Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Iran’s Parliament (Majlis) approved the list of ministers presented by President Ibrahim Raisi on August 25, 2021. Most ministers are considered conservative, some are on the U.S. government’s sanctions list, and some are accused of international terrorism, such as Ahmed Vahidi, the interior minister, who served as defense minister in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and is wanted for his role in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) building in Argentina.
- The composition of Raisi’s conservative government reflects an expected shift in Iran’s policy in the regional and international arenas. The conservative “capture” of the executive branch effectively completed their takeover of all the centers of government (the government, Parliament, and the judiciary) and left the reform camp outside the decision-making processes and power centers in Iran.
- Iran’s new government is more coordinated and in sync with the Supreme Leader’s office and the revolutionary policies it dictates. A tougher line is expected on foreign issues – mainly around the nuclear talks and Iran’s regional policy, especially regarding the strength and scope of its support for the “Resistance Camp.”
- For Iran, “Palestine” is just one piece of the complex puzzle of a regional strategy to build the Axis of Resistance from the Persian Gulf, through Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Each arena has its own “toolbox,” and the expertise and experience of Hizbullah-Lebanon and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force are copied from arena to arena.
- Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian is close to the leadership and the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards and enjoys their trust and support. He appears to be one of the main figures in the current government as someone who will effectively translate Iran’s Supreme Leader’s export of revolutionary policy in the region. He is expected to reconnect the religious-revolutionary vision with military and political actions on the ground, as taught by Qasem Soleimani’s doctrine.
- Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, the new minister of defense, comes from Iran’s regular army, the “Artesh.” The fact that Raisi did not choose an IRGC man for defense minister may indicate that he wanted to maintain the delicate and fragile balance between the Revolutionary Guards and the regular army that is gradually shrinking and weaker under the strengthening of the IRGC in the military, economic, and political spheres.
Iran’s Parliament (Majlis) approved the list of ministers presented by President Ibrahim Raisi (excluding the Minister of Education). Most ministers are considered conservative, some are on the U.S. government’s sanctions list and are accused of international terrorism, such as Ahmed Vahidi, the interior minister, who served as defense minister in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and is wanted for his role in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) building in Argentina and for human rights violations.
Conservative Government Heeds the Supreme Leader
The composition of Raisi’s conservative government reflects an expected shift in Iran’s policy in the regional and international arenas. The conservative “capture” of the executive branch effectively completed their takeover of all the centers of government (the government, parliament, and the judiciary) and left the reform camp outside the decision-making processes and power centers in Iran. Hossein Amirabdollahian was appointed to the post of foreign minister, replacing Javad Zarif. He is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and served in key positions and special missions in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, mainly in regional contexts, including with Qasem Soleimani. At the same time, he also worked behind the scenes establishing the contacts in Oman that laid the groundwork for the 2015 nuclear agreement and to establish contacts with the United States to stabilize Iraq (2007). He holds conservative positions close to those of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Most of the approved ministers are affiliated with the conservative camp and some even served in Ahmadinejad’s government (2005-2013). The rumors of Raisi appointing ministers affiliated with a variety of political factions never materialized, nor did he retain ministers who served in Rouhani’s outgoing government. Raisi’s list of ministers and officials in the president’s office have been widely criticized. He has not shied away from selecting notorious people for important positions such as Javad Owji, the oil minister, who was deputy oil minister during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency and previously held a senior position at the state-run “charity” conglomerate Bonyad-e Mostazafan controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There are countless published reports of massive corruption of its senior officials.
Beyond that, there are no ministers from ethnic minorities or any women on the list of ministers. Ironically, Raisi’s wife, Jamileh Alamolhoda, is considered one of the most active women among the regime’s top brass, who lectures in academia and is a social and educational activist. She has even appeared at conferences abroad.
