The Guardian: Dawn has barely broken on the fledgling presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but Iran’s new leader is already showing ominous signs of realising the worst fears of his liberal-minded opponents. The ultra-Islamist former mayor of Tehran, who was elected president in an unforeseen electoral landslide in June, offered his first serious indication of intent when he announced the make-up of his cabinet on Sunday.
Iran may have a new cabinet, but hopes that it would make any concessions to reform appear to have been dashed, says Robert Tait
Dawn has barely broken on the fledgling presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but Iran’s new leader is already showing ominous signs of realising the worst fears of his liberal-minded opponents.
The ultra-Islamist former mayor of Tehran, who was elected president in an unforeseen electoral landslide in June, offered his first serious indication of intent when he announced the make-up of his cabinet on Sunday.
If the nation’s downcast political reform movement had been hoping he would use the occasion to reach out to it across the yawning political divide, it was badly disappointed. Far from revealing an inclusive “big tent” cabinet, Mr Ahmadinejad named a team of unreconstructed religious conservatives after his own heart.
It was yet another body blow to reformers, who were badly in need of encouragement after an election defeat that compounded years of setbacks.
During that time, the former president Mohammed Khatami’s liberal-leaning administration was repeatedly blocked in its attempts to bring lasting change.
Mr Ahmadinejad’s 21-strong all-male cabinet (the Islamic Republic has never had a female cabinet minister) presents a tellingly hirsute spectacle. With the sole exception of the economics minister, Davoud Danesh-Jafari, all the new ministers sport a fecund display of facial hair in the best Islamist tradition.
But it is Mr Ahmadinejad’s choices for some key portfolios that has set reformist nerves on edge.
Many observers see the intelligence, interior and culture ministries as the acid test of his seriousness about delivering on his post-election pledge of a “government of moderation”.
If that is the case, the signs are not promising. For all three, Mr Ahmadinejad has chosen noted hardliners whose track records indicate little inclination towards tolerating dissent or social freedom.
His choice of interior minister, Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi, is a case in point. The interior ministry was previously seen as a bastion of reformism but, under Mr Pour-Mohammadi, that could change drastically.
With a background as a revolutionary and military prosecutor in the early years of the regime, the new man is likely to have little truck with reformist notions.
Most worryingly, he was the deputy intelligence minister in the late 90s, when his immediate superior was forced to resign after being implicated in the serial murders of several political dissidents. When his boss quit, Mr Pour-Mohammadi resigned as well.
A similarly bleak tale can be read into Mr Ahmadinejad’s choice of minister for culture and Islamic guidance, in charge of deciding the level of artistic and press freedom in Iran.
Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi – like Mr Ahmadinejad, a former revolutionary guard commander – threatens to be a bath of ice-cold water in comparison with the relative cultural warmth of Mr Khatami’s presidency.
Until recently, he was editor in chief of the Kayhan newspaper, where he upheld a staunchly hardline editorial policy that reflected his likely approach to his new job.
Ghollamhossein Mohseni-Ejeie, the new intelligence minister, served as the judiciary’s representative to the intelligence ministry in the early 90s, recalled by many Iranians as a period of political repression and tight religious control.
With fears rising of a new era of authoritarianism, leading figures elsewhere on the political spectrum are being spurred into action.
Seeing the need for some sort of concerted opposition, Mr Khatami has begun talks with his predecessor as president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – defeated by Mr Ahmadinejad in June’s election – apparently with the aim of forming a coherent team of former ministers who can criticise the new government.
The two former presidents have expressed concern over what they see as the exclusion of competent and experienced figures from the new administration.
Ordinary people have more mundane worries. In the febrile atmosphere of uncertainty accompanying the Ahmadinejad government’s early days, rumours of social crackdowns abound.
The latest is that the new government is to ban travel agents from offering organised tours to the Turkish resort of Antalya, popular with secular middle-class Iranians, on religious grounds.
It may be untrue, but the fears are a reflection of the signals Mr Ahmadinejad is sending with his choice of ministers, whose appointments have still to be confirmed by the majlis, Iran’s parliament.
On the face of things, similar uncompromising messages are being emitted on the standoff with Europe and the US over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The new foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, and Ali Larijani, the new secretary of the supreme national security council, are hardline advocates of Iran’s nuclear rights who have criticised the Iranian negotiators for being too soft in their talks with the EU.
However, things may be less clear than they appear on this issue. Conventional wisdom had it that the resignation of Mr Larijani’s predecessor, Hasan Rowhani, would spell the end of negotiations with the EU trio of Britain, Germany and France.
Now he has been put in charge of these talks, however, Mr Larijani has adopted a more reasonable tone.
“Iran deems it a principle to continue talks, and it accepts negotiation as the right manner,” he told the Sharq newspaper this week. “We can reach a conclusion with a win-win situation defined for both sides.”
It may be a smokescreen, of course, designed to split the EU from the US after George Bush’s warning last week that military force remains an option for dealing with the Iran situation.
Or it may be a sign that Iran’s Islamist new president is capable of surprising the world.