Rohani, under fire again, struggles to keep everyone happy
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.”