Iranian parliament begins debate on Rowhani cabinet picks

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Iran’s parliament began debating on Monday the 18-member cabinet proposed by President Hassan Rowhani ahead of a vote of confidence later in the week.

Addressing lawmakers at the start of the session, Rowhani said his priority in office was to tackle the country’s economic crisis, as well as its disputed nuclear program in a bid to lift the several rounds of Western sanctions that have hit the country’s economy hard.

Rowhani unveiled his all-male cabinet of technocrats on August 4 but his nominations must be confirmed by the conservative-dominated parliament in a process that has several stages.

The new president must first present his program and defend his choice of ministers to parliament, after which five MPs will defend the government and five others challenge it.

After this supporters and opponents of each minister will speak before the vote of confidence on Wednesday, which will be for every minister individually rather than the cabinet as a whole.

Rowhani’s choices have already come under fire from ultra-conservative MPs.

The ministers of education, science and universities, housing and oil have come in for particular criticism for their roles in the demonstrations that followed the controversial 2009 re-election of ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The four men proposed for these portfolios were members of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s election campaign in 2009.

Ahmadinejad’s re-election triggered huge anti-regime protests by supporters of Mousavi and fellow reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi who alleged the vote had been rigged.

Those protests provoked a deadly crackdown and led to dozens of reformist figures and journalists being detained.

Mousavi and Karroubi have been under house arrest since early 2011.

In his address to parliament on Monday, Rowhani laid stress on Iran’s ailing economy. International sanctions have crippled the country’s once lucrative oil sector, cut its access to global banking, and contributed to soaring inflation, which has hit around 40 percent.

“We all know that our country is in a difficult social and economic situation, and international pressure has aggravated these problems,” Rowhani told parliament.

The sanctions are aimed at “limiting or closing the country’s channels of exchange with the outside,” he said, denouncing “the method used by Western countries... who have taken society’s elementary needs hostage” to put pressure on Iran to give up its controversial nuclear program.

He added that “in the field of diplomacy, the government was going to try to tackle this international challenge while defending the nation’s will” to hold on to its nuclear rights.

At his first press conference after taking office on August 4, Rowhani had urged “serious” talks with the international community without delay to allay concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but said that he would not surrender Iran’s “rights” to enrich uranium for civilian energy purposes.