Iran’s new government is more coordinated and in sync with the Supreme Leader’s office and the revolutionary policies it dictates. Considering this background, it appears that the government will receive more cooperation from Khamenei’s office in promoting various issues, mainly at home and for economic recovery, as opposed to the confrontational approach adopted by the bureau during Rouhani’s tenure. In any case, a tougher line is expected on foreign issues – mainly around the nuclear talks and Iran’s regional policy, especially regarding the strength and scope of its support for the “Resistance Camp” in general and each of its components, in particular. In this framework, it appears that Iran will strive to bond the components of the Resistance Camp and even attempt to create a linkage, as it did during Operation Guarding the Walls, between the various arenas and the aspirations of this camp to demonstrate a unified operational front during crises. This policy may soon be viewed in light of this background with the possible arrival of Iranian oil tankers to Lebanon, the escalation in Gaza and future escalation in and around Jerusalem.
After their approval in the Majlis, the ministers and the president visited the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Raisi reaffirmed his commitment to the Iranian Revolution and its perpetuation. The current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, stressed that he was convinced that “divine oversight” would help Raisi’s new government fulfill its role successfully, in the spirit of Khomeini’s revolutionary ideology. He pledged that the government would be “the government of everyone” and called on all factions to cooperate. Raisi stressed that their government is younger than Rouhani’s government. The average age of the candidates is 52 years while Rouhani’s government at its outset eight years ago was 58. Therefore, his government was often called by its critics as “the government of drowsy and ageing ministers.”
During the first meeting on August 28, 2021, between Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Raisi, the leader declared, in another slap at the outgoing government, that the “public trust in the government, which is an important asset, has been significantly damaged and must be restored.” Khamenei strongly criticized Rouhani’s government for its great trust in the West, saying it should serve as a “lesson for ages to come.”1
Forging the “Resistance Camp” Will Be the Focus of the Government’s Expected Action
The Iranian leader recently and repeatedly outlined the contours of this camp and its components. In a message to Muslim countries ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage, entitled “Resistance: The Secret of Victory – Death to the United States,” the Leader refers to the broader Middle East situation and the formation of the core of the “Resistance Front” from “deprived Palestine,” to the “poor and bleeding Yemen,” to the “disasters in Afghanistan,” and “the bitter events in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.” On all these fronts, the Leader emphasized the peoples’ awakening and the manifestations of resistance (the 12-day Gaza Guardians of the Wall war, the resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, the victory over ISIS, and the humiliating withdrawal of American forces). Khamenei emphasizing the contribution of the young and the central role of the resistance in the face of “continued intervention and wickedness of the United States and the West.” Iran is to lead this Islamic awakening and will provide the necessary military-economic-ideological infrastructure for the broader move against the West in order to achieve regional hegemony.
Iran’s leaders believe that a series of “divine events” accompanied the Islamic Revolution since its inception: Hizbullah and the Palestinians’ rounds of confrontations with Israel, the removal of Saddam Hussein, successfully confronting the U.S.-imposed crippling sanctions, the disappearance of sworn enemies (Trump, Netanyahu), and the American departure from countries bordering Iran (Iraq, Afghanistan). These prove, in the leaders’ view, the justice of their path, and they shape the inner belief and conviction that it is possible to challenge the presence of the West and the “foreign transplant” in the region – Israel – and that Israel can be eliminated through patience, resistance, and coordination with the Muslim countries.
For Iran, “Palestine” is just one piece of the complex puzzle of a regional strategy to build the Axis of Resistance from the Persian Gulf, through Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Each arena has its own “toolbox,” and the expertise and experience of Hizbullah-Lebanon and Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force are copied from arena to arena.
The New Foreign Minister: “The Revolutionary Diplomat”
One of the most prominent and important appointments in Raisi’s government – designed to catapult Iran’s regional policy – is Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who was approved in the parliament by a whopping 270 out of 286 MPs. Amirabdollahian, who is close to the leadership and the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards and enjoys their trust and support, appears to be one of the main figures in the current government as someone who will effectively translate Iran’s Supreme Leader’s export of revolutionary policy in the region. He is expected to reconnect the religious-revolutionary vision with military and political actions on the ground as taught by Qasem Soleimani’s doctrine.
