Since Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president, he has been on a charm offensive designed to persuade the international community that the dark days of confrontational rhetoric and policies from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are over. Western leaders have so far shown a propensity to believe him. Since a nuclear interim deal was signed in Geneva last November, world leaders and business delegations have been flocking to Iran to encourage what they see as Rouhani’s new course — most recently, Baroness Ashton, the EU’s top foreign policy official and the chief negotiator for P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, US, Russia, China, UK and France plus Germany) in the talks over Iran’s nuclear programme.
It is easy to see why everyone views Rouhani’s new administration as a genuine turn of the page. Compared to his predecessor, Rouhani comes across as soft-spoken, sophisticated and elegant. His ministerial appointees all have impressive pedigrees — PhDs from US universities, a good command of English and stylish suits.
Yet behind the veil of this new-found bonhomie, his line-up of ministerial appointments and government companies’ management is filled with loyal servants of the Islamic Revolution who toppled the Shah in their twenties, helped build the Islamic Republic in their thirties, ran government companies and held ministerial positions in their forties, took a break in their fifties when Ahmadinejad ran the country, and are now back, mostly in those same positions, in their sixties.
This is hardly the stuff of change. If anything, Rouhani has brought back to power the ultimate regime insiders, whose main goal is to undo Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office and restore Iran’s ancien régime, not deal it a final blow. Their smiles aim to relieve international economic pressure, not relinquish Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They want to save the Islamic Revolution, not reform it. Their feuds over power and charges of corruption against holdovers from the previous administration are a turf war between rival factions of the same power structure, not an effort to change course. They are a throwback to the time of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, presidents under whom Rouhani himself loyally served. So are the Ahmadinejad appointees who, for now, remain in their jobs.
Take Rouhani’s first vice-president, Eshagh Jahangiri. Despite his reformist credentials — he served in Khatami’s cabinet as minister of industry — he is a longtime associate of Rafsanjani, the man credited as the father of Iran’s nuclear programme.
The other vice-president, Mohammad Shariatmadari, is par for the course. He was minister of commerce under Khatami at a time of tentative economic liberalisation. But he is also a close associate of Ayatollah Mohammad Reyshahri — Iran’s much-feared first minister of intelligence who was for many years the head of a religious foundation and its sprawling economic empire fronted by the Rey Investment Company, a target of US sanctions. Shariatmadari’s association with Reyshahri goes back to the early days of the Iranian revolution, when he took an active part in the establishment of the ministry of intelligence. This closeness came with financial benefits — Shariatmadari has been doing business with other Rey Investment officials in Germany on the side.
Rouhani’s chief adviser, Akbar Torkan, was Rafsanjani’s first minister of defence (1989-93) and took an active role in coordinating Iranian weapons supplies to Bosnia in the early stages of the Yugoslav civil war. Later, Torkan presided over the opening of Iran’s oil sector as the CEO of Petropars Ltd, a subsidiary of the National Iran Oil Company (NIOC) — later subject to US sanctions — alongside oil minister Bijan Zanganeh.
With Rouhani’s blessing, they have all placed loyalists at the helm of government-owned holding companies — all competent managers, no doubt, but hardly the fresh breed touted in the Western media.
Zanganeh has appointed Roknoddin Javadi as managing director of NIOC. He is an old-timer in the NIOC management structure and very close to the minister.
Ahmad Morad Alizadeh, chairman of Mahan Air (also subject to sanctions), has retaken his old post as MD at the government-owned National Iranian Copper Industries Company (NICICO), while remaining in charge of a Hamburg-based procurement operation. Mir Ali Ashraf Pouri Hosseini, the new chairman of the Iranian Privatisation Organisation, served in the same post in the waning days of Khatami’s presidency.
Mehdi Karbasian, the new deputy minister for industries and mines and newly-appointed chairman of IMIDRO, the Iranian Mines and Mining Industries Development Renovation Organisation, shares a similar story. Karbasian’s CV not only exudes experience and competence, it exemplifies the entire Rouhani administration as a group of veteran revolutionary insiders.
Karbasian has sat on the board of dozens of Iranian government-owned companies, including many entities subject to sanctions, such as IRISL—Iran’s shipping lines — and IFIC — Iran’s Foreign Investment Company. He spent his youthful revolutionary years between the battlefield and government management at the Foundation of the Oppressed, a multimillion-dollar economic empire. In the 1990s, under Rafsanjani and Khatami, he occupied many positions of influence in the oil industry, banking, and government.
Alongside new appointments, there are holdovers to confirm that Iran’s oligarchs are in full control of the ship of state. While Alizadeh’s predecessor, Nematollah Postindouz, left behind a trail of corruption charges, the chairman of the Foundation of the Oppressed, Mohammad Forounzadeh, has not been replaced. That may have less to do with moderate credentials, and more with the fact that he is agreeable to all Iranian power centres — he was chief of staff of the Revolutionary Guards in the 1980s and later succeeded Torkan as Rafsanjani’s minister of defence from 1993 to 1997.
Rouhani is not a harbinger of change — if anything he represents the resilience of Iran’s revolutionary elites and their resolve to preserve their grip on power.