Iran Press Report: The Battle Over Rouhani’s Cabinet

Mehrun Etebari
Mehrun Etebari Senior Research Assistant

August 1, 2013

As Hassan Rouhani prepares to take power this weekend, the makeup of the new president’s cabinet has taken center stage as a contentious issue in the Iranian press.  Various outlets, including Tehran-e Emrooz, have published likely lists of cabinet ministers based on variously sourced reports, but the political affiliations of certain members of these lists have sparked a war of words between hardliners and reformists over how Rouhani should build his government.

Hardliner principlists have been particularly vocal that the new president, who ran on promises to pursue a moderate set of policies, should exclude reformists from his cabinet in order to avoid connection with the “seditionists” who supported Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi during and after the 2009 election. They have often claimed that the reformists are trying to force their way into Rouhani’s cabinet.  For example, in the conservative daily Resalat, Saleh Eskandari wrote that reformists have a vision for Iran that is far different from the moderate path that Rouhani has espoused, and are seeking to opportunistically push through their agenda after supporting him in the election: “They view this government as an opportunity to claim the spoils of a long political battle and demand shares.”

Most notable for his vehement anti-reformist writing has been the influential hardliner and Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari.  After a previous editorial last Thursday in which he argued that Kayhan was doing Iran a service by exposing the true faces of many reformist leaders who were truly doing the seditious work of the “US-Israel-UK triangle,” he argued yesterday that if reported lists that include some reformist politicians in the proposed cabinet are accurate, it means that Rouhani has been unduly pressured by seditionists and supporters of Khatami and Rafsanjani, and thus the Majlis should come to the rescue of Rouhani and the nation by rejecting the nominations of any such nominees.

In response, reformists have largely reacted in anger at what they see as obstructionism from a political front that lost the election resoundingly.  The reformist daily Bahar wrote today that Shariatmadari’s editorial was a sign that hardliners could be expected to try to disrupt proceedings: “These circumstances show that Rouhani will face difficulties in choosing the ministers, and it is also possible that hardliners, because of their failures, will start putting obstacles in the path of the government by voting against the cabinet ministers.”

Also in Bahar, Kasra Nouri argued that Rouhani needs to make strong choices to maintain his promises to foster freedom of intellectual expression and of political organization, particularly in his choices for the Ministers of Intelligence, Interior, Islamic Guidance, and Science.  He argued that conservative principlists had been trying to force his hand away from accomplished reformists in order to move him closer to their dream of a hardliner government: “Mr. Rouhani! Those who warn you against the likes of [Mohammad Reza] Aref, [Eshaq] Jahangiri…and, in sum, whoever has worked with Khatami and Hashemi, will tomorrow hand you a list in which the first vice president will be Hossein Shariatmadari…”

Mohammad Ali Moshfegh also argued in Arman that principlist extremists should not claim that Rouhani is one of them, and should not try to force him to obey their wishes for a cabinet. He told them that they were clearly the losers of the election and must accept the implications, saying, “Those who voted in favor of Jalili or others in the election should not forget that they cannot change their vote now in favor of Rouhani.” 

Reformist political analyst Sadeq Zibakalam – who also earned himself attention this week for suggesting that Rouhani launch a public referendum on establishing relations with the United States – argued in Shargh that while many principlists are arguing that Rouhani has no right to appoint anyone who closely supported Mir-Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi in 2009, “the election of June 14 showed that the Iranian people do not see the reformists as the enemy and have not bought the principlists’ accusations against the reformists over the past four years.” Later, he elaborated on this message in Etemaad, saying that the principlists had no ground to try to push their beliefs on Rouhani after the election turned out as it did. “More than a ‘yes’ for the reformists, Hashemi, and Khatami, the 19 million votes for Rouhani on June 14 were a big ‘no’ to the principlists and their policies and actions over the past eight years,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Akbar Torkan, who is leading Rouhani’s transition team, told Arman today that the president-elect has no desire to give in to pressure from any sort of “extremists.”  Asked if conservative commentators were changing Rouhani’s calculus in nominating potential ministers, he replied, “No; I am entirely involved in the cabinet selection process, and [Rouhani] has remained completely faithful to the principles and goals he espoused in the election, and by choosing individuals who are independent and are experts, he has shown this.”  Elsewhere, Reza Sharifi in Bahar suggested it might be in the reformists’ benefit to avoid the conflict their entry into the cabinet would bring, and instead remain loyal supporters from the outside, ready to point impartially at extremist obstructionism when it occurs.

APPENDIX: Translated Summaries of Selected Opinion Pieces (Newest to Oldest)

“Let the Extremists Know that the Moderates Won the Election.” Interview with Akbar Torkan, Arman, 10 Mordad 1392 / 1 August 2013.

