Iran’s Rowhani pulls off Cabinet balancing act

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By choosing ministers known more for their experience than their political views, President Hassan Rowhani has proposed a cabinet that achieves a rare feat in Iranian politics - it satisfies both reformist and conservative factions.

Rowhani’s presidency has raised hopes in diplomatic circles that the moderate cleric with links to all of Iran’s often-feuding factions can be someone the West can talk to and at least defuse tensions over the nuclear dispute.

Perhaps wanting to take advantage of the tide of good will, Rowhani handed his list of ministerial nominations to parliament immediately after he was sworn in on Sunday.

Allies of the conservative, so-called “Principlists” whom Rowhani defeated in the June polls still dominate parliament, and getting them to approve each of his ministers will be the president’s first challenge.

But Rowhani also has a debt to pay to the officially sidelined, but more popular reformists who pulled out their candidate from the election at the last minute and put their weight behind Rowhani’s campaign.

“Pleasing a single Iranian faction through cabinet nominations is a difficult enough task; pleasing all of them can be likened to completing a Rubik’s cube,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.

The headline choice for Rowhani’s cabinet is Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was picked as foreign minister.

A former ambassador to the United Nations, Zarif has been involved in secret backroom talks with the United States going back three decades and his nomination is a strong signal Rowhani wants to open up those channels which were closed under his hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The U.S.-educated Zarif served both under pragmatist President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 1990s and under reformist President Mohammad Khatami before retreating into academia after Ahmadinejad came to office in 2005.

Another big name is Bijan Zanganeh, Rowhani’s choice for oil minister. Well respected among OPEC colleagues, Zanganeh also served under both Khatami and Rafsanjani.

Such choices contrast with the Ahmadinejad era in which political loyalty was rewarded above expertise, and experienced diplomats and officials were purged from ministries in favor of the president’s allies, many of whom had little experience.

But Rowhani has yet to announce his choice for nuclear negotiator, a post which would help determine the tone and tactics of Iran’s diplomacy with world powers over its disputed nuclear program.

While few doubt Zarif’s diplomatic skill, he may appear a little too close to the reformist camp for some in parliament.

The same could be said of Zanganeh and Mohammad Ali Najafi, a technocrat picked for education minister, who visited Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to speak on behalf of reformist opposition leaders, under house arrest after anti-government protests that followed the 2009 presidential election.

An opposition website, however, said last week that Rowhani had showed his cabinet list to Khamenei before presenting it to parliament. If true, it is unlikely parliament will reject the nominees since they will have been implicitly approved by the leader, the most powerful figure in Iran.

Parliament rejected a string of Ahmadinejad’s candidates for the oil and foreign ministries in 2005, but so far looks to be broadly supportive of Rowhani’s cabinet choices.

“Luckily Dr. Rowhani has proposed an experienced and desirable cabinet to parliament,” the parliamentary news agency quoted conservative lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi as saying. An “overwhelming” number of nominees would be approved, he predicted.

Hardline conservatives pressed Rowhani in the weeks after his election to exclude reformists tarnished by the protests that followed Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election.

The pressure may have convinced Rowhani to avoid picking any overt reformists for his cabinet.

“Most are centrist figures that are known for their technocratic competencies rather than for their political credentials as ‘reformists’ affiliated with the Khatami period,” Mehran Kamrava, of Georgetown University in Qatar, told Reuters.

“My sense is that in putting his list of nominees together, Rowhani wanted to make sure there is smooth sailing through the parliament nomination process,” he said.

Reformist politicians, excluded from frontline politics for the last four years and with many of their number in jail or having served prison sentences, said they were broadly satisfied with the nominations.

“The cabinet that he has proposed is an expert, highly educated cabinet,” Esmail Gerami-Moghaddam, a reformist former member of parliament, told Reuters. “He has chosen reformists and Principlists whose records all show they are really moderates.”

Many were struck by the absence of former president Khatami from the inauguration. The near absence of out-and-out reformists from the cabinet was also surprising given that their backing helped Rowhani win the election.

“The marginalization of overtly reformist politicians is striking,” said Professor Ali Ansari of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews.

“The other, perhaps more worrying development beyond the cabinet is how many of the hardline conservatives are remaining in place and we ought not to lose sight of just how much is not changing as we focus our attention on Rowhani,” he said.

While he spoke much about women’s rights during his campaign and in his inauguration speech, Rowhani did not select one woman for his cabinet. Even Ahmadinejad had one woman minister.

Mostafa Pour mohammadi, Rowhani’s nomination for justice minister, is accused by Human Rights Watch of being one of a three-man committee that ordered prisoners in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail to their summary executions in 1988.

Thousands of political prisoners were executed, many without trial, on the orders of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, rights groups say.

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