Ahmadinejad battles for his cabinett
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad resumed his fight in parliament for the second successive day on Tuesday amid stiff criticism of his proposed ministerial cabinet.
Opposition to Ahmadinejad's picks has threatened to undermine his second term - already controversial after his protested June re-election and its violent aftermath - and exposed deep divisions within Iran's political power structure along progressive and reactionary lines. Experts say Ahmadinejad is struggling to win over the conservative-led, 290-member parliament (Majlis) as his pledge to usher in a "new era" hangs in the balance.
Ahmadinejad submitted his final list of 21 candidates for the next cabinet on August 19. Nearly two-thirds of the nominees are new faces, many have little experience in government. His nominations include three women for key posts, as well as a potential defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi, who is wanted by Interpol in connection with a 1994 bombing in Argentina that killed 85 people.
Parliamentarians are divided over proposed intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi, who has said he would adopt "an aggressive approach ... towards the enemies' soft and hard plots, and threats", as reported by Dawn newspaper.
Moslehi has been a key representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij militia, which were instrumental in stifling post-election protests in June.
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, both conservatives and self-described "reformist" members of parliament have accused Ahmadinejad of putting forward unqualified candidates "who would be obedient 'yes-men'." Ahmadinejad has rejected these charges and claimed the government he proposes is the "cleanest" possible.
The Majlis has already played a key role by forcing Ahmadinejad to cancel his choice of vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, allegedly due to the nominee's past Israel-friendly remarks. (See Ahmadinejad unveils some gender savvy
, August 18, Asia Times Online.)
The landmark nomination of the three women has brought criticism from both sides. Conservatives have questioned the decision based on gender, while progressives have lambasted the women's allegedly hardline politics.
Minister of education nominee Sousan Keshavarz on Monday stressed her Islamist credentials while promising to privatize public schools and raise teachers' salaries. "I have grown up in a family which appreciates [Islamic] values and took part in religious events as well as in rallies against the shah's government ... and have been a member of the women's Basij," she said in a speech quoted by Agence France-Presse.
But her remarks failed to persuade Ali Abbaspour, a powerful conservative on the parliamentary education committee. "If Keshavarz gets the vote, then we have no choice but to impeach her," Abbaspour was quoted as saying by Dawn. "She has only a year's experience ... and is talking of the same programs outlined by previous ministers. The president has to nominate a strong minister."
The Dawn report also noted, "During Keshavarz's address, parliament speaker Ali Larijani had to tell MPs to stop talking and wandering about so she could be heard."
During Tuesday's session, lawmakers were due to discuss 11 proposed ministers who will each then have a chance to present proposals for their time in office. The debate will start with a confidence vote of Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi - Ahmadinejad's pick to lead the Ministry of Health.
Dastjerdi and Fatemeh Ajorlou, Ahmadinejad's pick for Welfare and Social Security, also lack ministerial experience and have come under fire from lawmakers and hardline clerics.
Some conservatives have accused Ahmadinejad of harboring "Western" cultural values by nominating the three women. Meanwhile, an unnamed ayatollah has threatened to issue an edict against the entire cabinet if the women are approved. Pressure has been building to force the women to unilaterally withdraw. In response, Ahmadinejad has vowed to choose other women if they are rejected.
Hojjatoleslam Tabatabinejad, an MP representing the parliament's clergy, has claimed there is a "religious doubt about the presence of women as ministers". He says the president should withdraw the nominations in deference to the "point of view of religious authorities" and also because "there is no scarcity of qualified men".
But Ahmadinejad has taken issue with those who have questioned women's ability to hold top posts. While his supporters point to this as a commitment to his promise of a "new era", detractors say it is an unsubtle foray into gender politics. After all, the fact that the opposition attracted much of the female vote in June's presidential election could not have gone unnoticed in Tehran.
Ajorlou has been quoted as saying there is a "political exhilaration" among Iranian women as a result of the three nominations.
Even so, experts believe the momentum in the Majlis is building for the approval of Dastjerdi and rejecting the other two. This is purportedly due to the efforts of leading clergy in the holy city of Qom who have shied away from issuing an edict against those nominations in the hope they will be voted down outright without the headache of negative publicity.
The controversy is rife with contradictions inherent to Iran. For one thing, both the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are on record in defense of women's equal rights, as well as their critique of "archaic Islam" (Eslam-e motehajer).
Iran's Islamic constitution grants women the right to participate in public affairs - if Khamenei were to point this out, it might go a long way in quelling the conservative backlash.
Larijani, the powerful speaker, also has a key role to play. Should he choose to not fight for the approval of all three female ministers, the image of the Majlis may come across as a group of backward-looking lawmakers out of tune with an evolving society.
A key point in the conservatives' strategy to defeat Ahmadinejad's female choices is the argument that the new cabinet is "weak". The coded male message is that women are the "weaker sex"; as such, their positions of authority would be an affront to Islam.
But some analysts believe the inclusion of three women would be a sign of Iran's political strength and political maturity.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.