A hint of Iran’s confident and assertive conduct and the direction in which the foreign minister intends to behave in the regional arena was seen during the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, in which Amirabdollahian, contrary to protocol, placed himself in the front row of Arab and European kings, presidents, and prime ministers for a group photograph after he was placed in the second row with other second-tier ministers row.2 The move attracted considerable attention in the social media and in the Iranian and Arab media. The Iranian media and surfers defined the move as a “creative and bold move” and even portrayed his predecessor Javad Zarif as kneeling before the Arabs.3 They noted that the era of “gentle Iran” had ended and implied that a new chapter in Iranian foreign policy had opened. During the Baghdad
Conference, Abdollahian called for increased regional cooperation and to ensure regional security with the states of the region. Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian insisted, “I think I stood where the real position of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its representative was.”4
Amirabdollahian’s predecessor, Zarif was forced to present Iran’s smiling face to the West and at the same time launder the activities of the Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and maneuver (barely) between foreign policy and the IRGC’s revolutionary export policy (as he admitted in the leaked tape.6 Amirabdollahian made it clear during his hearing before Parliament that he intended to act in concert with the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, both diplomatically and on the ground. The focus of the incoming foreign minister’s activity will be in the Middle East, where he can translate his experience and contacts with various elements on the resistance front (many of whom attended Raisi’s swearing-in ceremony) and his early acquaintance with the late commander Soleimani of the Quds Force.
Hossein Amirabdollahian, 59, was born in the city of Damghan, Semnan province, the birthplace of Presidents Rouhani and Ahmadinejad. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science from the University of Tehran, served in a series of key positions, some sensitive, in the Iranian Foreign Ministry dealing with Iran’s Middle East policy. In the late 1990s, he served as deputy ambassador to Baghdad and in 2007 met with U.S. officials for talks to stabilize the situation in Iraq. In 2011, during Ahmadinejad’s term, he was appointed deputy chief of staff for Arab and African affairs, a post he continued to hold during Rouhani’s tenure. In 2016, Zarif tried to appoint him as ambassador to Oman, a state that served as a middleman between where the secret consultations prior to the nuclear deal were held. Amir Abdollahian declined the appointment and left the Foreign Ministry to serve as foreign affairs adviser to then-Majlis Chairman Ali Larijani. His replacement, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, was the 2016 presidential candidate. The attempt to appoint him ambassador to Oman was widely criticized by conservative groups at the time who argued that it was intended to please the United States and opponents of the resistance front. Gulf States welcomed the move.
Amirabdollahian has good relations with the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and is influential among the pro-Iranian militias in the main areas of operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and probably Afghanistan, through the Fatemiyoun Brigade and the ability to connect their operatives. He is well acquainted with the components of the Resistance Camp and their affiliations, and is expected to work to carry out the leader’s revolutionary export policy in coordination with the IRGC-QF. Already during his activities in his various positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Amirabdollahian, sometimes differs with Zarif’s position, supported and promoted the activities of the Quds Force, in order to strengthen the influence of power in the region, especially during his role as deputy secretary general for Arab and African affairs. Amirabdollahian also met on several occasions with Hizbullah Secretary General Nasrallah and other senior figures in the resistance camp.
During the Majlis hearing on August 22, 2021, Amirabdollahian said that strengthening Iran’s proxy groups as part of the “Resistance Front” was an important task within the framework of the government and that “Iran will proudly support our allies and the resistance front… Resistance groups have been established to build sustainable security in the region and their countries, and in addition to provide security in the region, they have many other capabilities… We seek to institutionalize the international conduct of the resistance (to the United States and the West) in West Asia, and in East Asia, we want to exploit the potential of emerging economic powers and maximize their interaction with economic growth and development, international trade and for the livelihood of our people.”7
The minister implicitly referred to an interview of his predecessor, Zarif, which was leaked to the media, in which he complained that during his eight years as foreign minister, he encountered the “field policy” led by the commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated by the United States, on any issue which he wanted to promote in the diplomatic arena.. Zarif said that “in the conflict between the ‘field’ and diplomacy, the ‘field’ (the Quds Force) always had the last word” and he (the foreign minister) had to accept it and even say things in the international arena that he himself did not believe.
