderate conservatives as a gesture of good faith. It is still likely, though, that former long-time Foreign Minister, and Khamenei favourite, Ali Akbar Velayati will play an important role in Rouhani’s administration. It has been speculated he would take over as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, a position that would also make him Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear file.

The choice of Ali Jannati for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is particularly interesting. The ministry plays an important role in controlling the media and freedom of speech, and therefore sets the parameters for allowable discourse within the Republic. Jannati is considered close to Rafsanjani but he is the son of prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Council of Guardians. This type of delicate balancing is typical of Iran’s complex factional political system. The younger Jannati may lean toward the reformist side but he is still tied to the regime by his relationship with his father, whose name Rouhani likely hopes will provide him with some political cover.

Rouhani’s choices are also suggestive in terms of foreign policy. Mohammad Javad Zarif, his nomination for Foreign Minister, is American-educated and has experience dealing with the United Nations and the US government. He has a reputation for favoring dialogue with the US, and is a logical choice for Rouhani, who has made easing sanctions a key foreign policy goal. Similarly, including Mahmoud Vaezi in the cabinet makes sense. Vaezi was expected by some to have Zarif’s job, but landed as the Minister of Information and Communication Technologies. Vaezi is one of the more conservative members of Rouhani’s political team, and mistrusts the US. Nevertheless, he is a former Deputy Foreign Minister dating back to the Rafsanjani era and has experience with both the Europeans and the Americans. Perhaps most interesting, he also has wealth of experience with the Saudis, having played an important role in the rapprochement that was achieved between the two states in the late 1990s. Rouhani has made improving ties with Saudi Arabia another one of his goals.

In the same vein, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh was likely chosen as Petroleum Minister to help smooth relations with Riyadh. Zangeneh held the same post earlier under Mohammad Khatami when he was brought in to undo the damage caused by his abrasive predecessor, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh. Zangenah helped negotiate a land-mark price-bandwidth deal with the Saudis in 2000. He will be asked to perform the same trick twice since the outgoing minister, Rustam Qassemi was also considered somewhat heavy-handed.

Finally, another name worth noting is Mahmood Sariolghalam. Sariolghalam did not receive a cabinet nomination but was tapped to become Rouhani’s Foreign Affairs Advisor. Sariolghalam is close to Rafsanjani. Moreover, his foreign policy outlook is decidedly Western-oriented. While Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners around him believed that Iran’s future lay in the east, through building up regional influence and courting China, Sariolghalam sees the US and Europe as Iran’s natural partner. Choosing such an advisor is a significant indicator of Rouhani’s inclinations.

What all of this means in practice is still anyone’s guess. Not only will it be difficult to make any substantive changes in Iranian policy, he still has to get his cabinet selections through the conservative dominated Majlis. Khamenei has reportedly seen the list and did not object. This may mean that Rouhani’s nominations will get a smooth ride through parliament, though that is hard to imagine. The conservatives will likely want to send Rouhani a message right away. Khamenei may therefore be leaving the dirty work to the deputies in the Majlis and the critics in the conservative press. That way, he can remain above the political fray. He can try to present himself as a neutral arbiter among the factions, and if the public reacts negatively to conservative opposition, he can avoid direct blame.

Even if he wants to give Rouhani some space, the rest of the conservatives may not be willing to go along with the program. As the last few years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency demonstrated, the conservatives themselves can be an unruly bunch. They may lash out at Rouhani regardless of Khamenei’s wishes. Indeed, the election exposed the depth of the divisions within conservative ranks. It may take them a while to gather themselves and formulate a coordinated plan for dealing with Rouhani. After all, it took the conservatives nearly two years to figure out how to deal with Khatami when he was elected.

One way or another, the next few weeks will be telling.

President Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Policy

Another important guest post from James Devine, in which he considers the foreign policy implications of the Iranian presidential election:

Few people predicted a Rouhani victory in yesterday’s presidential elections, even after he received the support of former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. On the whole, Iran watchers were resigned to the election of a loyal conservative. But now that’s he’s won the election, what does Hassan Rouhani’s victory mean for Iranian foreign policy? Probably not enough of a change to suit Washington, or Tel Aviv, or Ottawa; however, we may see some subtle changes that are nevertheless important.

