Normally when a new president takes the helm in Iran, it’s the appointments to ministerial roles overseeing foreign affairs and culture that make headlines. But under Ebrahim Raisi, the biggest tussle has broken out over who will oversee Iran’s economic and financial portfolio – to the point that it has delayed the formation of a new cabinet.
During the presidential election campaign season, Raisi claimed he had a “7,000-page plan” ready and waiting to address the economy. It appears that (in Raisi’s eyes at least) none of the authors of this feted document are well-placed enough to oversee its implementation. Neither has any other suitable person been found.
In the meantime, with the country’s new foreign, intelligence and interior ministers now in place, Raisi’s top team is – not altogether unexpectedly – coming to bear a striking resemblance to the first cabinet of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Squabbles Within the Raisi Campaign
The architects of Raisi’s economic program were all members of his election headquarters. But Raisi has said he will not be drawing the cabinet from his former staff: a decision confirmed by the appointment of Mohammad Mokhber as first vice president instead of his campaign manager, Ali Nikzad.
This has caused some consternation as several members of Raisi’s inner circle were primed to take over the economic brief. They include the conservative economist Farhad Rahbar, and Massoud Mirkazemi, a former Minister of Oil, both of whom helped draw up the proposals for the 2021 election campaign.
Both Rahbar and Mirkazemi held senior posts in the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration. Two other contenders, Mohammad Reza Farzin, CEO of the National Development Fund, and Ali Falehabadi, ex-CEO of the Securities and Exchange Organization, head of the Stock Exchange Organization, also served in the government under Ahmadinejad.
The four are united by having last held senior roles at a time when revenues were still high, and now the coffers are bare. But apart from being in conflict with each other, not all of the team members were happy about the appointment of Mohammad Mokhber, who is supposed to make up for the executive shortcomings of the new president.
Mokhber is officially tasked with appointing the Minister of Economy. On Sunday it emerged that both Raisi and others close to him had rejected Mokhber’s first choice for the role, Mohammad Reza Farzin, and suggested the economist Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi Vafa be given the job instead. In the meantime, the Raisi administration also has yet to appoint the new heads of the Planning and Budget Organization and the Central Bank of Iran.
Hardliners Weigh In on Appointments Process
Apart from clashes within President Raisi’s inner circle, demands by other conservative groups have also made the situation more difficult. Sharq newspaper reports: "Some expect him to appoint ‘young revolutionary’ ministers. But other principalists don’t agree, and... think it is not in the best interests of a president to run an extremist government, and that it would be better for his government to shift toward more conservative principlist forces."
At least in the field of foreign relations, Raisi seems to have concurred with this view. Contrary to speculation, instead of taking on Ali Bagheri Kani, the former deputy of Ahmadinejad-era nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, as Foreign Minister, Raisi opted for Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: an ex-deputy foreign minister who is close to the IRGC’s Quds Force.
Intelligence and Interior Ministers Named
Esmaeil Khatib, the former head of the Iranian judiciary’s intelligence office under Raisi, has been named Minister of Intelligence. This too came as something of a surprise as it had been speculated the job would go to veteran prosecutor and Raisi’s one-time colleague on the 1988 Tehran death panel, Mostafa Pourmohammadi.
Unlike Hassan Rouhani's last intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi, Khatib has previously served in the Intelligence Ministry and security agencies, without involving himself in any political spats along the way. In 2019 he was made a senior advisor and head of security for the huge Islamic endowment fund Astan Qods Razavi.
His record is not without its controversies, though. Khatib's relationships with certain well-connected businessmen, including pasta magnate and super-investor Reza Motalebi Kashani (who was later also made a trustee of Astan Qods Razavi), have been the subject of long-standing rumors.
Elsewhere, Iran’s new interior minister is Ahmad Vahidi, Ahmadinejad’s former minister of defense and an ex-commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He has been wanted by Interpol since 2007 for his alleged role in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 85 people.
There is still an abundance of deputy positions to be filled, with hardliners of different stripes scrambling to promote their favoured candidates. Former IRGC Khatam al-Anbia Headquarters head Saeed Mohammad is among them; his presence in the cabinet, though, would force Raisi to engage with the Revolutionary Guards’ internal conflicts.
In the meantime, Raisi's first cabinet looks similar to that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – not only in its composition but in how the twists and turns of appointments are panning out. Despite years of preparation for Iran’s top executive role, it seems President Raisi had no concrete plan in place for what to do when he got there.