What Are the Reasons Behind Rouhani’s Surprise Cabinet Reshuffle in Late November 2016?

Iran's Culture (Islamic Guidance) Minister Ali Jannati and Sports Minister Mahmoud Goodarzi tendered their resignations to President Rouhani on 18 October 2016. A few days later, another government official, Education Minister Ali-Asghar Fani handed his resignation letter. Even though these three ministers overviewed affairs that were of deep concerns – namely culture and education – to the more conservative members of the Iranian political and religious spectrum, and as such had been under criticism for some time, the news of their resignations came as a relative surprise.

While under criticism for their efforts to reform even tentatively their respective fields, the resignations of the Ministers of Culture, Sports and Education were rather unexpected.
Both Ministers of Culture and Education fell victims to the political battles raging between the conservative faction that has lost its parliamentary majority in the February 2016 elections and the rag-tag coalition of conservative moderates, independent and reformists that is supporting the Rouhani government. The Sports Minister seems to have lost his job more because of popular anger, rather than political competition.
President Rouhani expects that this reshuffle will placate hardliners’ criticism and at the same time appease and satisfy the demands of his reform-minded electorate. This change of ministers was certainly done with all eyes set on the presidential election scheduled for May 2017.

Following the ‘forced’ resignation of three of his ministers, President Rouhani presented three new caretakers for parliamentary confirmation on 1 November 2016. Reza Salehi Amiri, who replaced Culture Minister Ali Jannati, received 180 votes out of 290. Masoud Soltanifar, the new Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports gained 193 votes and Fakhreddin Ahmadi Danesh-Ashtiani was backed by 157 representatives. Interestingly, Rouhani’s three proposed ministers were notably all rejected by the previous parliament (2012-2016), which was dominated by conservatives and hard-liners. Amiri, Danesh-Ashtiani and Soltanifar had been introduced for different ministerial positions back in 2013 in Rouhani’s initial proposed Cabinet. However, all of them were rejected by parliament, as they failed to gain votes of confidence. Defending his present Cabinet reshuffle, Rouhani said, The country’s goal is development and transcendence and he government’s goal is to be at the service of society and the people. To achieve this goal, sometimes a manager has to be kept and sometimes changed (Al Monitor, 27.10.2016).

At that time, hard-liners and ultra-conservative members of parliament asserted that the three potential Cabinet ministers, Danesh-Ashtiani, Soltanifar and Salehi Amiri, were all involved in sedition. In Iranian conservatives’ parlance this designates politicians who supported or did not condemn the unrest that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election. Since then, every time hard-liners have sought to vote down a minister proposed by Rouhani, they have resorted to charging the person in question with belonging to the “sedition.” While their previous efforts were successful under the former conservative-dominated parliament, the 1st of November 2016 votes of confidence show that “sedition” is no longer a useful political tool. deputy parliament Speaker, Ali Motahari stated that the ‘sedition’ ploy was no longer a politically effective tool to sideline opponents, hailing this as a victory for the new Parliament (Al Monitor, 04.11.2016), which is more likely to cooperate with the Rouhani government than the conservative-dominated previous legislature.

The moderate and reformist-leaning newspaper Arman, which is closely associated with Rouhani’s ally and powerbroker former President Rafsanjani, another Reformist newspaper, read, “February [parliamentary] elections bear fruit.” The daily assessed the parliament’s approval vote as “The day when moderation and rationality triumphed over extremism”. The Reformist daily Shahgh hailed the confirmation vote as a success, stating “[This time] there was no room for the endless accusations against the government and smears to undermine its ministers” (Al Monitor, 02.11.2016). This is a reference to the 2013 confirmation vote for Rouhani’s incoming government when two of his proposed ministers were disqualified, being accused of being seditionist – i.e having criticized the re-election of former President Ahmadinejad in 2009.

That said, the question remains of why these three ministers were replaced.

