The Iranian parliament has been discussing the cabinet lineup submitted by the new President Ebrahim Raisi ahead of approving it. The discussions inside the legislature of the Islamic Republic have been largely left out by international media: only English and Arabic-speaking Iranian outlets offer information about what is going on.
This is partially related to the fact that the process is not over yet. Due to Covid-19 and endless foreign sanctions on Iran, a huge part of the conversation went to health and socio-economic topics.
But some of the results were announced. For example, according to a report by the state-affiliated Tehran Times, parliament’s national and security foreign policy committee accepted Raisi’s nomination of Hussein Amir Abdullahian as foreign minister.
Frankly - for Western governments - Abdullahian will be no less fierce than the arguably moderate Javad Zarif, his predecessor. Although Abdullahian stressed that Iran will remain committed to nuclear diplomacy, he said Iran will prioritise “national interests” and “national power.”
The political science scholar and veteran diplomat worked as the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs under former hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad was a man the West did not like at all, especially for his controversial statements, including his denial of the Holocaust. Some MPs criticised Abdullahian for using vague terms such as “balanced foreign policy” and not expressing his position on the US assasination of Qassem Suleimani.
But this is not a sign of de-escalation with world powers. Both Javad Owji and Rostam Ghasemi, the two men nominated as ministers of oil and gas and roads and urbanisation, respectively, also worked with Ahmadinejad. Moreover, Raisi wants General Ahmed Vahidi to become his interior minister. Vahidi is a former defence minister who was blacklisted by the United States and wanted by Interpol for his alleged involvement in the bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires in 1994. The attack led to the death of 85 people and injury of hundreds.
In the 1980s, Vahidi was also the commander of the Quds Force, a wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that specialises in unconventional warfare and was responsible for the rise of Iran’s Shia armed proxies across the region.
“I do not think that it will differ much at all in substance,” Kanishkan Sathasivam, director of Salem State University’s William H Bates Centre for Public and Global Affairs, said of Iran’s nuclear policy under Raisi. Sathasivam explained that Iran’s nuclear policy has always been entirely in the hands of the supreme leader, the president, foreign minister and the designated negotiator. The difference, Sathasivam added, will be in “the optics and the way in which dealings are handled, because of course Raisi comes with a lot of negative baggage that his Western interlocutors cannot ignore or dismiss.”
He pointed out that Raisi and “his boss” Ali Khamenei see the pro-Western and pro-democracy moderates completely defeated at home, while the Americans are “driven out” of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Sathasivam noted that even a nuclear deal with Iran would put US President Joe Biden at the risk of “serious blowback at home with his Democratic Party in the US Congress.
“The negotiations are currently not going well, because the Iranians believe they have the upper hand over the US/Biden at this point and as such they are holding out for a deal in which they get everything they want (which is the lifting of all sanctions, including those unrelated to the nuclear issue) but without giving the US anything in return beyond what is already in the JCPOA,” he stressed.
Biden wants a new nuclear deal that includes Iran’s ballistic missiles and military activities in the region. Since he took office, Western and Iranian delegations have not reached any agreements on this issue. Iran went even further by resuming its nuclear activities in the facilities of Arak and Fordo.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned last Wednesday that Iran is using advanced centrifuges to enrich 60 per cent of its above-ground pilot enrichment plant at Natanz. On the following day, the German, French and British foreign ministries revealed “grave concern” about the IAEA’s report. “Our concerns are deepened by the fact that Iran has significantly limited IAEA access through withdrawing from JCPOA-agreed monitoring arrangements,” the joint statement read.
Things will likely grow even worse when the Raisi government takes office. Jason Brodsky, a senior Middle East analyst at the London-based Iran International TV, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “Raisi’s administration is thus far shaping up to be the most sanctioned presidency in the history of the Islamic Republic.”“The president, first vice president, vice president for parliamentary affairs, chief of staff, defence minister, interior minister, roads minister, oil minister and tourism minister are all sanctioned,” said Brodsky.
“It is an administration that is closer to the Office of the Supreme Leader than its predecessors, and thus tensions with the United States will continue. What is more important than any one minister is that the true powers of the Islamic Republic—Iran’s supreme leader, his office and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—remain in their posts, and will continue to drive the decision-making on the files that most concern the international community,” Brodsky concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly