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Deeply Religious 'Safe Pair of Hands' is Iran's New Economy Chief

August 13, 2021
Ali Ranjipour
4 min read
Deeply Religious 'Safe Pair of Hands' is Iran's New Economy Chief

"The decline of governments can be identified by four things: the abandonment of principles and subordination of key matters, the selection of lowly individuals and the repulsion of worthy figures." 

The above comes from a tweet posted by one Seyed Ehsan Khandouzi on August 19, 2019. Less than two years later, Khandouzi would be named Iran’s new Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance, a key member of hardline president Ebrahim Raisi’s new cabinet. He is also unsurprisingly a devoted fan of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Deeply Religious 'Safe Pair of Hands' is Iran's New Economy Chief

Back then, the suggestion that he might one day be put in charge of one of the country’s most important ministries might have seemed preposterous to some. But in reality, the wheels were set in motion for Khandouz – an academic, “revolutionary” economist, author, and translator – to make the jump from hardworking cog in the machine to formidable driver of Iranian politics.

In fact, 2019 was a game changer. The fierce political climate, the escalation of Iran’s myriad economic and social crises, the widening gulf between the Iranian people and their leaders, the anger that spurred on the November 2019 protests: all of this set the scene for the 2020 parliamentary elections and the resounding success of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s Unity List candidates. Without all of this, Khandouzi may have not even have become an MP.

Khandouzi comes from a religious family. He began his studies in Islamic sciences and economics at Imam Sadegh University in 1998, emerging with a master's degree seven years later. Motivated by money and power, he served as the head of the Basij and as economic director of the Parliamentary Research Center, also sitting on the Expediency Council before becoming a member of parliament.

Khandouzi was still a doctoral student in economics at the Research Sciences Branch of Azad University when he was welcomed to the Parliamentary Research Center as an expert. By 2013, he was the center’s economic director. A year later he joined the faculty of Allameh Tabatabai University, rising to the position of director of economics in 2019.

He is the author of three books. A just city: An introduction to the theory of economic justice in the Quran was his first and most famous. Most of the dozens of articles he has published in scientific journals focus on justice, development, and a free economy, often with titles that betray their deeply religious orientation: “Economic Defense Strategies from the Perspective of the Stories of the Divine Prophets” and “Study of Economic Principles and Traditions in the Quran and Narratives”, for instance, were both published by Allameh Tabatabai University

A Safe Pair of Hands?

As Ebrahim Raisi’s successful bid as president became obvious, so too did his preference to give the job of economy minister to someone other than Khandouzi. But thanks to internal disputes and amid calls for either Mohammad Reza Farzin or Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi Vafa, it was decided that a more neutral option was desirable. In came Khandouzi.

As MP, Khandouzi had ample opportunity to present himself as a steady pair of hands: a solid, calm presence amid a climate of chaos. While other politicians were busy making threats and picking fights, Khandouzi turned to charts, graphs and analysis.

He may have come across as calm and focused, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have spirit. He was ruthless in his criticism of Hassan Rouhani's government, though he stopped short of explicitly pointing to sanctions as the reason for Iran’s economic collapse.  

Khandouzi will be well aware of the devastating impact that sanctions have had on Iran's economy. His time at the Parliamentary Research Center would have taught him that, as well as how vital it is that Iran reforges links with global markets. He regards himself as an economist.

And yet, he also insists on defending the Supreme Leader’s meaningless concept "resistance economy”. He has spoken out against the normalization of relations with the world, and even downplayed the crisis that erupted from Iran being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). When the Leader spoke of a new phase of the revolution, Khandouzi not only publicly praised it, but published articles theorising on its merits.

All of this makes it obvious that the new minister for economy is really nothing new. He knows, as everyone in government does, that Ayatollah Khamenei is in charge. His task is to identify where he fits in and how he can improve his own prospects within the existing, immoveable framework.

  

Crisis Time  

Like most of Raisi’s ministerial selections, Seyed Ehsan Khandouzi is expected to be approved by parliament and assume his new role unchallenged. He arrives at the ministry in a time of utter, indisputable crisis. Iran's economy is in its worst state in its contemporary history, and it is impossible to divine any positive vision for the near future.

For the first time since the end of World War II, inflation has now stood at more than 40 percent for the third year in a row. The country is experiencing its deepest recession since the Islamic Revolution, and unemployment is at an all-time high. Safe to say that thanks to the budget deficit, continuing sanctions and the turbulent social and political climate, none of this will dissipate anytime soon. Iran needs more than a steady hand to get it out of this crisis. Whatever expertise and deep thinking Khandouzi can offer will likely be far from transformative.

Looking back at that tweet from 2019, one can’t help but wonder: who was he talking about?

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