Last week, Hassan Rowhani was inaugurated as Iran’s eighth president and what was eagerly anticipated has so far turned out to be disappointing.
The nomination of his politically conservative cabinet upset reformists while perhaps pleasing conservatives and those close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The intelligence community is heavily represented in the president’s choice of nominees. Rowhani’s critics argue that some in the cabinet have questionable human rights records. Most served in the intelligence services during the tumultuous first decade of the revolution when the government was solidifying its power base by oppressing dissidents.
The most famous and controversial figure is Mostafa Pourmohammadi who has been chosen as the justice minister. His name is associated with the mass executions by the Islamic Republic during the republic’s first decade in the 1980s.
At that time, Pourmohammadi was serving as the deputy intelligence minister and a judge.
Rowhani…acts in a very moderate manner, not wishing to ruin relations so early in his term, especially with the dragons in parliament.Camelia Entekhabi-Fard
Later he became the extraterritorial deputy at the Ministry of Information. It was during this time that assassinations of political figures took place, including Shapour Bakhtiar, Iran’s last prime minister under the Shah’s regime, who was slain in Paris.
Pourmohammadi’s name is associated with the darkest era of torture and assassinations in the Islamic Republic’s history, and now he is nominated for justice minister—a nomination that has human rights activists and even foreign governments raising concerns about his past record.
Eight year ago when then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nominated him for interior minister, parliamentarians raised their eyebrows and even conservative MPs complained about Ahmadinejad’s poor choice given Pourmohammadi’s association with murdering the regime’s opposition.
That said, in key ministries such as intelligence, interior and defense, all nominations require de facto approval by the Supreme Leader. Neither Ahmadinejad nor Rowhani should be blamed for appointing Pourmohammadi in these cabinet posts.
Ahmadinejad discharged Pourmohammadi after serving three years in the cabinet. But soon after Ayatollah Khamenei appointed him as the head of the State Inspectorate Organization, the main anti-corruption authority in the Iranian legal structure.
Khamenei does not wish to retire Pourmohammadi yet. Middle-aged and experienced, Pourmohammadi has proven his loyalty to Khamenei which has earned him a promotion to higher-ranking positions—a decision Rowhani must tolerate.
From a strictly legal standpoint, Pourmohammadi has been nominated for the head of the judiciary, who then suggests the justice minister to the president. Currently the head of the judiciary is the conservative Sadegh Larijani and it was he who wanted Pourmohammadi in the cabinet.
That being the case, it calls into question Rowhani’s negotiating skills and his inability to convince Larijani to support a less controversial figure than Pourmohammadi.
Work with the dragons carefully
Parliament began reviewing the nominees’ credentials on Monday, August 12. With the exception of the nominee for the ministry of petroleum, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, the candidates will likely be approved.
Rowhani’s priorities are to boost the shattered economy and decrease the pressure of international sanctions. Cabinet members must reflect his vision of how they wish to tackle the issues.
Many are disappointed by his poor choice in the leading cabinet members. But the president has a fine line to walk, namely with the parliament.
The current parliament, led by Ali Larijani, was and is one of the most difficult parliaments since the revolution in 1979. In the hands of the conservatives, parliamentarians were unable to work with former president and fellow conservative Ahmadinejad despite initially supporting him. In fact, towards the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the media issued daily reports on the ugly struggle between the president and Parliament.
It went so far as to require the Supreme Leader to intervene asking the president and Parliament, particularly Speaker Larijani, to put an end to this embarrassing public behavior.
Rowhani, who does not like to identify himself as a reformist or belonging to any party or particular group, acts in a very moderate manner, not wishing to ruin relations so early in his term, especially with the dragons in parliament.
The current parliament will finish its term within a year and depending on the president’s performance, Rowhani can be hopeful that the next election will bring in a different, more supportive, type of parliamentarian.
Until then, the president has no choice but to work with the dragons carefully.
He needs to begin his work fast and without issue and confrontation with the parliament and hence most of his cabinet choices are safe choices.
Once he is established and Parliament is handed over to a more supportive and moderate group, then he can easily make the changes in his cabinet.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth - A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard