Accessibility links

New Iran Cabinet Dominated by Hardliners

Iran's new president, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, unveiled his Cabinet this week. The lineup is widely viewed to consist of hard-line conservatives, holding views similar to those of the president. VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas takes a look at what the new Cabinet lineup might mean for Iran and the world.

Expectations of a Cabinet full of staunch conservatives are fulfilled in President Ahmadinejad's choices.

President Ahmadinejad has packed the key ministries, such as Intelligence, Interior, and Justice with men whose average age is 48, just a year younger than the president. Most are new faces on the national scene. There are no women nominees to the 21-member cabinet.

Kenneth Katzman, senior Iran analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says many of the nominees have a shared experience of service during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, particularly in the Revolutionary Guards, or the intelligence and security services.

"A lot of these guys seem to be veterans of either the Revolutionary Guard, and/or the so-called Construction Jihad, which was sort of an engineering unit that helped Revolutionary Guard fight the war, and it also had a role in WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and artillery and war production efforts, as well," he explained. "But mainly, it was combat engineering, road-building, etc. It does seem to be that the people who were behind the scenes in the Iran-Iraq war are now coming out, coming into their own."

Columbia University Middle East Studies Professor Gary Sick, a former Iran analyst at the National Security Council, says the new Cabinet represents a changing of the guard in Iran to the generation that fought the Iran-Iraq war.

"I think, we are going to see a much more self-confident behavior among these people, at least in the beginning," he said. "They may discover that confidence is not justified. But I think, they are coming into it, not as a youthful group looking up to their elders, but as a group that has fought the battles of Iran over the past 20 years, and they are, in their own view, now ready for power."

Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejehei, the new intelligence minister, is a former judge, known for rulings against reformists. The interior minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, is a former acting intelligence minister and prosecutor, as well as a onetime aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Both are Islamic clerics. The foreign minister is Manouchehr Mottaki, a conservative career diplomat. The oil ministry portfolio went to Ali Saeedlou, who was Mr. Ahmadinejad's deputy when he was mayor of Tehran.

Analysts believe that the new government will take a hard line on the issue of pursuing a nuclear program. The United States and Europe are seeking to keep Iran from developing even a peaceful nuclear program, for fear Tehran really wants to build nuclear weapons. Mr. Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says Iran's hardened position has already become clear.

"Iran does appear to be challenging the EU and the United States, almost daring the international community to impose any sanctions, knowing that oil prices are very high, and that, really, it would be very difficult to get any meaningful oil sanctions imposed," he explained. "So, the hard line appears to be playing out to an extent with these nuclear talks."

Mr. Katzman says, on the domestic front, the new Cabinet is committed to Mr. Ahmadinejad's campaign promises of economic assistance to Iran's underprivileged. He says that, with oil prices, and therefore oil revenues, at an all-time high, Iran can afford to ratchet up domestic spending to fight unemployment and poverty.

"I think that is going to be a big theme, not how many cosmetics can we buy from France, how many Swiss chocolates can we buy, but how do we get employment down to the lower class? How do we get money and social welfare down to the lower classes? I think that's the emphasis, what I see in these Cabinet appointments," he added.

Whether there will be attempts to roll back the modest social reforms gained during the previous administration of reformist-minded President Mohammad Khatemi is still not clear. Mr. Katzman believes the new government will not want to expend precious political capital in a new domestic culture war.

"If they do, they are going to have street problems, they are going to have visible dissatisfaction," he said. "They are going to be essentially going to the mat, or starting a fight, with educated elites and others, who have supported the former president, Mohammad Khatemi, and they would lose political capital that they do not want to lose. I think, they would rather fight on other fronts."

But Mr. Sick of Columbia University adds that the new leaders will not shy away from a confrontation, if forced into it.

"Looking at the lineup, I am tempted to believe that, whenever a question comes up where a decision has to be taken, this group - the new interior minister, and justice minister and intelligence minister - they are going to come down on the hard line side, not in favor of rights and privileges," he said.

The Majlis (parliament) must still ratify each of Mr. Ahmadinejad's choices on a simple majority vote, and not all those votes are mere formalities.