In an interview with the reformist-leaning daily Arman, Akbar Torkan, defense minister in the first term of the Rafsanjani presidency and currently the head of Hassan Rouhani’s transition team, emphasizes that the president-elect is ignoring all attempts by outside actors to force his hand as he chooses members of his cabinet.  Asked if Rouhani was being influenced by calls in hardline papers for certain nominees who might emerge to be omitted – or, if not, denied confirmation by the Majlis – he answers, “No; I am entirely involved in the cabinet selection process, and [Rouhani] has remained completely faithful to the principles and goals he espoused in the election, and by choosing individuals who are independent and are experts, he has shown this.” Confirming the names of several individuals who he says will appear in the new administration, he cited Hamid Chitchian (rumored as the pick for Energy Minister), Abbas Akhundi (rumored for Housing and Urban Development), Bijan Zanganeh (rumored to be the next Oil Minister)  Mohammad-Ali Najafi (whom he cites as the nominee for Education Minister) and Jafar Nili Monfared (whom he says will oversee higher education and who has been cited as the likely Science Minister) as being well-known educated and independent experts in their field, and reiterates that these were the characteristics Rouhani has promised to base his selections on.

“A Gift from the Majlis to Rouhani and the Nation.” Hossein Shariatmadari, Kayhan, 9 Mordad 1392 / 31 July 2013.

Influential hardliner and Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari writes that the reports of various reformist figures appearing in Rouhani’s proposed cabinet indicate that the president-elect has been pressured into including them, and that the Majlis should do both the new president and the Iranian nation a favor by rejecting such nominees in their confirmation votes. “First, [Rouhani] has been under severe pressure from the seditionists, the reformists, and the Kargozaran party [tied to Hashemi Rafsanjani], and second, to fight against the share-seeking activity of these groups, it has become necessary for strong action to be taken.”  He insists that, since Rouhani is on record as having “called the seditionists thugs and hooligans,” it is clear that Rouhani would not willingly include anyone who supported the “American-Israeli sedition of 2009” in his government, and thus the Majlis should not allow figures closely tied to the reformist leaders to be approved as cabinet ministers.

“Who Will Hold the Keys to the Ministries?” Tehran-e Emrooz, 9 Mordad 1392 / 31 July 2013.

A report in Tehran-e Emrooz is one of many appearing in the press to discuss the reported list of likely cabinet nominees.  It writes with caveats that some observers say that “these lists are only rumors and do not deserve attention,” and notes that no figures within the transition team of Rouhani had yet confirmed the accuracy of the supposedly leaked lists, only citing a Rouhani ally who says that the final list must include only experts willing to work in a moderate non-partisan manner and must include reformists, principlists, and independent moderates.  It then goes on to enumerate the likely nominees it knows of as follows:
First Vice President: Eshaq Jahangiri
Interior Minister: Mohammad Shariatmadari
Intelligence Minister: Seyyed Mahmoud Alavi
Foreign Minister: Mohammad-Javad Zarif
Education Minister: Mohammad-Ali Najafi
Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance: Ali Jannati
Oil Minister: Bijan Zanganeh
Agriculture Minister: Hojjati
Energy Minister: Hamid Chitchian
Minister of Housing and Urban Development: Abbas Akhundi
Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs: Saeed Faeghi
Minister of Defense: Ahmad Vahidi
Minister of Economics and Finance: Mohammad Tabibian
Labor Minister: Ali Rabi’i
VP for Parliamentary Affairs: Teymour-Ali Asgari
Minister of Health: Seyyed Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi
Minister of Communications and Information Technology: Seyyed Abolhassan Firouzabadi
Director of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization: Reza Salehi Amiri
Justice Minister: Undetermined
Economic Team: Akbar Torkan, Mohammad Nahavandian, Mohammad-Bagher Nowbakht, Ali Rabi’i

“The Reformists’ Share in the Rouhani Government.” Reza Sharifi, Bahar, 2 Mordad 1392 / 24 July 2013.

Sharifi writes in Bahar that the reformists should back away from seeking a direct role in Rouhani’s cabinet. He argues that, although reformists played a huge role in Rouhani’s victory – not only in Mohammad Reza Aref’s decision to withdraw in Rouhani’s favor but also in the support that Khatami  and various reformist political organizations gave to his campaign in its final days – they could be setting themselves up for an unnecessary conflict if they enter the cabinet.  He argues that if the reformists remain outside the cabinet, they can be impartial observers when inevitable hardliner obstructionism impedes policy, and can issue impartial criticisms in such cases – and can also do so if Rouhani’s government fails to achieve its own policy objectives.  He warns that if the reformist current enters the government, it could create a distracting dynamic in which the “defeated currents” of the hardliners seek to weaken the government as a whole due to the presence of the reformists, whom they have been attacking for years.