It is often said in political circles that “people are policy.” Much can be learned about a leader’s intentions from the character of the people they surround themselves with. Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, recently revealed a great deal about the policies that can be expected from his administration when he announced his appointees for the heads of various government ministries.
During his election campaign, Raisi claimed to be running as an “independent” and vowed to form a “national unity government”. After securing office, he continued encouraging members of the regime’s inner circle to believe he might choose ministers based on qualification rather than tribalism. But when the list of 19 men became public, it also became clear all over again that Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had other priorities in mind.
As part of a nationwide campaign for justice for the victims of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, the Iranian Opposition shed light on Raisi’s dark history in 2017 when Khamenei first put him forward as the country’s prospective president. The resulting public boycott merged with the mobilization of Khamenei’s rival factions to cause a major defeat and embarrassment for Raisi. But four years later, Ali Khamenei did everything in his power to install his own man as the chief executive. But the price of that move was total isolation of the ruling elite, and this will prove fatal for the regime in the coming months, if not weeks.
To make sure there was no serious uphill battle for Ebrahim Raisi during the presidential campaign, Khamenei even eliminated some of his old confidants like Ali Larijani, his senior advisor and the man in charge of the Iran-China 25-year Cooperation Program. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then acting vice president Eshaq Jahangiri and Saeed Mohammad, the IRGC commander of Khatam-al Anbiya were all disqualified by the handpicked Guardian Council. This added fuel to the historic boycott of the 2021 presidential election and even many of those who were forced to turn out, like military personnel and their families, cast ballots that had been left blank.
In an unprecedented move, Amoli Larijani, Ali Larijani’s brother and a member of the Guardian Council declined to sign off on Ebrahim Raisi’s credentials, and both Larijanis, along with Ahmadinejad, refused to participate in the inauguration ceremony on August 5, raising the regime’s infighting to new heights.
Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet is an international fiasco already. Four of the chosen candidates (Ahmad Vahidi, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, Ezattollah Zarghami, and Rostam Ghasemi) are on the US and European sanctions lists. Vahidi, Raisi’s choice to run the Interior Ministry, is the subject of an Interpol warrant for his role in the 1994 AMIA bombings in Buenos Aires. He also planned and commanded the terrorist operation to attack the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia in June 1996.
Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who is going to succeed the outgoing foreign minister, was once fired by Javad Zarif directly amidst an escalating fight for influence. Abdollahian has been designated as a terrorist by the US on the basis of his apparent role as the IRGC Quds Force representative to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a person whom Khamenei trusted to coordinate with the regime’s proxy groups like the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This goes to show that Raisi’s cabinet is well-connected among hardline authorities, but not uniquely qualified. Out of nineteen candidates, only three have previous experience running a ministry under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The cabinet represents a very tight establishment within Khamenei’s inner circle. Four of the ministers have a background in a judiciary that has thousands of executions on its record. At least ten of them are known to have served in the IRGC, Basij, or its Quds Force. At least three of the ministers have worked in the supreme leader’s office and eight of them have run huge financial conglomerates affiliated to Khamenei. The cherry on top is the vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, a relative of Khamenei, who has been the head of EIKO and many other financial institutions since July 2007.
The establishment speaks for itself: Iran’s supreme leader has appointed a crew that is close to himself for a reason. Facing nationwide revolt, international isolation, and regional hostility, the supreme leader is preparing for the worst to come. He can’t afford any rift in the leadership like that which occurred in 2011. At the time, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei clashed over the appointment of an intelligence minister in the wake of nationwide uprisings that referenced the Arab Spring with chants of “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s your turn, Seyed Ali!” The slogan noted that Egypt and Tunisia had successfully achieved regime change, and showcased popular support for the same outcome in Iran.
The current situation is also reminiscent of Marshal Gholareza Azhari being appointed as Iran’s prime minister by the Shah in November 1978. Confronted with waves of public unrest, the last monarch knew that the army was the most loyal force to safeguard his throne and wanted to surround himself with a military cabinet. Raisi’s cabinet is similarly a mechanism for increased repression, but more to the point, the main characteristic of its members is that they have no future outside of the current system and can be expected to defend it at any and all costs.
Since the latest uprisings started in 2017, Iranian society has disrupted the regime’s repression with major protests that all featured calls for “death to the dictator”. The pandemic is raging across Iran and every day, thousands of new families are joining the ranks of the outraged masses that call out Khamenei’s fatwa to forbid Covid-19 vaccines from the US and UK. A widening inequality gap, power blackouts, water outages, unpaid wages, and numerous other nationwide grievances all contribute to an ongoing flood of public outrage. There’s no doubt that Ebrahim Raisi and his cabinet will do whatever they can to hold the regime together, but whether the ever-shrinking ranks of the ruling elite can keep holding the masses from storming the regime’s opulent palaces, is certainly a mission impossible.