Iran’s Cabinet of Hard-liners

New President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration picks leave no doubt about the direction of his government

Iran’s Cabinet of Hard-liners
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi speaks before parliament to defend his cabinet selection in the capital Tehran on August 21, 2021 / Atta Kenare / AFP via Getty Images

Before the hard-liner Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi introduced his cabinet picks on Aug. 11, many had hoped that he would make a gesture of inclusion toward the centrist and reformist factions of the Islamic Republic, which are now being pushed out of all levers of power. Since his election in June and his inauguration on Aug. 3, Raisi had made all the right noises about forming a cabinet that would be “beyond factions,” nonpartisan and focused on bringing Iran out of the dire straits it finds itself in.

“We hope Raisi acts independently as he has promised,” reformist Tehran MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, who was disqualified from running for his seat in 2020 elections, said on July 11. “You can’t run the country with extremism. We expect him to pick a moderate cabinet.”

A day before the cabinet picks were announced, reformist daily Shargh called on Raisi to form a “non-factional government.” Conceding that it was unlikely he would appoint reformists to top positions, Shargh editors asked him to “minimize factional and political criteria in picking of the cabinet.”

It didn’t seem like an unreasonable request. Many believed that since all levers of power (the judiciary, the parliament, most city councils) were now controlled by the hard-liners, they might offer concessions to centrist factions and those loyal to former President Hassan Rouhani. There were rumors that a couple of Rouhani’s ministers would keep their jobs and maybe even a Zarif deputy, like the amicable Abbas Araqchi, would go to the Foreign Ministry to appease the West and carry on the paused negotiations in Vienna.

On Aug. 11, all such hopes were dashed.

For starters, as expected, the cabinet suggested by Raisi consists entirely of men, as with every other post-1979 cabinet with the exception of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who appointed Marzie Vahid Dastjerdi as health minister. Dastjerdi remains the only female cabinet minister in the history of the Islamic Republic. (Before the revolution, Iran had two distinguished female cabinet ministers: Farrokhroo Parsa, who was executed in 1980 by the Islamic Republic, and Mahnaz Afkhami, a noted feminist scholar who remains in exile in the United States.)

Politically, Raisi’s cabinet is just as monochromatic.

The cabinet appointees are almost entirely composed of people who have served the shadowy bodies directly controlled by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Many have worked directly for Raisi during his long tenure in the judiciary and the Imam Reza Shrine, which doubles as a massive economic conglomerate. The only appointees with a history of ministry appointments are those who served in the IRGC-heavy cabinet of Ahmadinejad’s conservative government from 2005 to 2013.

The new cabinet will be dominated by those who’ve mostly served in parastatal bodies close to Khamenei and the IRGC, often known as Iran’s shadow government. In other words, the shadow government, which was already more powerful than the public one, is now coming to the fore.

Shortly after his inauguration, Raisi picked Mohammad Mokhber as his vice president. Since 2007, Mokhber has served as the head of the Center for Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (known as EIKO). Made notorious by a groundbreaking Reuters investigation in 2013, EIKO was described as a “massive financial empire built on property seizures,” which is directly controlled by Khamenei. Before that, Mokhber served in similar parastatal institutions such as the Mostazafan Foundation, where he was a deputy head, as well as its auxiliary Sina Bank, where he was head of the board.

