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Iran's Rohani Treads Carefully In Piecing Together Cabinet

New Iranian President Hassan Rohani's honeymoon period was short-lived as he has already been slammed by some for his proposed cabinet.
Hassan Rohani is learning firsthand in his early days as Iran's president that pleasing everyone is difficult no matter how hard you try.

One of his first actions as president, his proposed list of new cabinet members, was being picked apart even before his inauguration celebrations were over.

Iran observers noted that Rohani's choices demonstrate a willingness to satisfy different political factions while remaining committed to his campaign pledges to shake things up by bringing in skilled economic experts and competent managers.

But some of the names on the list Rohani presented during his August 4 swearing-in ceremony drew criticism from both hard-liners and opposition activists alike.

Hard-liners have warned that some of the choices are too close to the opposition movement. Some opposition members, meanwhile, have lamented that key domestic posts were handed to conservatives while prominent reformists were left out of the mix.

Alarms have also been sounded over the absence of women on the list despite Rohani's stated support for equal opportunities and his promise to create a Women's Affairs Ministry.

Rohani's list of 18 cabinet nominees and high-ranking appointees includes traditional conservatives, moderate politicians, technocrats, and former officials who served under Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.

Telling Appointments

Perhaps most telling -- in terms of the direction Rohani seeks to take -- is his nominee for foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. His nomination is seen as a signal of Rohani's readiness for serious negotiations with the West.

Formerly Iran's representative to the United Nations, the U.S.-educated Zarif is a respected diplomat who has reportedly participated in secret talks between Tehran and Washington in the past.

Another key choice is Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, who served in that position under Khatami and as energy minister under Rafsanjani.

These two men are seen as being close to the reformist camp.

Other nominees, including proposed Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, Culture Minister Ali Jannati, and Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, are allied with the conservative camp that dominates the parliament.

The nomination of Pourmohammadi, albeit to the least influential ministry which merely acts as a conduit between the government and the judiciary, has come under fire from opposition members and activists.

Pourmohammadi is accused of having played a key role in the summary executions of hundreds of political prisoners in 1988 when he was reportedly in charge of questioning inmates on behalf of the Information Ministry. His nomination is seen as a trade-off to win the support of conservatives for nominees to higher-profile ministries.

According to Berlin-based Iranian journalist Ehsan Mehrabi, Rohani is playing a difficult balancing act.

"Some of the proposed ministers, particularly the choice of Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli and [Culture Minister] Jannati, shows that Rohani believes that by including moderate conservatives he can achieve better results and receive the parliament's vote of confidence for his cabinet," he told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "Rahmani Fazli has for years worked with [parliament speaker Ali] Larijani and he's being seen as Larijani's share of the cabinet."

Mixed Reactions

The reformist daily "Shargh" captured the mixed reactions to the proposed cabinet in an editorial titled "Both Satisfied And Dissatisfied."

On the one hand, "Shargh" wrote, members of different political factions will feel satisfaction to see the names of those who share their views. On the other hand, they will be dissatisfied because they will also see the names of those they oppose.

"The reformists don't even make up about 20 percent of the cabinet," a man from Tehran lamented in a Facebook post.

"Where is [Mohammad Reza] Aref?" wrote one woman in reference to the reformist politician who withdrew his presidential candidacy, leaving reformists to rally behind Rohani. "Where are the women?" she added.

The toughest opposition to some of Rohani's choices came from the editor in chief of the ultrahard-line daily "Kayhan."

Hossein Shariatmadari, who was appointed to his position at the influential newspaper by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wrote in an August 5 editorial that some of the cabinet picks have numerous "dark spots" in their past careers and their nominations are not "justifiable."

Shariatmadari singled out proposed Oil Minister Zangeneh, and accused him of concluding "damaging" and "shameful" deals.

"Can such a person be trusted with safeguarding the people’s interest in the sensitive Oil Ministry?" he asked.

Washington-based Iran analyst Ali Afshari suggests hard-liners don't want to lose control over ministries that are in charge of big contracts.

"These forces are concerned about the return of figures close to Rafsanjani and their takeover of key ministries such as the Oil Ministry or the Mines Ministry," he says. "The [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards Corps is also concerned that the presence of Zangeneh could make them gradually lose some of their contracts and prevent their economic activities."

Hard-liners have also warned Rohani against employing figures close to the "sedition," a term used in Iran to refer to the opposition Green Movement.

Zangeneh advised opposition leader and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi in the 2009 presidential campaign.

Some of the lawmakers, including Massud Mirkazemi, the head of the parliament's energy commission who served as oil minister under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, warned that Zangeneh could face "strong" opposition in the parliament.

"The sedition is a clear red line," Mirkazemi said.

Afshari, a former student leader, says some of the other nominees have also been criticized, including Rohani's choice for science minister, Jafar Milimonfared, who has come under fire from the hard-line Basij militia.

Yet Afshari believes that ultimately Rohani's proposed cabinet will be approved by the parliament, which is set to review the list later this week.

"Such sensitivities do exist," he says. "But I think Ali Larijani and his faction, which dominates the parliament, will play a key role. That is, if there is no intervention from Khamenei's office -- which could happen, even though it has been already reported that Rohani has gained Khamenei's support for his cabinet. About 80 percent of this cabinet is likely to get a vote of confidence."

Two senior lawmakers, Alaedin Boroujerdi and Mohammad Reza Bahonar, predicted on August 5 that an overwhelming number of Rohani's cabinet choices will be approved by the parliament.

Some have criticized the average age of the cabinet members, which is over 50, as being relatively high.

In reaction to the criticism, Bahonar said the nominees have "an abundance of experience" in the executive sector, which he described as their strength.