On the nuclear issue, Rouhani will not likely alter that much in substance. The roots of Iran’s nuclear program are deep. While Tehran does not appear to have made the final decision to build a bomb, it has been putting the building blocks in place for more than 20 years. Its neighborhood is no less dangerous than it has been in the past, and the program has strong institutional support in the security services and Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, the peaceful development of nuclear energy has become a popular symbol of Iranian national independence. More, Rouhani is himself is tied to the program. He was chair of the Supreme National Security Council in its early days and Iran’s main negotiator on the issue for a period while Khatami was in power.

It is also unlikely that Rouhani will be able to improve Iran’s relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Although relations with the Saudis and the GCC improved while his allies Khatami and Rafsanjani were in power, the region is today too polarized for him to follow in their footsteps. Iran will continue to back the Asad regime in Syria and Sunni-Shi’a conflict in Iraq is on the rise. Even without these problems, Shi’a unrest in the Gulf will ensure that tension between Iran and the Sunni monarchs remains high. It is possible that having Rouhani in office may facilitate relations with Egypt to a degree, but this would still likely be limited by popular opinion within Egypt. To those who wish to isolate Iran, this is good news, but these tensions feed the violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and complicate diplomatic efforts on these and other conflicts.

If there is any room for substantive improvement, it might be Afghanistan. Iran’s interests are less diametrically opposed to western interests in the country. Iran has history of conflict with the Taliban, and it cooperated with the US in 2001 when the Taliban were overthrown, and again when Hamid Karzai was installed in power. The main issue dividing them, rather, has been mistrust.

Having said that, Iran will likely continue to hedge its bets by backing every group in Afghanistan willing to accept its support, and Iranian security forces in Afghanistan will be hard to rein in, even if Tehran wants to. What is more, the Iranian government received a Taliban delegation only a week ago, suggesting it is moving even further way from the western position.

Where there likely will be a change is in the tone of Iranian foreign policy. The substance of Iranian foreign policy may be dictated by regional dynamics and the constraints of domestic politics, but the way that policy is carried out may change. Rouhani campaigned on his ability to avoid needless conflict, so it is unlikely that he will be calling for Israel’s destruction or denying the Holocaust. Just as importantly, we will likely see different faces in the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Each Iranian president has brought his own people into this ministry.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came into power, many professional diplomats were replaced by fellow ideological travelers and cronies. Few of them had much experience. Rouhani will probably lean heavily on former members of the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. It would not even be surprising to see former Foreign Minister and conservative presidential candidate, Ali-Akbar Velayati, return to his old post. He and Rouhani have worked together in the past, and Velayati is trusted by Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservative elite. Like Rouhani, Velayati was also critical of Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements. This type of change may seem trivial given the events unfolding in the region, but it is not. There is a difference between managing conflict carefully and pouring fuel on the fire.

We may also see is a little more coherence in Iranian foreign policy. Since the revolution, Iran has had a difficult time speaking with one voice. This will likely continue under Rouhani. Conservative opponents will remain in control of the Majlis, and Khamenei’s leadership style is to let his underlings compete amongst themselves and only intervene when necessary. However, if Velayati is on board the administration would bridge the divide to a degree and it would be harder for conservative opponents to criticize policy if it was associated with someone so close to Khamenei.

If Rouhani’s election will make any difference, it will also depend in part on how the west responds. If the west wants to take advantage of these subtle differences, there may be some modest gains to be had. It is also worth noting that foreign policy success strengthened Khatami’s domestic position early in his presidency. Working with Rouhani may, then, be one way for the west to strengthen the moderate current inside Iranian politics. However, if the west decides that modest gains are not enough, and pushes for fundamental policy change, it does not matter who the president is: only Khamenei can make those types of decisions.