Confirming the worst fears of those who hoped for a result from the talks in Vienna, the position of foreign minister went to Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. While Amir-Abdollahian has a long history in the ministry, he can be described as IRGC’s man there. Best known for his close ties to the Quds Force, the IRGC’s overseas operations unit, headed by Qassem Soleimani from 1998 until his death in 2020, Amir-Abdollahian has exclusively served in positions related to the Middle East, which are known to be the area where Soleimani made all decisions, down to appointing embassy staff. When Javad Zarif, known for advocating closer ties with the West, was appointed foreign minister in 2013, Amir-Abdollahian was among those who kept his position from the previous government. Continuing to serve as deputy foreign minister in charge of Arab and African Affairs, he was often seen as Soleimani’s eyes and ears in the ministry. When Zarif demoted him in 2016 by appointing him ambassador to Oman, Amir-Abdollahian didn’t accept and went on to serve as top international advisor to the conservative speaker of the parliament while also retaining a position as advisor to Zarif. Zarif’s contempt for Amir-Abdollahian, who prioritized Iran’s interventions in the region over the Zarif-led negotiations with the West, was always visible to anyone who paid attention. In the voice file leaked earlier this year, the foreign minister can be heard making fun of the man who will now become Iran’s top diplomat.

“I punched a wall as soon as I heard about Amir-Abdollahian,” an American diplomat, who requested anonymity, told New Lines. “I am not even sure if they’d come back to Vienna now. I’ve known people who’ve had to talk to this guy over Yemen and Iraq before, and he is just hopeless. Not someone you appoint if you want a return to the JCPOA,” the diplomat added.

While reports indicate that the Biden administration is already looking for alternative ways to counter Iran’s nuclear program, Amir-Abdollahian’s appointment is as clear a sign as Iran could send: It wants to continue its policy of backing its armed allies in the region. While Raisi has publicly favored talks with Saudi Arabia (which happened in secret earlier this year in Baghdad), it remains to be seen how he hopes to walk Iran out of the quagmire of confrontations it is currently involved in.

It’s not yet clear whether nuclear talks will now be managed by Amir-Abdollahian. The nuclear file might move back from the Foreign Ministry to the Supreme National Security Council, where Ali Shamkhani has kept his job as secretary and Khamenei’s representative. While he has centrist inclinations and was defense minister under former President Mohammad Khatami, Shamkhani is also an old security hand with a long past in the IRGC. In other words, he will manage the talks based on the orientation handed down by Khamenei and the military-clerical establishment.

Even more striking is Raisi’s appointment of Ahmad Vahidi as interior minister. The first head of the Quds Force is among the founding generation of the IRGC who helped build up Lebanon’s Hezbollah in his long years there. Given Vahidi’s alleged role in the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing in Argentina, the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the country, his appointment led to immediate protests from Israel and Argentina. Holding a doctorate degree from the Supreme National Defense University in Tehran, Vahidi was also Ahmadinejad’s defense minister. The fact that a military man used to training Hezbollah fighters will now be in charge of running Iran’s civil administration indicates much about the incoming Raisi administration.

Such choices can be seen throughout the cabinet.

The new health minister-designate, Bahram Einollahi, is infamous for having advocated Khamenei’s ban on importing vaccines developed in the U.S., U.K. and France.

For communications minister, Raisi has picked Issa Zarepour who, with his doctorate degree from the University of New South Wales in Australia, is a rare Western-educated figure in the cabinet (the only other foreign-educated cabinet-designate has a doctorate degree from Moscow). In 2006, during the first Ahmadinejad government, Zarepour was the founding head of a digital media center at the Culture Ministry, which helped write some of the first rules in tightening up internet censorship in Iran. Before his appointment, he was the head of a department in the judiciary, an institution filled with hard-liners.

Esmail Khatib, Raisi’s pick for the feared Ministry of Intelligence, is the only cleric in the cabinet. The 60-year-old has served his entire life in the intelligence forces in the IRGC, Khamenei’s office, the judiciary and Imam Reza Shrine (he was the head of security in the latter two).

Raisi’s appointee for labor minister, Hojatollah Abdolmaleki, worked in a top position in another unaccountable and corrupt financial institution, the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (IKRF) where he was appointed by Khamenei to the board of trustees. Abdolmaleki also served in another Khamenei-controlled institution, the state broadcaster. A big advocate of Khamenei’s autarkic concept of a “Resistance Economy,” Abdolmaleki is known as an opponent of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal Iran inked in 2015, and of the country acceding to the demands of the Paris-based anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Even without the U.S.-led sanctions, Iran’s place on the FATF’s blacklist has severely hurt the country’s economy — but it has helped fill the coffers of bodies such as IKRF.

