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.