Amirabdollahian added that “the priorities of the Raisi government will focus on a “policy of good neighborliness that will concentrate on the Asia region,” stressing that “relations with the neighbors are a strategic matter and our friendship with all countries in the region, especially with the 15 neighboring countries and the environment, is long, and we believe that with the help of the countries of the region, we can reach a prosperous and stable region, and I believe that it is time for all countries in the region to work together for stability and security.” Amirabdollahian believes that, in the spirit of Khomeini, who favored neither the East nor the West, the Raisi government will strive for a more balanced approach combining East and West rather than that of the previous president, Rouhani, who put all the eggs in the basket of the West.
Referring to the geostrategic developments in the region, especially the evacuation of American forces from Afghanistan, he said that Iran was closely monitoring developments in the neighboring country and believed that its fate should be decided by the Afghan people while forming a government that would represent all factions. He said that it would have to rely on its neighbors and not “the state (i.e., the United States) that has been based in Afghanistan for 20 years but has caused what we see these days.” Sunni Afghanistan presents a huge challenge for Iran religiously, demographically (currently about one million Afghan refugees are in Iran and the number is expected to rise) as well as challenges for natural resources and especially water.8
The Nuclear Deal: “Iran Will Not Repeat the Mistakes of the Past”
Regarding the nuclear deal, Abdollahian said, “The Foreign Ministry sees the negotiations as a mean of diplomacy and will not prevent it from reaching the negotiating table (but at the same time, contrary to the period of the Foreign Minister Zarif) the Foreign Ministry will not bind all its activities to the nuclear agreement. We will support limited negotiations as long as it secures the interests of the Iranian nation.” In his Majlis speech, he added that if he gained the trust of MPs and headed the Foreign Office, he would “not run away from negotiations and see the talks as a means of promoting diplomacy.” In a similar vein, the new Foreign Minister told the Japanese Foreign Minister, who visited Iran on August 23 that “Iran welcomes constructive negotiations that will lead to tangible results in which all commitments will be honored and no time wasted.”9 The European Union’s foreign policy coordinator, Josep Borrell, was quick to congratulate Abdollahian on his appointment and called for a return to the framework of the nuclear deal. The Iranian minister responded that Iran sees the negotiations as an important diplomatic tool, but in it must ensure the interests and rights of the Iranian people.10
In this spirit, Abdollahian made it clear before he took office (June 2021) that a return to the nuclear framework was in Iran’s national interest as long as the other side respected its commitments and that Iran would not repeat past mistakes. However, it is possible that given Abdollahian’s little experience in the nuclear negotiations, he will give the responsibility to the Supreme National Security Council, headed by Adin Ali Shamkhani, as it was prior to Rouhani’s election as president. At the same time, it is possible that precisely his uncompromising ideological positions with the West and his ties to the regime’s leadership who trust him may enable him to conduct the sensitive and tough negotiations on the nuclear issue from “within the system” and not outside the system as was the case with Zarif.
Many MPs expressed support for Abdollahian’s candidacy and criticized his predecessor. Mohsen Alizadeh said during the hearing that the designated minister had the capabilities to “turn a failed office (Zarif’s term of office) into a revolutionary-style office.” He charged that an “Israeli think tank” had been established in the Majlis to harm the candidacy of Amir Abdollahian and to reduce the number of votes of lawmakers supporting him. On the other hand, a video circulated on social media showed the incoming minister speaking broken English compared to Zarif’s fluent English.
