Rohani, under fire again, struggles to keep everyone happy

Sunday 30/10/2016
Iranian President Hassan Rohani delivers a speech to parliament in the capital Tehran, last January.

London - Often described as a cen­trist, Hassan Rohani has always faced a balancing act as president of Iran. Just seven months ahead of May’s election, in which he is ex­pected to seek a second term, he wants to maintain support among reformists while rallying conserva­tives within the political class and the electorate.

Ideally, he would like to placate conservative principlists unrecon­ciled to his programme of interna­tional detente, cautious economic reform and efforts to attract foreign investment.

Rohani has been partly successful in calming the heated conflicts be­tween reformists and conservatives that marked the presidencies of his two immediate predecessors, re­formist Mohammad Khatami (1997- 2005) and principlist Mahmoud Ah­madinejad (2005-13).

All in all, Rohani’s relationship with Iranian Supreme Leader Aya­tollah Ali Khamenei is far better than theirs ever was.

A cabinet reshuffle — rumours of which had been building for some time — following the dismissal of three ministers should be seen in the context of the election.

“The adjustment comes under pressure and perhaps with an eye to pre-presidential election poli­tics and improving Rohani’s chanc­es,” said political analyst Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“The ministers of Culture and Is­lamic Guidance and of Sports and Youth were under fire for either buckling under pressure from hard-line cultural forces or not perform­ing well. Meanwhile, the Education minister was facing an impeach­ment process in parliament.”

While none of these portfolios is as central to government as the Economic or Energy ministries, the three ministers to go — Mahmoud Goudarzi as Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs, Ali Jannati as minis­ter of Culture and Ali Asghar Fani as Education minister have technical­ly resigned — were all in areas that can be very sensitive in the Islamic Republic.

The minister under the most pressure was Fani, who has faced stiff parliamentary criticism over a financial scandal as well as over re­sources and quality in schools.

Fani was not Rohani’s first choice for the post, as the president turned to him after parliament refused to accept the nomination of Moham­mad Ali Najafi, who was closely identified both with the reformists and former president Akbar Hashe­mi Rafsanjani.

Those were difficult days for Ro­hani, when his first minister of Edu­cation was impeached and he had to make several nominations before a replacement was endorsed, but the balance in parliament is more sym­pathetic to the president since Feb­ruary’s elections.

But deputies can still be critical. Goudarzi and Jannati drew criticism from politicians or clerics. A report in the reformist Shargh newspaper said aspects of Goudarzi’s youth policies had alienated senior clerics.

Jannati is the son of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who is chairman of both the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the supreme lead­er, and the Council of Guardians, the constitutional watchdog that vets candidates for public office.

His father’s position did not spare Jannati from the wrath of clerics, however, after he agreed to concerts in the shrine cities of Mashhad and Qom. And when Jannati backed down, he faced criticism from reformists and Ro­hani.

Managing to alienate everyone is hardly a trait attractive for a president seeking re-election.

“The artists, film-makers, in­tellectuals were dissatisfied with Jannati (as Culture minister) but all these three ministries are im­portant for Rohani’s social base,” said Saeid Golkar, senior fellow for Iran policy at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs and a lecturer at Northwestern University.

“More than 1 million people work in the Ministry of Education, the biggest organisation in Iran’s bureaucracy. They’re alarmed by the scandals and, with Fani’s re­moval, the hardliners have lost an opportunity to undermine Rohani.

“Sports and Youth, again, are sensitive. Rohani wants to calm down all these groups by acknowl­edging their dissatisfaction and saying he has made changes.”

Rohani has portrayed the re­shuffle as a change of managers designed to improve the way the government serves the people.

He told a national conference on villages and nomads: “Some unkind newspapers and websites always used to [ask] why the gov­ernment is not replacing its min­isters but, when the government does so, the same unkind newspa­pers and websites ask why has the government done so.”

It is the language of the techno­crat but the judgment required is political. Rohani appointed acting ministers to Culture, Sports and Education. Caretakers can hold the office for up to three months but substantive replacements re­quire parliamentary approval.

To keep up his balancing act, the president will need to choose carefully and manage the transi­tion well.

“If the reshuffle is mostly po­litical in order to improve Rohani’s re-election chances, then much depends on who the replacements will be and how the confirmation process in the parliament is han­dled,” said Farhi.

“If the replacements become portrayed as either less qualified or with even less backbone against the hard-line onslaught, then the shuffle could lead to the weak­ening of the support Rohani has among the reformists.”

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