Wall Street Journal: The cabinet choices made by Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani signal that the new government could be pursuing a dual policy track: a shift in foreign and economic polices to ease international sanctions but far less compromise on opening up domestic politics and social freedom.
The Wall Street Journal
By Farnaz Fassihi
BEIRUT—The cabinet choices made by Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani signal that the new government could be pursuing a dual policy track: a shift in foreign and economic polices to ease international sanctions but far less compromise on opening up domestic politics and social freedom.
The ministers of foreign, oil, economy and industries are moderate and pragmatic technocrats, tasked with restoring Iran’s image abroad. These ministers will use the polish gained through Western educations and international experience to try to convince the West that Iran is no longer a pariah state ruled by irrational people, and that negotiations should take precedence over sanctions and threats of war.
Mr. Rouhani also appointed former foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, another moderate politician, as the head of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, according to a report on Friday by Iran’s state-controlled news agency IRNA. The new top nuclear negotiator hasn’t been named yet.
In speaking to the Parliament on Monday at the start of the four-day confirmation hearing on the cabinet, Mr. Rouhani said his top priority was improving the economy and ending Iran’s diplomatic isolation.
“Your vote of confidence in the ministers is not just a vote for the individuals, it is a vote for the whole government and its plans,” Mr. Rouhani said.
On the contrary, the ministers in charge of top domestic issues such as security, judiciary and intelligence are ultraconservatives, some with checkered human rights records, close to the inner circle of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Their appointment dashed hopes that the new government would free political prisoners, loosen constraints on the media or expand political tolerance—at least in the immediate future—and could disappoint those who voted for him in June. Mr. Rouhani campaigned heavily on a promise of change and managed to rally the support of important demographic groups, including middle and working class voters, young people and women, with pledges to improve their lives, both socially and economically.
“Rouhani has to open up the domestic space and ease the draconian policies in place or he will quickly lose his popular legitimacy,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
The cabinet makeup marked Mr. Rouhani’s first challenge as a president. It also underscored his difficult balancing act going forward, as he will have to navigate the demands and expectations of supporters against pressure from Iran’s ruling elite.
A report published on the opposition website Sahamnews said that Mr. Khamenei had vetoed four of Mr. Rouhani’s key cabinet picks—for the posts of defense, information and culture, intelligence and higher-education—and that Mr. Rouhani had promptly picked other people.
“It’s clear [from the appointments] that Mr. Khamenei has given President Rouhani a free hand to do what he wants in foreign policy and the economy,” said Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an Iran expert based in New York. “It’s different for domestic issues.”
Mr. Rouhani, who took office on Aug. 4, drew his cabinet largely from conservatives and centrist technocrats who had served under previous governments. Women and prominent reformist figures were absent from the list.
Each nominee delivered a speech before the conservative-dominated parliament during the confirmation hearing, in live televised sessions.
The confirmation hearings drew harsh criticism from many Iranians fed up with petty political infighting. Iranians interviewed in Tehran and many posting comments on social-networking sites complained that lawmakers appeared more focused on dissecting each candidate’s ideology than examining his expertise or policies.
“The parliament acted immature and out of touch with the public’s demands,” said Elham, a 37-year-old engineer in Tehran.
For example, the new Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a respected career diplomat, was grilled on whether he tried to obtain a Green Card in the U.S. when he served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. He denied the allegation.
The new Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, another internationally respected technocrat, was accused of wheeling and dealing oil contracts with insider circles. Mr. Zangeneh denied that. He said that if confirmed, “You are sending me to the front lines of the battle to defeat sanctions.”
The most controversial cabinet member is the choice for the judiciary. The new minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi is accused by international human rights organizations as having had a direct role in the mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
Neither Messrs. Rouhani nor Pourmohammadi have commented on calls by human rights organizations to withdraw his name from the judiciary post.
The Parliament approved 15 out of 18 cabinet appointments and rejected three on Thursday.
Two of the three—for the ministries of education and higher education and research—were rejected because of their ties to the opposition Green Movement. Both men had campaigned for the former presidential candidates and now opposition leaders under house arrest, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
The candidate for minister of sports was rejected because of lack of experience.