Interior Minister Wanted for His Role in an Argentina Attack
Another prominent appointment confirmed by the Majlis is Ahmad Vahidi, the new Minister of the Interior. Vahidi was a former commander of the IRGC Quds Force and is sought in Argentina, along with other senior Iranian officials, for his role in the July 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Building, which killed 85 people. His nomination reflects the regime’s fear of another wave of protests by disgruntled civilians in the coming years given Iran’s poor economic situation and ongoing human rights violations.
Vahidi was born in 1958 in Shiraz and holds a B.A. in Electrical Engineering and a master’s degree in industrial engineering. In the security and revolutionary establishment, he served as Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, head of the Intelligence Directorate of the IRGC, Deputy Minister of Defense, and Minister of Defense. After the approval of his appointment as Interior Minister in Raisi’s government, the Argentine government expressed “vigorous opposition” to the appointment in light of his involvement in the attack against the AMIA.
Last year, when former President Hassan Rouhani urged conservative elements of the regime to approve Iran’s accession to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Vahidi was among the most prominent opponents when he claimed in February that the Financial Task Force was not “an economic organization, but rather a spying body of Western entities working to restrict Iran and make the sanctions against us more sophisticated.” Vahidi was among the personalities who prevented Rouhani’s government from joining the international body.
Minister of Defense – from the Regular Army Track
Gen. Mohammad Reza Ashtiani was born in Tehran in 1961. A graduate of the Ground Forces Academy he holds a PhD in Defense Management. His posts include Deputy Inspectorate of the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Army. As a young officer, he was considered a loyal supporter of Khomeini, and in the first two years of the Islamic Republic, he fought against the Kurds in western Iran, especially in Kurdistan Province. Ashtiani has been under U.S. Treasury sanctions since January 2020, following his role in the attack on a U.S. base in Iraq on January 8, 2020 – Iran’s response to the assassination of Soleimani.
However, the fact that Raisi did not choose an IRGC man for defense minister may indicate that he wanted to continue the tradition of Hassan Rouhani, who also appointed a senior member of the Regular Army (Artesh), Amir Khatami, as Minister of Defense, and refrained from appointing Revolutionary Guards figures to this sensitive position. Raisi may have wanted to maintain the delicate and fragile balance between the Revolutionary Guards and the regular army that is gradually shrinking and weaker under the strengthening of the IRGC in the military, economic and political spheres.
Intelligence Minister Served in Important Defense and Legal Positions
Cleric Sayyed Ismail Khatib was appointed as intelligence minister. Previously, he served as head of the intelligence department of the Iranian Ministry of Justice under Raisi and also held positions in the Leader’s office and the defense ministry. In 2019, he was appointed senior security adviser to the large Islamic Investment Fund Astan Quds Razavi, which controls the management of the revered tomb of the Imam Reza (the eight Shiite Imam) in Mashhad.
Minister of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Seyyed Ezatullah Zarghami served as chairman of Iranian radio and television and a member of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. He was promoted to power because he was a student of Ruhollah Khomeini and was among the revolutionary students who occupied the U.S. Embassy and took 54 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.
Alongside cabinet appointments, Raisi appointed Gholamhossein Esmail as chief of staff in the president’s office and Mohammad Mokhber, as his first vice president.11 Mokhber served as deputy governor of Khuzestan province before becoming chief of staff of what is considered an important economic cartel & state-owned foundation as director of the “Implementation of Imam Khomeini’s Order (Setad).” Setad is considered to be one of the richest institutions overseen by Leader Khamenei. The cartel has a long list of large economic holdings in Iran such as factories, financial companies, real estate companies, and other economic entities.
In 2010, as part of EU sanctions, Mohammed Mokhber was sanctioned for his ties to Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, but two years later his name was removed from the EU sanctions list without explanation. In January 2020, he and Ahmed Marui, head of the Eighth Imam Mausoleum (Rachid) in Mashhad, were added to the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list. The U.S. Treasury charged that Setad “has a stake in nearly every sector of the Iranian economy, including energy, telecommunications and financial services.”
