Less than four months after Ebrahim Raisi assumed the presidency in Iran, widespread nepotism has sparked criticism even among his own Principalist camp.
On Nov. 16, Raisi reacted to the accusations for the first time in an open session of the parliament to discuss the proposed Minister of Education, Massoud Fayazi — the son-in-law of Alireza Zakani, a hardline politician who resigned in the run up to June 18 presidential elections in Raisi’s favor.
“Nomination is based on competence, and camaraderie, kinship and media pressure do not affect my choice," Raisi said. "Compare our government with the other governments in the last three decades. How much comradeship has played a role in picking individuals? Where are the relatives in the posts [in my government]?”
Nevertheless, lawmakers who are fully aligned with the current government did not vote in favor of Fayazi. The latter is the current mayor of Tehran, and was elected by the hardliner-led Tehran city council, whose members were elected in the June 18 city council elections after a record low turnout on the same day as the presidential votes.
However, this case is just one of many incidents of nepotism that have caught the public's attention since Raisi took office. Since early August, extensive changes have taken place at the managerial levels of various ministries, with the Ministry of Petroleum at the top, where, according to local media in Iran, over 15 senior managers have been replaced.
One of the cases that sparked a heated reaction among the media was Minister of Petroleum Javad Owji's order — in a classified letter to the Ministry’s department of human resources — to hire Nafiseh Sangdovini, the daughter of Ramazan Ali Sangdovini, a hardliner in the parliament. Ms. Sangdovini had previously failed in the Ministry’s employment test. Although after the minister's confidential letter leaked to the media her appointment was cancelled, many who have been hired based on kinship and family relationships continue to work in different apparatuses of Raisi’s administration.
For example, Iranian Minister of Health Bahram Einollahi has appointed his son-in-law as the minister's adviser despite the fact that he does not have any experience in the field. Labor Minister Hojjatullah Abdul Maleki has appointed his wife’s brother as his own special adviser. Zanib Kadkhoda, a cousin of Raisi, has recently been appointed Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Tehran. Also, Meysam Nili, the brother of Raisi’s son-in-law, recently started at the official news agency IRNA as a key member of its high council.
Furthermore, several son-in-laws of high-ranking Islamic Republic officials have reportedly started work at positions of different levels in Raisi’s administration. Iranian media outlets reported that Ali Salehabadi, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran, is the son-in-law of Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moghadam, a Principlaist cleric and former member of the Islamic parliament. Mesbahi Moghaddam is currently a member of the Expediency Council.
Mehdi Islampanah, who recently assumed the presidency of the Iranian National Standards Organization, is the son-in-law of Mohammad Mohammadian, the deputy chairman of public relations department of the Supreme Leader's office for seminaries affairs.
Inside Iran, the moderate daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami wrote an editorial on Nov. 3 sharply criticizing nepotism in the new administration. "The gentlemen on both sides of Iran’s politics [Principalists and Reformists] speak of competence and meritocracy before the elections, but when they are in power they replace competence with family relationships.”
On Nov. 14, 35 lawmakers issued a warning to the president urging him to curb nepotism and instead focus on meritocracy. The protests prompted Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi to say on Nov. 17 that “some want to disturb the public opinion by spreading rumors and lies.”
While accusations of nepotism have created a challenge for the Raisi administration in Iran’s politics and media, his backers say the issue is fabricated by the opposition. The hardliner newspaper Kayhan wrote on Nov. 13: “The debate over family relationships-based appointments is a game, a lie and a widespread controversy promoted by a bunch of media outlets which are affiliated with the aristocratic coalition that ruled over the former government [of Hassan Rouhani].”
However, the IRGC-affiliated Javan newspaper showed its support for the Raisi government in a different way. "The history of Islam is full of the use of close trustees, and from this perspective there has been no problem with it," the newspaper wrote in a Nov. 13 editorial praising nepotism. "The question that the children and relatives of those appointed by the establishment should not enter the ruling body is a double injustice against a portion of the future makers of the country."
Although proponents of the Raisi administration try to deny or downplay the issue, it has even caused dissatisfaction among his own hardliner camp. While a portion of the criticism comes from a faction in the Iranian politics that is dissatisfied with being denied a piece of the pie, it seems that Raisi and his inner circle are trying to bring in other similar groups by sharing power with them, so that in case of possible failure, the president and his cabinet will have to pay less price for incompetency. Even so, nepotism has triggered a lot of anger and protests in Iran’s politics.