As regards Culture Minister Ali Jannati, the absence of cultural reform - which was one of Rouhani’s key campaign promises could be one contributing factor. Examples of this include the cancellation of concerts in the northeastern city of Mashhad, or the forced resignation of the Culture Ministry’s director in the holy city of Qom related to his giving permission to hold concerts there. When Jannati retreated in the face of pressure from hard-liners and called off concerts to respect the views of conservative clerics, he found himself at odds with the president. In a public speech in August, Roouhani criticised his Minister’s bowing down to conservative pressures, saying that a minister should abide by the law and not succumb to any form of pressure and retreat. On the other hand, very conservative figures have equally expressed their displeasure with the previous Culture Minister’s policies. In a meeting with lawmakers on June 5, Khamenei deplore what he called a sense of indifference both in producing useful cultural goods and preventing harmful cultural goods. It seems that Ali Jannati became a pawn in the domestic political battles, and his family name did nothing to protect him. Jannati is the son of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the hard-line Chairman of the Guardian Council. Moreover, the Ministry of Culture is not the only authority responsible for dealing with cultural issues, and thus the Culture Minister cannot solely be held accountable for issues in this arena — a point that Jannati himself raised in his resignation letter. Jannati accused the conservatives of using hidden think tanks to consistently undermine the government’s policies in order to present it as an incompetent administration (Aftab News, 19.10.2016).

Rouhani knows full well that when it comes to domestic politics and cultural issues, the balance of power is not in his favor. Thus, it appears that to show tactical flexibility, Rouhani decided to change his Minister.

As for former Sport Minister Mahmood Goodarzi, his dismissal may have been due to his unpopularity and pressure coming from social media. According to the economic daily Donya-e Eghtesad, the Minister’s sidelining found its roots in the tense relations between the Minister of Sports and the Football Federation, more specifically with the coach of Iran’s National Football Team, Carlos Queiroz. The Minister’s troubles started when Carlos Queiroz came close to  being dismissed and President of the Football Federation FFIRI Ali Kaffashian, chose Mahmoud Islamian as his deputy. Mr. Islamian is a close friend and former colleague of First Vice-President Mr. Jahangiri. Mr. Islamian has held several managerial and executive posts mainly in the iron and steel industry, and although he has some experience in sports management (member of the executive committee of his home town club Sepahan first, then of the Zob Ahan club , before a short tenure in the same capacity at MES Kerman), he lacks strong credentials to impose his management skills on the football world.Donya-e Eghtesad noted that given that the disagreements were aired publicly on the online chat application Telegram, the forced stepping down of Mahmoud Goudarzi was more or less expected by most of the Iranian media. Even if the actions of the Minister were commendable –removing the Football National Team from the state budget, diminishing the room for maneuver of some of its directors and going against the payment of increasing billion-worth salaries to players by officially publishing their contracts on Telegram – they were instrumentalised by some medias and Goodarzi was accused of taking biased decisions to favour one club over another. The Iranian daily contends that President Rouhani Instagram page was attacked several times, receiving very strong critical comments regarding the actions of the Sports Minister. Although it later became clear that all those negative comments were sent from the same IP address, there was no follow-up on the issue because at that time, President Rouhani was busy defending the nuclear deal from the strong attacks of its domestic conservative critics (Donya E-Eqtesad, 19.10.2016).

As for Rouhani’s recently resigned Education Minister, Ali Asghar Fani, he was continuously on the verge of impeachment during his time in office. In fact, he was among the ministers who frequently commuted between their ministries and parliament in an effort to lobby parliament members not to impeach them. Fani hoped that the incoming, more government-friendly parliament elected on 26 February 2016 would put less pressure on him, but he was wrong, as reports of embezzlement in the Teachers Reserve Fund had made his impeachment ever more pressing. Last month, Hossein Maghsoudi, the spokesman for the parliamentary group tasked with fighting financial corruption, announced that violations had indeed taken place in the Teachers Reserve Fund. Maghsoudi said, “Clarifying the [case of corruption related to the] Teachers Reserve Fund is one of the main reasons why the education minister needs to be impeached. Investigations point to financial corruption of about US$2.5 billion (Al Monitor, 27.10.2016).

Rouhani’s Cabinet reshuffle also has political dimensions that verge on the personal. First of all, the resigned ministers were not Rouhani’s ideal choices. As for his Science and Higher Education Minister, Rouhani chose them reluctantly under pressure from the previous conservative-dominated parliament (2012-2016). By replacing these three controversial ministers, Rouhani hopes to reduce the hard-liners’ displeasure with the country’s cultural situation. At the same time, he wants to maintain his popularity by introducing individuals who are identified with the Reformist camp in an attempt to retain the electoral loyalty of the young culture, art and sports, who largely contributed to his election in 2013. Only time will tell whether the Cabinet reshuffle will actually improve the chances of the success of Rouhani’s re-election campaign ahead of the upcoming presidential vote in May 2017.