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New Iranian Cabinet Nominees: Building Bridges Between Factions to Yield Reform

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After many days of media speculation, newly sworn-in Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, announced his proposed Cabinet on Sunday. The top six and most sensitive posts include Ministries of Intelligence, Oil, Interior, Culture, Foreign Affairs, and Economic Affairs. All 18 positions are subject to Parliament confirmation, and gaining nominee approval from the conservative members of Parliament will be Rouhani's first challenge as president.

Rouhani's appointments provide early clues regarding the direction and policy platform of the moderate president's upcoming term. As promised during his campaign, Rouhani's selections represent a large scope of the political spectrum, including: (1) moderate reformists, composed of people who formerly served the Khatami administration, (2) technocrats who were a part of Hashemi Rafsanjani's administration, which make up about two-thirds of Rouhani's Cabinet selection, and (3) moderate conservatives, who are the closest political alignment to a centrist party in Iran.

The wide range of appointments reflect Rouhani's attempt to bolster Iran's economy while successfully navigating domestic and foreign crises without alienating the conservative members of Parliament. One way in which he contributed to this goal was ensuring that there was room in his Cabinet for a few powerful conservatives.

In studying several of the key Cabinet positions, it's clear that economic reform is high on Rouhani's agenda. In conjunction with the national impact these changes might produce, the President appears to be making the country's interactions with the outside world a top priority as well. It also seems that Rouhani, in comprising with conservatives regarding the direction of Iran's new government, will leave moderate conservatives in control of the domain of cultural and political freedoms and instead focus his own efforts squarely on economic issues and foreign relations.

In that vein, the country's budget deficit and lack of financial resources (in large part due to the United States' sanctions and the impact this has had on oil revenue) will be Rouhani's most significant concerns. To overcome these obstacles, Rouhani has taken advice from Dr. Masoud Nili to organize a team of economists that will strategize through these problems. Through not appointed to a ministry himself, Nili's thoughts on the new government's economic platform will likely prove to be a great asset to Rouhani while in office.

Nili, a university professor and staunch supporter of a free-market economy for Iran, was a critic of former President Ahmadinejad's economic policies. Nili's impressive background includes working as one of the organizers of Iran's first and third five-year development programs, and his economic report regarding the Iran-Iraq war is cited as one of the contributing factors that eventually led to the end of that war. Nili has handled his fair share of financial crises, with a range of experience that includes the following: his former role as the chief coordinator of Industrial Strategic Development; working as the head of the committee for the Privatization Plan under President Khatami; coordinating with teams of experts to design annual budget plans and periodic programs; and a position as the president of the Institute for Research in Planning and Development under President Rafsanjani.

Rouhani's economy-fixing team is made up of individuals from the Party of the Executives of the Construction of Iran. Several of the founders of this organization previously served as vice ministers in Rafsanjani's second Cabinet and believe that Iran's many economic problems could be eased by a range of pro-market solutions, including a more welcoming approach to industrialization, development, and construction.

Dr. Ali Taiebnia, a P.h.D graduate and faculty member of the University of Tehran, is Rouhani's nominee for head of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance. During the presidential campaign, Taiebnia appeared in one televised debate as a representative of reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref , who later dropped out of the race in support of Rouhani. Taiebnia views Iran's dependence on oil revenue as the main culprit working against an economic boon for the country, citing a national income tax as the most helpful means of replacing that money in the budget. Taiebnia's views echo those of Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, a member of the Party of the Executives who heads the economic research department at Rouhani's think tank, The Center for Strategic Research.

President Rouhani's appointment for Minister of Oil, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, will be tasked with changing Ahmadinejad's previous policies and will have his work cut out for him. Top priorities for this position will include securing a team of skilled oil technocrats (after many of these positions were replaced to bring in less-qualified allies); regain control over "privatized" petrochemical plants, engineering companies, and oil development organizations, many of which remain under regime rule; and make progress regarding international nuclear negotiations and the easing of sanctions (particularly with the West, where new activities have essentially been suspended for the past five years). Luckily for Rouhani, Zanganeh comes with ample experience, having previously served as the head of both the Power and Oil ministries, under the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations, respectively.

The cultural, interior, and intelligence ministries retain a crucial role in regard to civil liberties, press freedom, artistic freedom, and the right to dissent, which is the one area where Rouhani seems to be lacking vigor. These ministries have the ability to foster an environment in Iran that is less culturally rigid, more politically open, and works in service of its citizens. Unfortunately, with a Supreme Leader who is extremely sensitive regarding cultural issues and many Iranian conservatives in Parliament who rarely compromise on matters of political freedom, Iran's new president chose figures for these posts who are not particularly challenging to the status quo. In an effort to perhaps avoid bringing trouble to his government so soon after assuming office, Rouhani's appointments in these ministries should reassure conservative hardliners who may otherwise look askance at the moderate president's new program.

It is likely for this reason that Rouhani selected Ali Jannati as his nominee for the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Jannati is the son of Ahmad Jannati, a hardline cleric who serves as the chairman of the Guardian Council. The views of the younger Jannati are rumored to depart from those of his father, however. Due to close ties with Hashemi Rafsanjani, the younger Jannati was fired for his support while serving the Ministry of the Interior during Ahmadinejad's era.

The Minister of Interior nominee is Rahmani Fazli, who formerly held a position as the head of the Supreme Audit Court, in addition to working as the political deputy of the national media under moderate conservative Ali Larjani, who once headed National Radio and Television and was an opponent of former President Ahmadinejad. Larijani is Speaker of the Parliament right now.

Rouhani selected Mahmooud Alavi as his nominee for the Minister of Intelligence. Alavi's political experience includes working previously as a representative at the Assembly of Experts and Parliament, and he was at one time the head of the political and ideological body of the Iranian Army, as appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council unexpectedly denied Alavi's application for candidacy for the ninth Parliament, despite the fact that he was a front runner for the Istadegi (Endurance Front) branch of Iran's conservative party. This group of conservatives is close with Moshen Razaei, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards who is well-known as a critic of the Ahmadinejad administration.

American-educated Javad Zarif, an Iranian diplomat and former U.N. ambassador, has been named as Rouhani's Foreign Minister appointment, signaling that the new president is ready for reopening dialogues with the West. A well-known figure who is respected by many powerful politicians and pundits in Washington, Zarif has already been involved in multiple negotiations between the United States and Iran, including talks on Afghanistan after the U.S.-led 2001 invasion. He also played a significant role in Tehran's 2003 proposal for a "grand bargain" with the United States under George W. Bush, which strived to restore some of Iran's economic power as a trade for terminating their nuclear ambitions. After a while Zarif resigned from those nuclear negotiations and left the U.N. when Ahmadinejad was elected.

From these appointments, it's clear that President Rouhani's strategy is to focus most of his energy and effort on selecting Foreign Affair and Economic Affairs ministers who are more closely aligned with his own political ideals, though he appears to be making a decision to control those interests at the cost of social and cultural issues. These domains have been handed over to the more moderate conservatives in Parliament as a means of reducing political polarization and cutting tension across party lines.