New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his team face an uphill battle to circumvent Western sanctions due to Tehran’s non-compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal concluded with world powers in 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States withdrew from the deal in 2018, reinstated tight sanctions on Iran, but insisted that Tehran should comply with the deal. Raisi will try to untie Iran’s economy from the fate of the nuclear deal, so that it functions whether or not the sanctions remain in place. As a first step, he is sidelining political rivals, so that only his “hardliner” supporters are involved in making future policy decisions.
Raisi quickly selected many trusted friends. Raisi’s pick for Chief of Staff, Gholamhossein Esmaili, served as Iran’s judicial spokesperson when he was chief justice. Esmaili, a former prosecutor, was sanctioned by the European Union for his involvement in human rights violations. Iran’s Minister of Communications Isa Zarehpour set up the judicial computer and programming network when Raisi was chief justice. Iran’s new Minister of Justice Hossein Rahimi performed different judicial roles under Raisi. Golam Hussein Mohsen Eje’i, who replaced Raisi as chief justice, is a “hardline” attorney general and together with Raisi, they prosecuted political rivals. Soon after Ejei’s elevation to a ministerial portfolio, video clips circulated showing the mistreatment and torture of prisoners under his watch.
Raisi appointed a “hardline” member of the powerful Guardian Council, Mohammad Dehghan, as his legal advisor. Dehghan is keen to sidestep Iran’s “reformist” factions, and previously called for the prosecution of Iran’s Green Movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, who were attempting to introduce reforms that would lead to an opening with the West.
Several “hardline” ministers in Raisi’s new cabinet served under Ahmadinejad and have experience in advancing Iran’s defensive and offensive military capabilities, circumventing sanctions, and managing state propaganda. These include key cabinet members Ahmad Vahidi, who was appointed as Iran’s interior minister. Vahidi is on INTERPOL’s red alert notice for his involvement in the AMIA Jewish center bombing in Argentina in 1994. Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani, the armed force’s former deputy chief of staff, was appointed as the country’s new defense minister. Iran’s new oil minister, Javad Owji, was the managing director of the Iran National Gas Company during Ahmadinejad’s term. He has promised to keep selling Iranian oil in global markets despite the sanctions. Iran’s oil minister under Ahmadinejad, Rostam Ghasemi, is the roads and transport minister in the new cabinet. Iran’s new Minister of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Ezatollah Zarghami, presided over Iran’s national television and radio broadcasting agency under Ahmadinejad. Iran’s Minister of Power Ali Akbar Mehrabian served as the country’s minister of industries and mines under Ahmadinejad. He has said that he will fix power shortages, and build new power plants to ensure that the Iranian economy continues to function despite the sanctions.
Other Raisi appointees include the former Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council Mohsen Rezaee, who was selected for various posts. He was appointed as the Vice President for Economic Affairs, and as the secretary of Iran’s Cabinet Economic Staff. In addition, he was appointed as the secretary of the Supreme Economic Coordination Council. Rezaee previously worked with Raisi when he was chief justice and sat with him on the Supreme Economic Coordination Council, a body set up by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to design policies to counter the sanctions regime against Iran.
To advance Iran’s economic resistance policies, Raisi will work with Mohammad Mokhber who was formerly the “hardline” former head of the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order from 2007 onwards. Mokhber was recently chosen to serve as Iran’s first vice-president. Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a staunch “hardline” supporter of the supreme leader, will serve as deputy president and the new head of the Martyr’s Foundation.
Iran’s Parliament approved Raisi’s cabinet nominees without reservation. The Parliament only disqualified his nominee for the Ministry of Education, Hossein Baghgoli, because of his close family ties and friendship with the president. Esmaeel Khateeb, the new minister of intelligence, previously served as the chief of intelligence and a representative of the supreme leader in the conservative seminary city of Qom. Iran’s new Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, is keen to prioritize diplomatic ties with neighboring countries and Asia, rather than wasting time trying to build trust with the West.
Raisi is also bringing a younger generation of bureaucrats to give his administration a face lift. This policy is in line with the guidelines handed down by the supreme leader to train the next generation of Iran’s “hardline” revolutionary leaders. These include the new Minister of Economy, Ehsan Khandoozi, also a former lawmaker and a university faculty member. The Minister of Labor Hojat Abdolmaleki is an economist and an Islamic scholar who has written extensively on how to build Iran’s resistance economy. Hamidreza Sajadi, the minister of sports and youth, is a former Olympic runner, and gold medalist. The Minister of Science, Research and Technology Mohammad Ali Zolfigol was a former “hardline” university faculty member. The Minister of Industry Reza Fatemi Amin has said that he will boost industrial exports despite the sanctions. Iran’s new Minister of Islamic Guidance is Mohammad Hadi Esmaili, a political scientist whose work focuses on Shiite Islam.
Not all ministers seem to be performing well in Iran’s new cabinet. Iran’s Minister of Health, Bahram Einollahi, is promising to end coronavirus related deaths by February, after the country begins to import large quantities of vaccines and boost its own domestic production. However, his pledge does not match the reality on the ground. Einollahi has said that Iran has 21 million vaccine doses but 60.5 million Iranians still need to be vaccinated. At the moment, only 18 percent of the Iranian population has been vaccinated. Einollahi had previously stirred controversy when the Health Ministry was charged with producing Sputnik vaccines and exporting these to Russia, despite the dire need for vaccinations inside Iran. Public anger over high death tolls was voiced on social media with the hashtag #SOSIran (Save Iran). Even so, Raisi’s government has done almost nothing to halt anti-vaccine propaganda in conservatively religious cities like Qom. Despite Iran’s high death toll, Iran’s Red Crescent Society was barred from importing nearly 20 million doses of European vaccines for three months, because of the paranoia that they contained foreign contaminants that could compromise the health of Iran’s top tier leadership.
Raisi’s critics think his moves and policies to date, including the slow pace of selecting his cabinet, indicate that Iran’s new president is all show and lacks substance. His cabinet choice seems to reflect an intent to please the supreme leader who has said that Raisi should work to halt dwindling public support for Iran’s political system.