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Iran: Politicians Skeptical Of President's Obscure Cabinet Choices

President Ahmadinejad (file photo) The Iranian legislature on 21 August began to debate the cabinet presented on 14 August by the conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. However, many politicians have been unsure what to make of proposed ministers, mainly because the names are unfamiliar. Fears have been voiced about the prospects of a government of novices in senior positions, although a politically sympathetic parliament is expected ultimately to vote in most, if not all, the nominees. The most outspoken critics have been reformers who now have little influence over the approval process.

Bandar Abbas representative Shahriar Moshiri said on 14 August that "certain [nominees] are entirely unknown," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 August. Orumieh representative Muhammad Abbaspur said the cabinet list is "like an unknown island," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 August. Hussein Afarideh, a reformist legislator, told ISNA on 14 August that he could not say if the list was "good or bad," because "I do not know who these people are." (See "President's Hard-Line Cabinet Choice Could Face Resistance.")

Light On Experience

This unfamiliarity with nominees has prompted concerns about their abilities. Abbaspur said on 14 August that parliament expected that "more experienced and familiar figures" would be presented. Muhammad Ali Muqnian, a member of the parliamentary social affairs committee, told ISNA on 15 August that "unfortunately, some of these people have insufficient experience," or "zero kilometers" behind them "in terms of management" experience.

Ahmad Shirzad, a member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front told ILNA on 16 August that the nominees "have mostly worked in third- or fourth-ranking administrative levels, and few have experience at the level of deputy minister," or ministry director-general, which is the level below deputy minister. "So these people cannot take an overall view of [public] affairs," he said.

Former legislator Yadollah Eslami told the Fars news agency on 16 August that there is nothing "promising" about people who wish to take over the country's "overall management" when "most of them have not played a role at the middle-management level."

Shirzad said the proposed cabinet is mainly characterized by the obscure reputation of its members and their military or security backgrounds. Mohsen Armin, also of the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin, told ILNA on 16 August that this is no "working cabinet," but one designed "to confront anticipated crises and tensions." He said the president has not honored his promise to form a "cabinet of 70 million" -- representative of all Iranians -- but has instead proposed a government that belongs "to a radical and extremist group," with which even the "right-wing faction is dissatisfied." This list is distinguished neither by administrative experience nor the "academic knowledge" of its members. While some have "doctorates," he said, these are "doctorates in strategic management," a qualification he said the armed forces give their officers during training, and not of "equal credibility" to university doctorates.

Military Connections

He also believes that the military and security affiliations of nominees are bad news for democracy. With five former soldiers and five nominees formerly involved in state security work, the cabinet "has a clear message," namely that public life "will move toward greater restriction and closure," he said.

But Hamid Reza Taraqi of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party has welcomed this "strategic government" with "young, experienced, and efficient ministers," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 20 August. He admitted some might not have experience relevant to their chosen ministries, but those "people can make up for this lack of experience by picking efficient and committed deputies," from state bodies. Ahmadinejad defended his choices as capable and experienced when addressing parliament on 21 August, ISNA reported that day.

Both sides agree this is a political, not technocratic government. Conservatives tend to distrust technocratic types, preferring a balance between expertise and "commitment" to revolutionary values and religion. Technocrats may have deplorable affinities with the secular rulers toppled in 1979 and are considered likely to overlook the moral goals of the regime. As legislator Said Bahlul-Husseini told ISNA on 20 August, Ahmadinejad has chosen "piety and the spirit of service" over "experience complemented by oppressive manners." Muhammad Nabi Habibi, the secretary-general of the IslamicCoalition Party was satisfied on 14 August that the nominees are "fundamentalists," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. Taraqi describes them as "raised by the traditional sector of the fundamentalists."

Ahmadinejad said on 15 August that his nominees have "convergent" (hamgara) views, so there would presumably be a high degree of coordination in the cabinet, ISNA reported the same day. He told parliament on 21 August that this convergence of ideas was the decisive factor in his selections, ISNA reported. For example, he said his intended economic team -- Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari; Commerce Minister Masud Mirkazemi; and Farhad Rahbar, the head of the state planning and budgeting body -- had similar ideas on economic policies he favors. These include decentralization and greater administrative authority for provinces, fairer distribution of resources among provinces, supporting domestic manufacturing, and using "stagnant" money deposits to boost economic activity, ISNA reported.

Parliamentarians may not agree. Tehran representative Muhammad Khoshchehreh said the proposed cabinet is not "cohesive or efficient," and the economy minister has different views to those of the current central bank governor, Ibrahim Sheibani, who may retain his post, ISNA reported on 21 August. Lawmaker Kamal Daneshyar said the same day that at a 20 August meeting of conservative parliamentarians, one person approved the cabinet list and 10 spoke against it, including legislator Emad Afruq, whom he said was a "general" among fundamentalists and a barometer of their mood, ISNA reported. But parliament's vote is unpredictable, he said. Khoshchehreh cautioned that parliament is in a "political" mood, and may reject or approve "by the kilo-load," ISNA reported on 21 August.

Parliament is to examine the list this week.

Who's Responsible?

Conservatives face a dilemma: now that they control all institutions and power levers, they must accept responsibility for any failures. Unlike their reformist predecessors, they will not so easily claim they were obstructed at every turn by a hostile parliament, unelected state bodies, or unspecified agents provocateurs "every nine days," as former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami used to say -- although they still have a favorite scapegoat, foreign powers. Parliament has its particular dilemma: it might have to take a share of the blame for any failures if it votes in the entire cabinet. Conservative politician Reza Zavarei told ILNA on 15 August that it would be a "betrayal of the people and the system" to approve "weak" ministers. But the legislature can also be chided for being too picky: critics will say it would not let the president work with his "convergent" cabinet.

Failure to deliver the goods promised during the presidential campaign might discredit the conservatives collectively because while Iranians accepted that reformers had limited power, they see the conservatives as unconstrained. And the conservatives claim to represent the system essentially, indeed religion itself. So their failure may provoke a wider crisis of credibility.

That may be why some reformers, seemingly with little faith in the abilities of this government, consider this a pre-crisis cabinet. Why the inclusion of former security officials, Mohammad Salamati of the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin wondered. "This type of cabinet would more likely be formed in critical than in ordinary conditions," ILNA quoted him as saying on 17 August. Mohsen Armin said those who picked the cabinet "expect the country to face a crisis in the future," ILNA reported on 17 August. A crisis cabinet "would be no different" to one that he says belies the president's promise of a "working government."

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