August 27, 2021
President Ebrahim Raisi’s [Raeesi] cabinet began its term in office Thursday with a visit to the tomb of Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, who was known widely as “the Imam,” a form of address not inherited by his successor Ali Khamenei. After the trip to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, just to the south of Tehran, Raisi told his first cabinet meeting that the government’s priorities would be fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and easing economic hardships for Iranians.
Raisi teased his first vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, best known to Iranians for statements over the past year as head of Execution of the Imam’s Order (EIO) on the Iranian homegrown vaccine, CovIran Barak, which is produced by a company largely owned by the EIO, a business conglomerate-cum-charity under Khamenei’s supervision. Having been given every opportunity to produce a vaccine in Iran, Raisi noted, Mokhber would now be given funds to import them.
Keen to instill a spirit of unity, Raisi had his ministers sign a paper, passed around by chief of staff Gholamhossein Esmaili, to renew their commitments to “the values of the Islamic revolution” and to work honestly and diligently to serve the people’s interests while remaining in touch with their needs.
As a way of keeping in touch, some ministers with no Twitter account, including Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib, set them up, even though the platform is officially banned and can be accessed only via VPN (virtual private network) software. Some ministers, including new foreign chief Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, already had Twitter accounts. In its preference for Twitter, the Raisi cabinet broke with Rouhani’s ministers generally opting for Instagram, the only social media platform not banned in Iran.
Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was among the Rouhani ministers who did use Twitter. For Zarif, Thursday brought the handover to Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Footage on state television showed Zarif in a blue, disposable medical mask while Amir Abdollahian opted for a washable mask, clearly showing his intention to last.
The pair had not been seen together since Zarif fired Amir-Abdollahian in 2016 as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs. Television producers had no qualms in revealing Amir-Abdollahian to be far taller than Zarif.
Four corners of a square
On Wednesday and Thursday, Iranian media speculated over possible divisions in Raisi’s economic team. “Who is going to steer the Raisi Administration’s economic policy? Mokhber, Khandouzi, Rezaei or Mirkazemi?” asked Aftab-e Yazd, a former reformist daily now supporting the Raisi administration, in a commentary.
The four in question are first-vice president Mokhber, Economy Minister Ehsan Khandouzi, vice-President for Economic Affairs Mohsen Rezaei (Rezaee), and Planning and Budget Chief Massoud Mirkazemi, who held two ministerial portfolios under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Aftab-e Yazd highlighted Rezaei’s two-year battle as secretary of the Expediency Council against accepting legislation passed by parliament that would facilitate Iran’s accession to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the inter-governmental regulatory body that sets standards for financial transparency and whose members host most of the world’s leading financial centers.
In addition to the four economic players, there is also the governor of the central bank that Raisi has yet to appoint.
The moderate conservative Khabaronline suggested Rezaei and Mokhber were likely protagonists. Hamed Hosseini, a businessman involved in foreign trade told the website he feared tensions between a team at the center and specific ministries. Mokhber, Khandouzi, Rezaei and Mirkazemi − Hosseini suggested − would be at four corners of a square, presumably pulling the strings in different directions.