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