Stance by Washington official comes as Raisi pledges ‘diplomacy’ and ‘constructive’ engagement in his inaugural speech.
Tehran, Iran – Iran’s hardline parliament has voted to approve almost all of President Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet picks, signalling the formation of his “revolutionary” administration that faces a plethora of political, economic and social challenges.
The parliament approved 18 of Raisi’s 19-member roster of ministers on Wednesday. Only Raisi’s pick for education minister, the young, inexperienced Hossein Baghgoli, was rejected by lawmakers, who approved Raisi’s picks with overwhelming majorities.
About half of the new ministers come from former hardline administrations, many of them sanctioned by the United States. One is wanted by Interpol, and several have military backgrounds. Not a single woman is included in the cabinet.
Earlier this month, Raisi had appointed Mohammad Mokhber and Masoud Mirkazemi as his first vice president and the head of the Planning and Budget Organisation respectively, posts that do not require parliamentary approval.
Formerly with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mokhber was for the past 14 years the head of Setad, one of the most powerful conglomerates in Iran with tens of billions of dollars in assets. It is directly supervised by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
At Setad, he also led efforts to produce COVIran Barekat, the country’s first locally developed COVID-19 vaccine that has suffered several production delays. He and Setad were sanctioned by the Donald Trump administration in January.
Mirkazemi is a former petroleum and trade minister under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A former legislator, he has had ties with several influential organisations, including the Astan-e Quds Razavi in Mashhad, which was led by the president from 2016 to 2019.
Raisi himself was also sanctioned by the US in 2019, and his victory in the June elections marked the first time an Iranian president is sanctioned by the US even before assuming office.
Raisi on Wednesday appointed Mohsen Rezaee as his deputy for economic affairs. Rezaee is a former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, the current secretary of the Expediency Council, and a 2021 presidential hopeful.
‘Asia-centric’ foreign policy
The president’s pick for foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, is a career diplomat whose main expertise is in West Asia affairs, signalling the administration’s focus on prioritising ties with the region.
The 57-year-old Amirabdollahian has done stints in Iraq, Bahrain and Syria, and is thought to have close ties with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah and the IRGC. He has been largely hawkish on relations with the West, and told legislators earlier this week he aims to form an “Asia-centric” foreign policy.
He was deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs for five years until 2016, and then became a special adviser to the parliament speaker, and the parliament’s deputy for international affairs.
Among other things, Amirabdollahian’s crucial appointment comes as world powers are soon expected to head back to Vienna to continue talks on restoring Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, and Iran will participate in a regional meeting hosted by Iraq – which has also hosted Iran’s private talks with rival Saudi Arabia in recent months.
As per the constitution, the supreme leader directly approves the foreign minister, in addition to defence and intelligence ministers.
Raisi’s defence minister is 61-year-old Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, the deputy chief of staff of Iranian armed forces and a former top army official. His intelligence minister is Esmaeil Khatib, a 60-year-old scholar who has had intelligence and security postings in Qom and at the IRGC, the judiciary, the Astan-e Quds Razavi, and the supreme leader’s office.
President Raisi’s pick for interior minister is Ahmad Vahidi, another senior official under Ahmadinejad, who was the former hardline president’s defence minister.
The 63-year-old Vahidi, blacklisted by the US in 2010, had an Interpol “red notice” issued against him by Argentina, which alleges he planned a bombing attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds. Vahidi at the time led the Quds Force, the IRGC branch focused on foreign affairs, whose most famous commander, Qassem Soleimani, was assassinated by the US in 2020.
Economy, oil, and COVID
For petroleum minister, the president tapped Javad Owji, a longtime executive and official in the country’s crucial oil and gas sector.
He has, throughout the years, held several senior managerial positions in firms with ties to Setad. The 54-year-old Owji was also deputy petroleum minister and chief executive of the National Iranian Gas Company for several years under Ahmadinejad.
He replaces retiring veteran petroleum minister Bijan Zanganeh. Both Owji and Zanganeh were sanctioned by the US in 2020 as part of Washington’s targeting of senior officials in Iran’s oil sector.
Another IRGC commander was tapped by Raisi for the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development.
Rostam Ghasemi, 57, is a former leader of the significant Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters of the Revolutionary Guard. The war veteran also held a string of other positions under the umbrella of the IRGC, and was petroleum minister for the two final years of the Ahmadinejad administration.
Ghasemi was also among the dozens of current and former officials who ran for president in 2021, but dropped out before the constitutional vetting body, the Guardian Council, announced the final list of approved candidates. He is also targeted by US sanctions, having been blacklisted in 2019.
He generated laughs by lawmakers and memes on the internet when he said during his public defence and review session at the parliament that he is ready to take the helm of the petroleum ministry instead of the roads ministry – twice.
To tackle the ailing economy, the president chose Ehsan Khandoozi, a researcher and university professor. The 41-year-old became a member of parliament in 2020 when he was chosen as a representative for Tehran.
As the country battles a fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with daily death tolls surpassing 650, 63-year-old Bahram Einollahi has been approved as health minister.
Last year, Einollahi was among the physicians who signed a letter to President Hassan Rouhani to call on him to ban imports of vaccines developed by the US, the United Kingdom, and France. The letter had also said vaccines developed by these countries must not be imported even if they are produced in a third country or covered by the global COVAX initiative.
Einollahi also created controversy earlier this week when he appeared without a face mask among dozens of legislators following his defence and review session in the parliament as the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus continued to spread across the country.