Rouhani’s Cabinet Seeks New Balance in Iranian Policies

The composition of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s new government reveals that he is betting the success of his government on foreign and economic policies.

al-monitor Motorists drive past election posters hanging off a pedestrian crossing in Tehran, June 12, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Fars News/Ashraf Tabatabaei.

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iranian politics, iran

Aug 12, 2013

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, presented his nominations for the new government to parliament, as required by Iran’s Constitution. Each ministry will get a separate vote of confidence, but the great majority of the candidates are likely to be approved.

Examining the candidates’ qualifications and the composition of the new government reveals several things: the size of the concessions made by Rouhani to various power centers in forming the government; the new balance of power within the Iranian regime; the socioeconomic leanings of the new rule; and Rouhani’s orientations and priorities regarding foreign policy.

The 'sovereign' ministries

The ministries of defense, intelligence, culture and Islamic guidance are considered “sovereign” ministries because of the nature of their work at home and abroad. Rouhani has likely made concessions while nominating those ministries’ candidates.

Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, 59, was considered a leader within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) during the Iran-Iraq war. It is known that the Iranian Defense Ministry is subject to stiff competition from the IRG. One of the tasks of Iran’s defense minister is to coordinate with the IRG in defense matters.

The Minister of Culture and Guidance Ali Jannati, 64, is the son of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council. The latter was subject to harassment by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who tried to isolate him in various posts. Unlike his father, Ali Jannati is close to Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Intelligence Minister Sayed Mahmoud Alawi, 59, used to be Rouhani’s liaison officer for the city of Qom and its institutions in the last election campaign.

All three candidates have good relations with Rouhani, but they are not necessarily his first choices for the those posts.

Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, 56, was director of parliament’s Central Audit Agency, which issues annual reports on the financial activities of government ministries. During Fazil's term at the agency, it discovered embezzlement in Ahmadinejad’s ministries.

The interior minister position is an important post because it appoints governors. Rouhani will likely do what Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad did before him: interfere in the Interior Ministry in selecting the governors.

Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, 53, served as Ahmadinejad’s interior minister until his removal from the post by Ahmadinejad. Pourmohammadi was also a general prosecutor in the revolutionary courts, which the opposition decries as excessively harsh. Knowledgeable insiders say that the justice minister post has limited powers in Iran. He is more of a courier between the judiciary, the executive and the legislative branches. Moreover, the justice minister doesn’t select the judges. Traditionally, the president selects the justice minister from between four nominations provided by the judiciary, which is headed by Sadeq Larijani’s brother, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani.

Rouhani has likely made concessions to the supreme guide, as well as Larijani's bloc, in nominating the candidates for the sovereign ministries. For the ministries that Rouhani deems more important — the Foreign Ministry and economic group ministries — he has real power to choose the candidates.

The Foreign Ministry and the economic group ministries

It is clear that Rouhani’s main focus is on the Foreign Ministry and the ministries of the economic group. Rouhani is basing his government’s success on its performance in these ministries. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, 53, who previously served as Iran’s permanent UN representative, is considered one of the Foreign Ministry’s best diplomats.

The Foreign Ministry, which was greatly damaged under Ahmadinejad because he placed loyalty over competence, may recover under the new structure. The choice of the foreign minister and Rouhani’s focus on that ministry may increase its role in the nuclear file, which, over the past several years, has been under the purview of the National Security Council.

The backgrounds of Rouhani’s candidates for the economic team suggest that they are open to the West in terms of economic policies. Rouhani’s new government will stay away from Ahmadinejad’s populist policies, which have brought the economy to the edge of collapse.

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, 61, held the ministry during Mohammad Khatami’s era. He is close to Rafsanjani and was subject to fierce attacks and accusations of corruption by Ahmadinejad’s supporters.

The Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mahmoud Vaezi, 61, was Rouhani’s deputy at the Iranian Center for Strategic Research. He was briefly considered for foreign minister. Vaezi will likely play a role in reducing the IRG’s control over the Ministry of Communications, which controls cellular service in the country. It is no secret that the ministry’s revenues are the third largest after those of the Oil Ministry — oil being Iran’s top export — and those of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, which collects taxes.

Energy Minister Hamid Chitchian, 56, is moderate and technocratic. His economic thinking is neoliberal. Chitchian is expected to play a role in the committees to facilitate foreign investment, which Iran desperately needs to modernize its energy sector.

The Minister of Industry, Trade and Mining Mahmoud Reza Nematzadeh, 68, was vice chairman of Rouhani’s campaign. Finance Minister Ali Tayyebni, 53, has an academic background and has not worked in the industry. He was an economic adviser for Reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref before the latter’s withdrawal from the race in favor of Rouhani.

Rouhani’s economic team is complete with the vice presidents: Isaac Jhankiri, the former industry minister and member of Rafsanjani’s Kawader al-Bina Party; Ali Nobakht, who will chair the Planning Organization, which is akin to a planning ministry; and Mohammad Nahavandian, the current president of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry and who will be the head of Rouhani’s presidential office.

A president of one of Iran’s private banks may be appointed as president of the Central Bank of Iran. That would mean a monetary policy that keeps pace with neoliberal trends. Those three posts — the vice president, the president of the central bank and the chairman of the planning organization — do not need parliamentary approval.


Rouhani’s new government looks balanced and harmonious as no partisan holds excessive power. It can be described as a competent, centrist government, yet there is not a single woman. The average minister age is the highest since the revolution.

The presence of a few candidates who worked in Khatami’s government doesn’t mean that the Reformist current is present in the institution but emphasizes the centrism of Rouhani’s government. In this context, candidates who worked in Khatami’s government are expected to be more rigorously questioned in parliament before the vote of confidence. 

Foreign Minister Zarif is known for his extensive knowledge of the decision-making process in the US, where he studied and lived for many years. His appointment shows the seriousness of the new government’s openness toward Washington. On the other hand, the ministers of the economic group share two characteristics: their proximity to Rafsanjani and their adoption of economic neoliberalism. While Iran’s “leftist Islamic” elite was established in 1980s to oppose Rafsanjani and his political and economic policies, three decades later that group turned into a centrist, neoliberal elite that is endorsed by Rafsanjani.

In any event, Rouhani’s global neoliberal economic outlook will remove many barriers in Iranian-US relations and reduce the dispute between the two countries to only their divergent political visions for the region.

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