The Iranian Parliament is going through a strange period these days. Former Minister of Industry, Mines and Trade Mohammad Shariatmadari, who was on the verge of being impeached, has now been confirmed by lawmakers as Iran’s new minister of cooperatives, labor and social welfare — even as he faces accusations of corruption and disapproval by the public.
Reformist parliamentarians’ decision to back him as minister of labor has disappointment growing among their supporters by the day.
Shariatmadari is perhaps one of the most controversial figures in the administration of President Hassan Rouhani. The former industry minister has served in various governments throughout the history of the Islamic Republic. He was appointed as minister of industry, mine and trade when Rouhani began his second term last year. However, his one-year tenure in that position was filled with controversy — including speculation about his allocation of hard currency at the lower official rate to profiteering individuals or companies. The latter are accused of either not using their allocated hard currency to import anything — rather hoarding or selling it on the open market for up to four times the rate — or importing goods at the official exchange rate and then selling them at the far higher open market rates. Shariatmadari has been accused of not being transparent about which companies gained access to foreign currency at the official rate.
Dissatisfaction over Shariatmadari’s performance prompted lawmakers to move for his impeachment on Aug. 28. The motion was signed by 70 parliament members and listed 15 reasons for the decision. They included weak management, corruption and rentierism in the allocation of foreign currency and ordering vehicles, failure to control and manage markets, the dramatic rise in prices and failure to carry out his responsibilities related to the fight against smuggling of goods and foreign currency.
On Oct. 9, the parliament's commission on industry and mines met to review the motion. Although Shariatmadari failed to attend the meeting, the commission asked that parliament proceed with the impeachment. The legislative body hesitated and Shariatmadari resigned on Oct. 20. Rouhani accepted his resignation and immediately introduced him to parliament as minister of cooperatives, labor and social welfare. The post had been empty since Aug. 8, when Minister of Labor Ali Rabiei was impeached over mismanagement. Rouhani’s move was initially not welcomed by Iranian lawmakers.
Gholamali Jafarzadeh Iman Abadi, a parliament member representing the northern city of Rasht, was one of the lawmakers who opposed the move. Speaking on Oct. 21, he said, “Shariatmadari was on the verge of impeachment. Parliament views him negatively. He displayed a weak performance at the Ministry of Industry. The public wants to know if there is really such a shortage of people that he has to be sent from the Ministry of Industry to the Ministry of Labor.” Seyed Javad Hosseinikia, a parliamentarian representing the town of Sonqor in the western Kermanshah province, also harshly criticized the appointment on Oct. 27, saying, “If Shariatmadari were a capable individual, he should have remained in the Ministry of Industry. Why should he become the minister of labor? Based on what?”
Shariatmadari’s controversial management of the Ministry of Industry, and particularly his lack of transparency about the allocation of cheap foreign currency to various companies, has incensed the public. The moderate Entekhab news site, which is generally seen as supporting the Rouhani administration, posted a survey on Telegram Oct. 21 to gauge sentiments about Shariatmadari's appointment. Out of a total 6,000 people, 97% described the move as an “insult to the people.”
However, things quickly shifted in Shariatmadari's favor as his vote of confidence drew near. Parliament member Jafarzadeh Iman Abadi, who was elected to parliament on the Reformist "List of Hope," became a supporter just days after harshly criticizing him. The lawmaker described Shariatmadari as an economic guerilla who the country needs at a time when “the enemy” has launched an economic war. Some political figures, such as outspoken Reformist parliamentarian Mahmoud Sadeghi, were still critical of Rouhani's decision.
But regardless of the objections, Shariatmadari was approved by parliament on Oct. 27 as Iran’s new minister of labor with 196 votes in favor and only 63 votes against. The vote of confidence came only two months after more than 70 members of parliament signed a petition to call for his impeachment as industry minister.
Although lawmakers may have done a U-turn, the vote of confidence sparked many protests on Iranian social media, especially among young Reformists. Saba Azarpeik, a prominent journalist working for several Reformist publications in Tehran who previously campaigned for Rouhani, tweeted Oct. 27, “What happened during last night’s dinner party between Shariatmadari and 90 Labor Ministry representatives? What promises were made there?” Azarpeik also tweeted a letter attributed to the Intelligence Ministry and addressed to the parliament, pointing to felonies by Shariatmadari in relation to the illegal import of vehicles.
She was arrested on Oct. 30, three days after Shariatmadari’s confirmation, as many people continued to share her reports and documents incriminating Shariatmadari. Her detention was initially blamed on the new labor minister. However, on Oct. 31, Shariatmadari took to Twitter to express his displeasure with Azarpeik’s detention and wrote that he did not want to see the security services detain Azarpeik or any other journalist. Azarpeik was released the next day.
The reactions on social media by those who support Rouhani and the Reformists is a clear indication of that they are deeply unhappy with the performance of the administration and parliament. In this climate, the incumbent Reformist-majority parliament, whose members are primarily from the List of Hope, is finding itself greatly distanced from its supporters. Indeed, even the staunchest Reformist supporters are having a difficult time defending the questionable performance of their representatives in government and parliament.
Given the circumstances at hand, it is only natural that the Principlists would move in and try to take advantage of the situation. Prominent conservative Mohammad Javad Bahonar said Nov. 10, “Many believe that if Shariatmadari’s impeachment hearing in relation to the Ministry of Industry had been held, he would have been dismissed given the current atmosphere in parliament. But this same parliament voted in his favor for the Ministry of Labor. These events indicate a lack of balance in the current parliament.”
If the current situation continues, what Bahonar has described as a “lack of balance” is likely to bring even more disappointment for those who support the government and the Reformists. Its ultimate repercussions could be far-reaching, paving the way for the loss of the governing moderate-Reformist coalition in the 2020 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections.
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