All the big infrastructure ministries will go to those who’ve served the parastatal bodies in top positions. Ahmadinejad’s former oil minister, Rostam Ghasemi, who was in charge of the IRGC’s engineering conglomerate from 2007 to 2011, will now be the minister for Roads and Urban Development. The massive Industry, Mines and Trade Ministry will go to Reza Fatemi Amin who was a deputy head at Imam Reza Shrine. The new oil minister, Javad Owji, is best known as a deputy minister in the Ahmadinejad administration and has long been in charge of natural gas operations linked to parastatal bodies.

The future of the Culture Ministry also looks bleak with the appointment of Mohammad Mehdi Esmayili, an old Ahmadinejad hand who has also served in the judiciary, Imam Reza Shrine and the state broadcaster. Eight years of the Ahmadinejad government were some of the worst in terms of permits for books and music. Now a return to those will be naturally feared.

Raisi’s election in June was a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic. For the first time in decades, the presidential elections included no real competition, even within the very limited range of official politics in Iran. Results were almost entirely known beforehand. It was no surprise that only 43% of Iranians took part in the 2021 elections, compared to the 73% who had voted to reelect the centrist Rouhani in 2017. Even among those who turned out for the 2021 elections, a full 13% spoiled their ballots.

Since he came to power in 1989, Khamenei, the man who holds vast power in the country, has often balanced various factions of the regime, sometimes giving concessions to restive Iranians by giving space to reformists and centrists. Still, he has never hid where his own sympathies lie: with the hard-liners who want an Islamic Republic that’s willing to spread its ideology around the region by force. As a recent analysis by Danny Postel shows, Iran has become a counterrevolutionary power in the region.

No longer interested in balance, Khamenei wants to secure his legacy in the creation of the Islamic Republic by making sure hard-liners hold all levers of power.

Raisi’s cabinet picks, which were made only after consultations with Khamenei, show that the aging supreme leader is leaving nothing to chance. No longer interested in balance, Khamenei wants to secure his legacy in the creation of the Islamic Republic by making sure hard-liners hold all levers of power. A recent account published by Raisi’s office attempted to discredit his late, former rival Akbar Rafsanjani and Rouhani for their advocacy of better relations with the West, including the U.S. An Islamic Republic hostile to the U.S. and the West, in both foreign and domestic policy, is precisely what Khamenei has in mind.

But at least on one account the new cabinet-designate hasn’t answered the call of the supreme leader. Khamenei’s previous demand for a government filled with “devout and revolutionary youth” has only been partially fulfilled since few young figures are found in the new cabinet. The average age of cabinet appointees is six years younger than the technocratic-filled Rouhani cabinet, but it’s still only 52. Raisi’s youngest minister is 40. This has led to a lively debate among the hard-liners in the editorial pages of their websites and in long, late-night conversations on the popular app Clubhouse. While the regime has done much to develop young cadres, the elders and clerical establishment appear hesitant about handing over the reins of power. Additionally, the shadowy bodies that these figures come from are known as much for their ideological zeal as for their astronomical corruption. As a result, many rival power centers exist among the hard-liners. On Aug. 21, the conservative-dominated parliament, led by the famously corrupt IRGC hand, Speaker Baqer Qalibaf, started the process of vetting the cabinet appointees. While the majority of candidates are expected to get an easy pass, the debates may be a harbinger of things to come in the Raisi era.

Much as Khamenei has tried to put his house in order, the infighting at the top will continue. Meanwhile, Iran’s aggressive IRGC-led foreign policy makes the region more unstable and violent. In the midst of this are average Iranians, hit hard by the country’s economic isolation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Raisi’s hard-liner appointees are the latest point of contentiousness in the country and may be pivotal to the spread of discontent and anger from below.

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