In recent years, Iran’s state media have reported on the extensive assistance of the Headquarters for the Implementation of the Imam’s Order during Iran’s worst natural disasters. In light of the severe shortage of water in Khuzestan Province, the staff helped the residents of the province and helped the regime lower the flames during the mass demonstrations in the area in the face of severe water shortages. However, one of the most controversial issues related to the management team of Setad headquarters is the Iranian coronavirus vaccine, which was developed by the COVIran Barekat Foundation. The Leader and President Raisi received the locally-made vaccine. Many Iranians knew that Khamenei banned the import of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines seven months ago and any other vaccine made in the United States and Britain, so that the Imam’s Orders’ COVIran Barekat vaccine would be sold to the Iranian Ministry of Health for vaccinating tens of millions of Iranians and thus, to significantly increase the economic profit of the Setad.
Experts on the Iran COVID issue also noted that Dr. Bahram Eynollahi, the minister of health, one of Iran’s most senior doctors, signed a letter seven months ago opposing the import of Western vaccines into the country. The letter was published immediately after Khamenei opposed the import of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines because, he said, the vaccines that Americans would send to Iran might not be vaccinations and would result in the deaths of Iranians. Khamenei’s remarks meant that Iran was very late to vaccinate its citizens, and the morbidity and mortality of Iranians from the coronavirus reached unprecedented proportions.
The Implementation Office staff’s management team has a close relationship with the Revolutionary Guards and the judicial system. The headquarters is also suspected of confiscating the property of political prisoners, rich Iranians in exile, and Baha’i citizens.
The name of one of Mohammad Mokhbar’s sons has long been mentioned in stories about huge economic corruption in Iran. Sajjad Mukhbar is economically active in various areas of the economy and imports of medicines and medical devices. He received a huge loan of 850 billion riyals ($20 million USD) from the Iranian Pasargad Bank a few years ago, which he never returned.
Presidential Chief of Staff under European Sanctions for Human Rights Abuses
Gholamhossein Esmaili, who was appointed chief of the staff of the president’s office, served as a spokesman for the judiciary during the period when Raisi was head of the judiciary. Born in Birjand in 1965, he studied in the religious institutions of Birjand and Mashhad and served in the Iraq-Iran War. Esmaili, who was also head of the Iranian prison authority, was dismissed after a violent prison raid in the notorious Evin Prison. He was involved in the controversial arrest and trial of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen detained in Iran on charges of “plotting to topple the Iranian government” and propaganda against the regime. Esmaili has also been involved in a series of human rights abuses in Iran for which he has been subject to EU sanctions since 2011 following mass arrests of protesters.
On August 8, 2021 President Raisi also appointed Masoud Mir Kazemi as vice president and head of the Planning and Budget Organization. Kazemi, who holds a PhD in industrial engineering, was a member of the Revolutionary Guards and senior directors of the Tehran municipality. He was charged in an Iranian court while serving a senior role in the oil ministry, for ordering the production and distribution of non-standard gasoline in petrochemical plants across the country, a move that resulted in the deaths of many civilians and thousands more contracting various diseases due to air pollution. Former parliament members testified that Kazemi “played a significant role in bringing Babek Zanjani into the oil business.” Babek Zanjani, a young billionaire loyal to the Iranian regime, was arrested nine years ago after the oil ministry accused of fraud in the sale of billions of dollars of oil. He was sentenced to death for corruption. The tribunal accused him of causing serious disruption to Iran’s economic system, but he is still being held in prison, and his death sentence has not been carried out. Now, with the appointment of Kazemi to a higher position as head of the Planning and Budget Organization (parallel to a Ministry of the Treasure), which determines the fate of public funds, many questions are being raised whether a person with such a background of corruption and such misguided judgement will benefit the public or pave the way for further future corruption for his associates.
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