Iran’s Islamic regime is torn by a mighty struggle among rival factions jockeying for seats on President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet. His proposed appointments are already putting noses out of joint in fundamentalist and conservative political circles.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s loyalists, known as the Principalists, command many high positions in the country. Now they complain that they are not properly represented in the new cabinet.
The Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran) has fared even worse, winning only one portfolio.
Its leaders are threatening strong payback, their anger stoked additionally by plans President Rouhani unveiled at his first press conference on Tuesday Aug. 6 to fight powerful monopolies and end the armed forces’ involvement in the economy and ownership of national business ventures.
It was obvious that Rouhani was eyeing the IRGC, owners of Iran’s biggest business empire, which turns over profits worth billions of dollars per year.
The Guards have always claimed their vast revenue is invested in the development of missiles and the national nuclear program and fiercely denied misappropriations or corruption.
IRGC leaders are further aggravated by the appointment of Bijan Namdar Zanganeh as oil minister, a niche they consider their province. A former oil minister under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Zanganeh is thoroughly conversant with the industry and will no doubt have his hands full with a massive cleanup.
The oil industry cleanup will target the Revolutionary Guards
During the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the oil industry was riddled with corruption. Large sums flew from Iranian oil companies into the pockets of regime officials, most of them high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards. In fact, the last oil minister, Rostam Ghassemi, was a senior Pasdaran commander. A cleanup of the oil industry would rock Iran’s government to its conservative foundations.
In a bid to preempt his appointment, members of the Khamenei clique accuse the proposed oil minister of passing vital information to the “Zionists” and taking bribes from Norway’s Statoil.
Another conservative black mark against Zanganeh derives from his public endorsement of opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi in the 2009 presidential election, which gave Ahmadinejad his second term.
Mahmud Alavi’s appointment as Minister of Intelligence is another bone of contention. This post is usually reserved for the supreme leader’s candidate and it is not clear whether Rouhani cleared it with Khamenei.
Alavi, 60, is a cleric with no administrative experience.
He has served on the Council of Experts which chooses the country’s supreme leader and has represented him as ideological and political overseer of the armed forces.
A few days ago, Alavi provoked the fundamentalists by remarking that the country is over-obsessed with security concerns.
All in all, Iran’s conservatives and radicals feel downgraded by the new president: They count nine designated ministers as having served in former president Khatami’s government and four sympathizers of opposition Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi,
who led the 2009 street protests against the regime over Ahmadinejad’s rigged election.
They point out that most of the men the president has chosen lack government experience, including the Ministers of Culture and Islamic Instruction, Transportation, Interior, Intelligence, Communications, Economy and Energy.
Mohammed Javad Zarif’s selection as foreign minister faces a battle royal.
For many years, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, he is seen as much too friendly with Westerners and Americans in particular. A graduate of the University of San Francisco and the University of Denver, he is well up on Western culture and a political moderate. At one point of his foreign service, he was rumored to be planning to seek asylum in America. Some Khamenei adherents accuse him of the heinous crime of secretly holding a Green Card!
To rebut accusations from Guards and fundamentalist circles of conspiring to bring Iran into the American sphere, Zarif pledged this week to faithfully follow Ayatallah Khamenei’s guidelines in his conduct of foreign policy.
Tough line on nuclear and foreign issues
The new defense minister Hossein Dehghan, 56, is the sole designated minister from senior Revolutionary Guards ranks. He is a former acting deputy defense minister and has held other Iranian defense establishment positions, but the Guards complain he is not knowledgeable about issues related to specific IRGC interests.
Then there is a row of Rouhani appointments not subject to parliamentary endorsement which have aroused as much conservative ire as his crop of ministers.
One is his choice of Eshaq Jahngir, another former minister in the Khatami administration, as vice president, a post analogous to prime minister. So too does the president choice of bureau chief, Mohammad Nahavandian, 60, a graduate of George Washington University and economic expert, who lived in the United States for many years and acted as Khatami’s economic adviser.
He too is smeared with the Green Card allegation.
With regard to the new administration’s nuclear and foreign policies, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Tehran report that Rouhani, before holding his first press conference, conferred with Ayatollah Khamenei on what he should say.
As a result, his positions on both were uncompromising: a demand for “Iran’s nuclear rights to be respected” free of pressure in negotiations with the world powers and rejection of the notion of direct talks with Washington.
The new president slapped down a Western correspondent who dared to refer to the failure of Iran’s round after round of nuclear talks with the Six World Powers. “Who said they failed?” he asked. “The talks succeeded and must be continued.” In this way, he ruled out direct talks with Washington and insisted on sticking to the existing dialogue track with the accent on removing sanctions.
Rouhani’s foes ready to block him on reforms, nuclear flexibility
IRGC and other conservative factions fear that Rouhani will fight corruption and monopolies – both in the spirit of reform and also to turn popular disaffection away from economic hardships toward hope for a better deal. But so long as Tehran holds to its nuclear intransigence and lack of full transparency, mounting sanctions will maintain a stranglehold on the Iranian economy. The voting in the US Senate and House of Representatives broadcast this message loud and clear.
Rouhani faces the dilemma of how to improve the lot of the ordinary Iranian, as he has promised, without going against the supreme leader’s tough nuclear stance in order to win the easing of sanctions.
Aware of the temptation facing the new president, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Tehran disclose that IRGC leaders have been putting their heads together lately with Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader’s influential son, on ways to hold Rouhani in check and under their thumb.
They know it won’t be easy because the president is a fighter who, rather than give way, tends to hit back.
A critical challenge lies ahead for the new president and his country. The makeup of his government, if endorsed, will determine domestic as well as foreign policy directions. The conservatives stand ready – in the short term, at least – to block domestic and economic reforms and any latitude on freedom of speech. But most of all, they will bend every effort to derail Rouhani administration moves toward rapprochement with the West or flexibility on the nuclear issue.