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Iran's Got a New President -- But the Same Old Problems

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The election of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has created an atmosphere of hope and optimism, both at home and abroad, not seen since Mohammad Khatami's landslide victory in 1997. Ignoring the ill fate of Khatami and his reformist movement, Iranian voters dream of bread and freedom with Rouhani at the helm of the executive branch, while Iran's neighbours and Western statesmen hope the Rouhani cabinet will be the harbinger of a responsible foreign policy and a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis.

Such optimism may be unwarranted. After all, the history of the Islamic Republic is one of shattered dreams and broken promises, and the fate of Khatami and the reform movement, should serve as a warning for what may be in store for Rouhani.

The first signals from Tehran are not promising.

As Rouhani presented his cabinet to the parliament on August 4, 2013, it became clear that his team is composed of one cleric, 10 technocrats, three former members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and four Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MOIS) veterans, one of whom is a cleric by training. The strong technocratic presence in Rouhani's proposed cabinet follows a general trend from the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. A relatively strong presence of Intelligence Ministry veterans, however, is unprecedented. So is the sharp drop in the presence of IRGC veterans, whose officers were in charge of half of the cabinet portfolios under Ahmadinejad.

Replacing IRGC veterans with former Intelligence Ministry officials may be Rouhani's, and even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's, attempt at containing and counter-balancing the Revolutionary Guards, whose power was unbridled under Ahmadinejad, but it does not bode well for prospects of reform in Iran. Nor does the absence of Khatami era reformists in the cabinet despite reformist support for Rouhani's election campaign. Rouhani has also continued the sad tradition of ignoring Iran's religious minorities in his cabinet. Women too are also notably absent, which makes Rouhani less progressive than Ahmadinejad, who appointed the first woman cabinet minister in the Islamic Republic. This means Rouhani either did not wish to include reformists, religious minorities, and women in his cabinet or was prevented from doing so.

Further investigation into the backgrounds of some of Rouhani's cabinet nominees is an even more depressing read.

Those who hoped for bread under Rouhani woke up to face Ali Teyyebnia, theoretician of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's "resistance economics," as Rouhani's candidate for the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Rather than giving bread to the public, he is likely to ask Iranians to make ever greater sacrifices for the sake of the revolution.

Those who hoped for freedom under Rouhani's mantle, now face Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, the hanging judge of the late 1980s, as minister of justice, and former MOIS interrogator Abd al-Reza Rahmani Fazli as Rouhani's nominee for the Ministry of Interior.

Iran's neighbours and Western diplomats who hoped for a responsible foreign policy and a negotiated solution to the critical nuclear situation, woke up to Hossein Dehqan, who served as commander of the IRGC's forces in Lebanon, as Rouhani's nominee for the Ministry of Defense.

With Javad Zarif at the helm of the Foreign Ministry, the Rouhani administration may revive hope in Western capitals for a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis, but in the end, Iran's Supreme National Security Council makes the decisions while Zarif merely communicates the message to the world audience -- admittedly, with charm and better command of English than most his predecessors.

Such a cabinet does not bode well for Rouhani's will or ability to "deliver" on reform, which will be hampered by these figures in key areas such as political and economic liberties, human rights, and the nuclear issue. Worse, Rouhani may become another Khatami: The smiling and humane mask covering the grim face of an inhumane regime.

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