Thursday, August 25, 2005

Iran's Parliament Confirms a "Government of Emergency"

Kamal Nazer Yasin, Eurasianet:
Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s cabinet selections indicate that Iran’s leadership is preparing for domestic challenges and a possible confrontation with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program and a variety of other issues. One well-placed political observer in Tehran described the presidential cabinet as a "government of emergency." READ MORE

Ahmadinejad formally submitted his cabinet choices for parliamentary consideration on August 21. Virtually all of the 21 cabinet nominees were religious conservatives, many of them with backgrounds in the military or state-security apparatus. Ahmadinejad aides touted the selections as "not being faction-driven" and "not beholden to special interests." One described it as "a cabinet of professionals." On August 24, Iran’s parliament confirmed 17 of the 21 nominees. The four nominees rejected by parliament would have held relatively minor posts.

When the cabinet nominations were announced, Iranian media outlets generally expressed surprise, with some commentators asserting that many of the nominees were unqualified. Baztab, a conservative-oriented news web site, characterized Ahmadinejad’s cabinet selections as "unusual and baffling." Presidential critics pointed out that roughly half of the 21 cabinet nominees had not previously held a high-level governmental post.

A significant number of MPs expressed initial reservations about confirming Ahmadinejad’s nominees. But political analysts say that religious hardliners, who now control virtually all of Iran’s elected and unelected political institutions, exerted strong behind-the-scenes pressure on legislators to confirm the cabinet. The brewing international crisis over Iran’s decision to resume nuclear research over the West’s objections increased the pressure on MPs to avert a governmental crisis.

In assembling the cabinet, Ahmadinejad is said to have cut a political deal with parliament’s vice speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, head of the legislative faction of the neo-conservative Abadgaran movement. The deal -- in which Bahonar had significant input in the nominations of key ministerial posts, including Manouchehr Mottaki as foreign minister and Mostafa Pourmohammdi as interior minister – stands to reduce tension within the Abadgaran movement, at least over the near-term. In recent weeks, an intra-party rivalry developed pitting Bahonar’s followers in parliament against a faction centered on Tehran’s City Council

According to a retired Revolutionary Guards mid-ranking officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Ahmadinejad’s government is "a cabinet of national emergency." That many members of the new cabinet are former top officers within the Revolutionary Guards or the intelligence services ensures that Ahmadinejad’s administration will have a distinct national security emphasis. In addition, political analysts believe many political appointees, including those on the gubernatorial and vice-ministerial levels, will be drawn from the ranks of the military and security apparatus.

According to the retired officer, the decision to form a security-oriented cabinet stems from the extraordinary cluster of potential foreign and domestic threats that the present leadership is currently facing. Foremost among the looming threats, in the view of religious conservatives, is a potentially long-tem struggle with the United States and European Union over Iran’s effort to develop nuclear capabilities Many Iranian leaders expect Ahmadinejad’s administration to be defined by how it responds Western efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

An August 21 editorial in the hard-line paper Ressalat gave a ringing endorsement for Ahmadinejad’s decision to focus on security. "When the country is caught in a ‘tunnel of emergency,’ they [the new cabinet members] can ensure that the country safely navigates [the crisis]," the newspaper commentary said.

According to the former Revolutionary Guards officer, Ahmadinejad’s cabinet would operate as if in permanent crisis mode, potentially making it easier for the government to introduce strict measures in the name of national security. In a speech to parliament August 21 made in connection with his submission of cabinet nominees, Ahmadinejad adopted a defiant and confrontational tone that seemed designed to prepare public opinion for a deepening international confrontation.

Ahmadinejad assailed unnamed members of the international community -- generally believed by experts to be Britain, France and Germany -- for trying to frustrate Iran’s economic development. "Those very countries that should be thankful for our contribution to their economic success, now act as if we owe them something. On political issues, they go so far as to interfere in our domestic politics," Ahmadinejad said. He added that such international "tyranny and injustice" was unacceptable to Tehran. Later during his address, Ahmadinejad indicted that strict adherence to Islamic values was necessary for Iran to weather potential trouble ahead.

The failure of four nominees to secure confirmation, including Ali Saeedlou as oil minister and Ali Akbar Ash’ari as education minister, is widely viewed as the result of stiff parliamentary opposition from a small minority of right-leaning MPs, who worry about the possibility that Iran could make another detour toward dictatorship in the not-so-distant future. This group of right-leaning MPs – headed by two widely-respected legislators, Emad Afrough and Hassan Subhani – concentrated their efforts on blocking the confirmation of second-tier nominees. Some political observers believe the opposition to some nominees could give rise to a new faction within parliament that would oppose any potential effort by Ahmadinejad’s administration to lift existing checks upon executive authority.

On August 22, Afrough roiled the normally-placid parliamentary proceedings by warning darkly of unspecified future plots. During debate on Pourmohammadi’s nomination as interior minister, Afrough said; "from the Constitutional Revolution [of 1907] came the military putsch of Reza Khan [the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty]. From the Oil Nationalization Movement came the CIA coup. It is not right that from ... liberalism [advocated by former president Mohammad Khatami’s administration], we are moving toward an extremist kind of collectivist totalitarianism against the Islamic Revolution." Pourhammadi’s confirmation generated spirited parliamentary debate in large part because he once held the post of vice minister for intelligence, with responsibility for counter-espionage.

Editor’s Note: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.