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Rouhani Defends Cabinet Choices in Iran Parliament Debate

  • Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a debate in parliament on his proposed cabinet, in Tehran August 12, 2013.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a debate in parliament on his proposed cabinet, in Tehran August 12, 2013.

President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday he had chosen a cabinet to overcome Iran's economic crisis and diplomatic isolation as parliament began debating whether to approve his proposed ministers.

A relatively moderate, mid-ranking Shi'ite cleric, Rouhani took office on August 3 after scoring a landslide in the June 14 presidential election over more conservative rivals.

He has promised to combat high inflation and unemployment, pursue a more “constructive” foreign policy and allow greater social freedoms than hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani, who won the support of centrist and reformist voters but who also has good ties to conservative insiders, said he had chosen a cabinet from across Iran's factions on the basis of their experience rather than political loyalties.

”Your vote of confidence in the ministers is not just a vote for the individuals, it is a vote for the whole government and its plans,” the Iranian president told parliament. Parliament is expected to vote on Rouhani's cabinet choices on Wednesday.

Many of his nominees are seasoned technocrats who served under centrist former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami. But conservative factions in parliament are likely to oppose some of his choices.

Though widely recognized as an experienced and capable manager, proposed oil minister Bijan Zanganeh is, according to conservatives, too close to pro-reform opposition leaders who protested against what they called a rigged presidential vote in 2009.

Zanganeh and Mohammad Ali Najafi, a technocrat picked for education minister, visited Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after the 2009 election to speak on behalf of the opposition leaders, who are now under house arrest.

Conservatives refer to the months of street unrest that followed the vote as a “sedition,” and reformists have been largely purged from powerful posts in the years since.

Ruhollah Hosseinian, a “principlist” conservative in parliament, predicted on Saturday that 80 percent of Rouhani's cabinet nominees would be approved, ISNA news agency said.

But he said the assembly would bar those “who made statements in parliament and did not distance themselves from the sedition.”

The shadow of “sedition”

Hossein Shariatmadari, hand-picked by Khamenei to edit the influential hardline daily Kayhan, wrote in an editorial on Monday that “the place for those who were present in the sedition is prison and not the ministry.”

Conservative member of parliament Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani said the house could not ignore “the issue of the 2009 sedition.” Facing Najafi, who along with other ministerial nominees was present during the debate, he asked: “Do you believe that what happened in 2009 was fraud or not?”

Ministers have not addressed the parliament, but have been meeting with lawmakers on the sidelines.

In a possible measure of support for the cabinet in parliament, Fars news agency said 148 lawmakers had requested to speak in favor of Rouhani's cabinet on Monday and 18 against.

In his speech, Rouhani said the oil ministry required “active diplomacy” and endorsed Zanganeh for the post.

Western sanctions imposed over Iran's disputed nuclear program have halved Tehran's oil exports since 2011, and its aging oilfields need crucial upkeep.

In addition to repairing the economy, Rouhani has pledged to improve Iran's image abroad, which was tarnished by Ahmadinejad's bellicose statements against Israel and questioning of the Holocaust.

On Monday, Rouhani said his government would pursue “threat prevention and alleviation of tensions” in its foreign policy.

His pick for foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is a U.S.-educated former U.N. ambassador who has been at the center of several rounds of secret negotiations to try to overcome decades of estrangement between Washington and Tehran.

Rouhani said he had known Zarif since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and called him the best man for the job, saying Iran needed a “completely aware, efficient and expert” foreign minister.