Did Rouhani Cancel the Government’s Spokesman Position?


ByDr. Mo'tasem Siddiq Abdullah

During the first five years of the current Iranian government, the eighth floor of the presidency building witnessed weekly press conferences where Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, the government’s spokesman, used to interact with journalists and present the government’s perspectives on internal and international developments.
As the government faced increasing criticism, particularly due to its poor performance in addressing Iran’s economic challenges resulting in the calls for change becoming louder, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht submitted his resignation on July 31, 2018, claiming that he needed to focus more on his other position as the head of the Planning and Budget Organization (PBO).
His resignation came after facing severe criticism from the “reformists” who believed that he was the main reason behind the chaos and poor coordination between the government’s economic team members. For the “reformists” there was no way out of the current economic crisis except by rearranging the economic team members. It was expected that Nobakht would be dismissed from the PBO as part of the government’s restructuring of its economic team. However, Iranians were shocked by the insistence of President Hassan Rouhani to keep Nobakht as the head of the PBO.
Following his resignation, it was expected that President Rouhani would hasten to appoint a new government spokesman, given the significance of this position in delivering official statements to news agencies on issues of public concern and in clarifying the government’s views, policies, and decisions from its own perspective.
In this regard, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Vaezi, announced in October 2018 that President Rouhani was about to appoint one of the government’s economic team members as its spokesman, however, nothing happened. In the recent flood crisis that affected 25 Iranian governorates, the wave of criticism against the government rose again, accusing it of mismanagement and failing to address the flood crisis. This led to renewed discussions concerning the significance of appointing a new spokesman. A spokesman could have played an integral role in clarifying government measures undertaken to address the flood crisis as well as the relief and aid operations it provided to help the flood-hit areas.
For Nine Months the Government is Without a Spokesman
A government without a spokesman is the best way for Rouhani and his cabinet to evade media scrutiny, taking into consideration that the government has faced unprecedented criticism due to snowballing crises in Iran such as the economic crisis following the US sanctions, the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the government’s failure to meet its promises, and the recent devastating flood crisis that has caused extensive damage to Iran’s infrastructure and buildings estimated at billions of dollars.
However, maybe the Iranian government believes that it does not need a spokesman as it relies on its ministers and the remarks they routinely make after cabinet meetings via media agencies; every minister delivers a statement on issues related to his ministry. Some believe that the position of spokesman is not significant anymore since government ministers are active on social media, discussing and explaining significant issues to the Iranian people. Yet, indeed, the interactions that ministers carry out with media agencies cannot by any means undervalue the role a government spokesman plays because a minister’s responsibility is to answer questions related to his ministry only, and he would not comprehensively address questions directed at the government.
The “reformists” and moderates, namely, the Executives of the Construction of Iran Party and the Moderation and Development Party, have a silent dispute. Both parties are seeking to win the lion’s share of top positions in the cabinet and the presidency. This silent on-going conflict might be the reason behind the government’s delay in appointing a new spokesman. Due to the loss of public trust, especially after its consecutive failures in addressing the country’s crises, the government has nothing to say. Therefore, appointing a spokesman would be pointless and meaningless. It is not the fundamentalists who believe that the government does not need a spokesman, thereby warranting analysis from a fundamentalist-reformist conflict perspective; however, the “reformists” and Rouhani’s loyalist parties as well as those in the government do not see any benefit in appointing a spokesman. The Secretary-General of the Executives of Construction of Iran Party, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, a party in which the Iranian First Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri, is a member, believes that the government is drowning in crises and for it to continue working without a spokesman means that it is cutting off a vital means of communication with the people as well as with media agencies. Consequently, variant interpretations and judgments will arise against the government due to its failure, and its inability to perform its role as well as due to low levels of transparency and widespread inefficiency. These interpretations will increase the simmering public discontent against the government which “hardliners” could exploit to place further pressure on Rouhani and his loyal “reformists”.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Dr. Mo'tasem Siddiq Abdullah
Dr. Mo'tasem Siddiq Abdullah
Political researcher at Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies